The Perfect Writing Group in 5 Easy Tips
May 20, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Whenever I give a reading or a workshop, I’m usually asked this question: What advice do you have for new writers? I always offer the same answer. The first thing I say is that to be a writer you must be a reader. And I usually quote Samuel Johnson, who says, “’The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man (or a woman) will turn over half a library to make one book.” The second thing I say is to get into a great writing group, which can be more difficult than picking up a book and reading. I know this because I’ve been in some disastrous groups. I’m also currently in the best writing group in the world (not to brag … okay, I’ll brag). We call ourselves The Wordy Girls. I have thought about how we found each other and how we make it work, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Limit your numbers. My current group has three members, and because it’s the right three people, it works. I would say no more than four or five. Any more than that, and you will get too much conflicting feedback on your work. My group is comprised of teachers, writers, and editors, and we are already reading and commenting on lots of pages. Reading too many pieces will make your writing group feel like work. Also, because we are all busy, scheduling meetings. even with just three of us, is sometimes challenging. And if you do what we do—give each other presents for meeting our writing goals—you will have to spend way too much money on gifts if there are too many people in your group. More on this later.
- Choose people whose work you want to read but also who you want to see. When the pages come in before we meet, I can’t wait to sit down and read them because the writing is so good. Choose writers whose work you want to read. Also, I love the people in my group, so I look forward to spending time with them at our meetings and retreats. This is another reason to limit your numbers; it’s not hard to find two people you like whose work you admire. It would be much harder to find six or eight such people. Once I was in a group with two women—one was ethereal and cerebral, the other was, shall we say, hedonistic. The hedonist wanted more body, more sensuality, more sex. The cerebral one wanted to stay on the philosophical level of everything—writing and life. Both were good writers; both had something to say. Truth be told, the hedonist was the more fun person; the cerebral one, the more careful reader. But in the end, they were terrible readers for each other; they couldn’t cross the divide to really see each other’s work. I sat on the sidelines, watching the wreckage. That little group didn’t last long. The moral of the story is that great writers, and even great people, don’t always make a great group. Some of it’s alchemy, but keep trying until you get it right, because it’s worth it.
Once you find your people, give your group a name and establish traditions. As I mentioned, we are The Wordy Girls, and one of our traditions is to set goals at the end of each meeting; these goals pertain to writing, revising, or sending out work. At the next meeting, we begin with our previous month’s goals, and if met them, we get presents from the rest of the group. We give small gifts like funny socks or journals, but you never want to come to a meeting and admit that you don’t deserve a present. By establishing traditions, you’re treating your writing group like the sacred space that it is. Once you create the right group, you will learn each other’s themes, obsessions, and writerly tics that hold you back, things you may not be able to see on your own, and that is the greatest gift of all.
- Set clear and reasonable expectations. Because of our busy schedules, meeting once a month works best for us. We limit submissions to 20 pages, with a one-week window to read each other’s work. We sometimes ask the group if we can send additional work for feedback between meetings, which is super helpful, especially when we are on deadline. Also, be sure every member of the group has something important to contribute at the meetings and retreats beyond feedback and critique. One of our Wordy Girls is excellent cook (her gluten-free lobster macaroni and cheese is to die for); the other is an amazing bartender, who can whip up a craft cocktail like nobody’s business. I do my best to be worthy of the group. When I let my writing group read this, as I do everything I am about to put out into the world, they assured me that I am worthy. They said that I keep everyone on track (I am the keeper of the goals), make everyone laugh, take photographs, and motivate everyone to write and send out work. One Wordy Girls told me, “The motivational factor for me is huge. I want to meet deadlines for you, and I want to write better for you.” The same is true for me: my writing group makes me want to be a better writer, and so I am.
- Find people who are in the same place with their writing as you are. As I said before, everyone in my group has a graduate degree, we have all taught college writing classes, and we have all completed multiple book manuscripts. We are all in similar places in our writing lives, and we have similar goals, which is to say, we are all serious working writers. Find people who are in roughly the same place as you are. If you just finished your MFA, find writers in the same place as you are. If you are just starting out, attend local writing workshops or classes and scan the room for people you might like to meet with. And then stalk them, but nicely. There are at least three writing groups in my town that were born from my community college writing classes. If I had more time, I would create a Grindr for writers, but I don’t, so you will have to do this part on your own.
- Avoid the Drama Queen and the Green Monster: These two writers—I know you know them—are toxic for your writing group. There is no place in your writing group for drama or worse, jealousy. If someone in your writing group is interrupting the critique process because she needs to call her drug dealer, it doesn’t matter how great a writer or careful reader she is of your prose. She has to go until she deals with the drug dealer and the drug problem. If not, she will hijack your meetings. The other member of your group, who might be as brilliant as can be, but who must go, is the jealous writer. You will have to hide your successes, diminish yourself, and in the end, you won’t be able to trust her, even though she is brilliant. Trust me on this one. This person is even worse for your writing than the woman who is trying to score cocaine between stories. These are people who deserve your compassion and maybe even your friendship, but they should not be allowed into the safe space of your writing group. “All writers,” you might say, “are dysfunctional,” to which I answer you this: Not true! I should mention that the woman trying to score drugs has since stopped using, which has enabled her to finish her wonderful book, so timing could also be everything.
The writerly camaraderie of the Wordy Girls has sustained me and my writing life over the last 15 years. I hope you’re able to find your own wonderful group of writers who will celebrate your successes, lament your rejections, and feed your writing life. And if you have another tip for creating and maintaining the perfect writing group, please add it in the comments.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, National Geographic’s Traveler, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, among others. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College, and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. For more information, see her website at www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram at suzanneroberts28.