How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community

Illustration by monettenriquez / via Flickr

Illustration by monettenriquez / via Flickr

Note from Jane: The following post by Nathaniel Kressen is the third in a series sponsored by Nook Press, offering tips and advice from authors on writing and publishing. Read earlier sponsored posts from Nook:

Nook Press
This post is sponsored by Nook Press.

Writing for me has been anything but a solitary art form. It takes interacting with other writers to get the juices flowing. As a core member of the Greenpoint Writers Group in Brooklyn, I can experiment and push the boundaries of a story and get feedback in real time. And, perhaps most importantly, I witness the successes and setbacks of others on their journey, just as they witness mine. By uniting together, we drive one another to do our best possible work and also share resources. My work becomes an active and ever-growing part of the world rather than a secret project I hesitate to share.

So how can a writer who is just starting out find such a community?

One method would be entering an MFA writing program, but having come from an expensive undergraduate program myself, I can say it’s not advisable for everyone. A viable alternative is to explore the free or low-cost writing groups in your area, which can provide much of the same format as an MFA program—if set up correctly—but spare you the financial burden.

If you don’t live in a place like New York City where there are innumerable opportunities to find a group that suits your style, you can try establishing one yourself by approaching your local bookstore or library to see if they’d be willing to host meetings. There’s a good chance you’ll meet others in your area who are craving the same experience you are, so you’ll be providing a solution for them as well as yourself.

However, since many writing groups fold within the first few meetings, allow me to demystify the process.

As you start to seek members, you’ll need to consider what kind of group you want to belong to, and advertise for or seek members who want the same thing. Consider:

  • Frequency. Having a deadline compels a writer to produce more material than they might otherwise create if left to their own devices. Too much or too little time in between meetings can reduce the positive impact. In my experience, one week is too short of a turn-around time for a writer to absorb notes or create a body of new material, whereas one month can be too long and undercuts the urgency of the workshop, allowing the writer to procrastinate. Test out whether meeting every two weeks works for you and adjust as you see fit.
  • Group size. The benefit of having a small group is that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the discussion, but limiting the number of writers who can join will only prevent you from receiving fresh perspectives on your work. The good news is that the number of participants will fluctuate meeting by meeting early on, so there should be plenty of opportunities to experience both and decide what works best for the evolution of the group.
  • Structure. In some groups writers read their material aloud, but I’ve found that e-mailing work in the days prior proves more productive. First of all, it gives readers time to think about the material before offering feedback, and second, it presents work in the same way it’ll be seen by editors and agents.
  • Feedback. Some groups elect to have writers sit silently while receiving feedback, but this may limit the constructive dialogue that can happen. The trick is for the writer not to become defensive, and for the readers to stay focused on what the writer is seeking to accomplish rather than what they would do differently themselves. If the dialogue remains honest, open, and patient, it will prove useful to the writer’s process.

Once you’ve found some writers interested in forming a group and you start to figure out the basics referenced above, here are additional issues you’ll want to address.

  • How big will the group be allowed to get and how will you add new members? Fresh perspectives are just as essential to a writer’s development as having colleagues who know and stand behind your work. As the group grows, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to satisfy the needs of both new and longtime members. This is why, with the Greenpoint Writers Group, we started running both closed and open meetings, so that we could tailor the format to the people in attendance. You’ll see this discussed in greater detail below.
  • Will you charge fees to join? I think there’s no swifter way to kill a writer’s enthusiasm than by making them wonder whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth. That said, there are master classes out there taught by established writers that offer direction and inspiration that the average casual gathering might not—but those are more for your own journey as a writer. As the head of a group, I’d recommend keeping money out of the process unless it proves absolutely necessary to keep it going, noting that you don’t need a location that charges rent in order to hold a meeting. Anywhere with a lamp and chairs will do—or, chairs lacking, a floor.
  • Who will oversee the circulation of manuscripts and related critique materials? As the group’s founder you’ll most likely be tasked with managing the logistics, at least early on. In time, the enthusiasm and dedication of your peers will build and they’ll eagerly share the workload with you. However, it’s important from the get-go to make peace with performing modest tasks for the greater good. They will be time-consuming, but they are essential to the group’s survival.  If you’re no fan of administrative work, you’re better off joining an established group than starting one of your own.

The format will evolve based on the needs and recommendations of its members, yet it must always remain a supportive and respectful environment. In short, both flexibility and structure are needed. I adopted this role for the Greenpoint Writers Group in 2010 after having found the group at random. Its founder moved out of the city and asked if I would be interested in taking over as its leader given my prior experience running a group for playwrights within a small theater company. I accepted and quickly encountered challenges.

When I started, there might be two or twelve people at any given meeting, without any way of knowing beforehand how many would show up. Long projects, such as a novel-in-progress, would have to be re-introduced at every meeting for new members, and readers would have to give feedback without having seen the previous material. We would also get writers who showed up to workshop their material only to never return.

We’ve found a way to avoid such situations and have the benefits of both a large and a small group: we run limited duration intensives. Members commit to attending every meeting, thereby creating a reliable and informed audience for everyone’s work. We make the intensive a recurring event and now the Greenpoint Writers Group operates on two levels—a semiannual 12-week Intensive dedicated to a limited group of writers, plus biweekly meetings open to anyone who wishes to attend. Active participants in the biweeklies have the option of applying to the next intensive, and our “core group” of writers has grown ever since we started. Through this format, we aim to encourage and develop the wide network of talent in our area while still providing a creative home for in-depth feedback.

There have been several incarnations of the GWG before we arrived at our current state, and it will surely continue to shift. Building a community takes time and fortitude, and for the dedicated writer, the best thing you can do is involve yourself in an art scene that feeds you creatively, even if you have to create it from scratch.

Nook Press
This post is sponsored by Nook Press.
Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.
Nathaniel Kressen

Nathaniel Kressen

Nathaniel Kressen is the author of Concrete Fever and the co-founder of Second Skin Books, a small independent press dedicated to crafting physical art objects out of literary fiction. His most recent work appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, The Papercut Press 2013 Annual, Bushwick Daily's Sunday Reads, The L Magazine's Literary Upstart, and the Miramax Films Guest Blog, as well as in a forthcoming story collection from Bushwick Daily and Catopolis Press, Bushwick Nightz. He is the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group in Brooklyn where writers of all genres and disciplines are welcome. [Author photo credit: Abby Ronner]

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33 Comments on "How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community"

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[…] Today’s post in Jane Friedman’s blog is about starting a writing group: https://janefriedman.com/2014/01/17/build-writing-group-community/ […]

writerrobynlarue
I can’t stress enough how important a good writers group can be, even after you’ve gained experience and published. Our group started out as a local meet-in but several of us reconnected on line after we all went from one town to WY, TX, and NJ. Our newest member is a southern girl doing her Masters in Estonia! We meet regularly on line. There are no writers groups in my part of Dallas, and I do miss the social interaction with other writers face to face. It doesn’t matter if your group is on line or in the flesh as… Read more »
Sharon

I second (or third) the importance of writing groups. I’m still involved with one I began eight years ago. Only one of the other eight original members remain, but more than two dozen have flowed through and we currently average ten. Like you, we meet twice a month, on the second and fourth Wednesdays (it’s too hard to keep track of every other week). Online groups like Larue mentions are also great. I have online writing buddies, but so far no organized online group.

The Intensive idea strongly appeals to me. Thank you for that. I’ll be pursuing that possibility.

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[…] Note from Jane: The following post by Nathaniel Kressen is the third in a series sponsored by Nook Press, offering tips and advice from authors on writing and publishing. Read earlier sponsored posts from Nook: The Importance of Your Book Cover:…  […]

Rebecca Vance
I hosted a small writer’s group many years ago in my home. This was back when I was in college. I quit writing and got a paying job. I always told myself that someday I’d go back. Someday arrived over 30 years later. Things have changed a lot since then, of course. I am now working on my debut novel and recently had my first short story published in a holiday anthology. My question is this, to start a writer’s group, would I need to have more publishing credentials or can any writer at any stage of their writing career… Read more »
Christine @ BNP

Interesting post! I never thought about starting my own group. I would be afraid that I would get so preoccupied managing the group that I might forget to write… 🙂 Seriously though, the “intensive” sounds like a really cool idea.

Thanks!
Christine @ Better Novel Project

Barbara

I have been part of a closed poetry critique group – 4 people now, 5 when I started – that is clear, supportive, and stretching. We read work ahead and discuss when together. It is incredibly valuable. I need a similar group for my prose work. Maybe I’ll start one myself here locally. Thanks for the inspiration

Maureen
Nathaniel, I appreciate your insight. Especially about the feedback part. Most workshops I attend subscribe to the “writer sits silently.” While I like this method and even employ it in my own workshops, I think I’ll give it a try. Several months ago I decided to create a writing/critique group in my rural, little town in W KY. I’m four sessions in on my first ten-week workshop. I’ll offer my experience here. Not knowing how many writers I would find, or even how I would find them, I approached the director of the public library and pitched my idea. Out… Read more »
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[…] Every writer can benefit from belonging to a community writing group. If there's not one in your area, here's how to start one successfully.  […]

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[…] To: How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community, by Nathaniel Kressen – “Writing for me has been anything but a solitary art form. It […]

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[…] focus. Angela Ackerman lists 8 software tools to keep the words flowing; Nathaniel Kresson explains how to build a writing group in your community; and Ethical SEO Service says if you can talk, you can […]

Dan Erickson

I’ve never been a great fan of groups, although as a college instructor I lead them.

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[…] Kressen has done a guest post at Jane Friedman‘s blog on “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community” and has a very useful list of tips on how to grow it, the issues that will be encountered, […]

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[…] Kressen has done a guest post at Jane Friedman‘s blog on “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community” and has a very useful list of tips on how to grow it, the issues that will be encountered, […]

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[…] If you can’t find a writing group in your community, maybe you should start your own. […]

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[…] How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community […]

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[…] How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community by Nathaniel Kressen […]

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[…] How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community by Nathaniel Kressen […]

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[…] Nathaniel Kressen (Jane Friedman) with How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community […]

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[…] can find the full article here. Where did you find your author […]

Sammi

I have led a very successful open ended writing group in a very small town and it ended up being very overwhelming for me. I am curious about what you are calling an “intensive” considering it limits size and has an ending. I have been considering doing some kind of small group in my home with limited space and using a writing book that we would study together and share our writing, specifically or novels. Would that be considered and “intensive”? and how would you get the commitment from people for it?

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[…] Check with your local library and bookstores to see if such writing workshops or groups. If not, head to Jane Friedman’s blog to check out Kressen’s tips for starting your own group: “How To Build a Writing Group in Your Community“ […]

Lex C

Great advice. I’ve been thinking of trying to start a writing group after a friend of mine hosted a gathering of a couple of writer friends. Although we had said we would continue meeting up it never happened. But it sparked the idea for me. I’ll definitely keep this all in mind when I do attempt it.

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[…] Sometimes that means getting feedback from other writers. I discussed writers’ groups, critique partners, and mentors in “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” but what if you don’t know where to find a community of other writers? Guesting at Jane Friedman’s blog, author Nathaniel Kressen has some concrete suggestions in “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community.” […]

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[…] starter kit, including information on ways to talk about a writing group. Also, on her website, Jane Friedman provides some writing group tips.  She explains the benefits of discussing group frequency, group […]

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[…] my groups. I started to write up some commentary, but then I found these methods from a post titled “How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community” by Jane Friedman that describes my philosophy spot […]