Writers Group Tips

So you want to start a writers group? Here are issues to consider.

(If you live in Northern Colorado and want to join our group, read this.)

Membership

  • Decide on a comfortable number of members, typically between five to twenty-five members.
    The Slow Sand way:
    We have found that eight to ten is a good number for a true working group–large enough for varied feedback but small enough for in-depth critiquing. (Note: we are NOT currently recruiting new members, but if you wish, you can apply for a spot on our waiting list. If you live in Northern Colorado, read “How to join” and contact us.)
  • Come up with methods to screen new applicants, such as a conditional membership or audition pieces.
    The Slow Sand way: When a slot in our group opens (which is rare) we request writing samples from prospective members plus a brief biographical statement. We decide based sample writing, and we also try to recruit members that someone in the group has had personal contact with so we ensure good chemistry as well.
  • Look for individuals who share common goals and write in complimentary genres.
    The Slow Sand way: Back in the earlier years of our group, all of us wrote literary fiction and nonfiction; several years ago some of us expanded into children’s and young adult work, which has fit into our group well. However, we likely would not invite a romance novelist or a sci-fi writer to join, as these would not be genres we would feel comfortable critiquing.
  • Try to avoid writers who are much further along in their writing careers or much further behind (unless they show potential and are moving in directions that jibe with your group).
    The Slow Sand way:S ometimes we’ve had a wide range in our group when it comes to publications experience, but since we choose members based on merit of writing samples, we ensure each member shows exceptional writing ability. If your group is working the way it should, no matter the level of each member’s expertise at the time of entry to the group, he or she will show marked improvement…especially in productivity.

    YOU'RE FIRED. Image by Gage Skidmore.

  • If, despite your screening process, a new member isn’t working out, either plan a group talk or choose someone to privately address concerns. If that doesn’t work, suggest that this group may not be a good fit. Then if you must, invite him or her to resign.

The Slow Sand way: Luckily, we’ve never had to have such a come-to-jesus meeting. We’ve found that any members over the years who aren’t working out leave pretty quickly on their own.

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Meetings

  • Choose a regular time (weekly, biweekly or monthly) and stick to it.

By Nicolai Schader, aka Nize. GNU licensed.

The Slow Sand way:We gather every other Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. While meetings years ago often lasted three hours or more (need we say mojitos were involved?), we have refined our agenda to accommodate those who must be up early. We now officially adjourn by 9 pm, while often inviting (at the discretion of the host) members to stick around for casual lit talk.

  • Meet year-round, if possible, perhaps with extra time off at the holidays, to keep things consistent. Anticipate that summertime attendance may be a bit light due to family vacations.
    The Slow Sand way: We rarely cancel meetings. We do not meet over Christmas week and once or twice a year we cancel a meeting when we’re planning a special event, like attending a reading together or holding a weekend retreat.
  • Designate a specific place to meet each time, or take turns hosting.
    The Slow Sand way: Slow Sand meetings rotate among members’ homes.
  • Provide snacks or drinks for a mid-meeting break. Critiquers need sustenance to deliver detailed fedback. Those critiqued need sustenance to digest feedback.
    The Slow Sand way: Each host is responsible for providing snacks, such as dips with chips, cookies, desserts, and sometimes when a certain somebody hosts, full meals. The host also provides a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Members are encouraged to arrive a little early to fill up plates and glasses, and we have a short break for refills.
  • Create a format for meetings. Either jump right into critiques or start with a roundtable to share updates and marketing information.
    The Slow Sand way: We’ve experimented with different formats for our meetings over the years. These days, it’s up to the host to decide the order of the meeting’s components.
  • Decide how many critiques you will do. Make sure you cover each piece thoroughly. The success of your group is directly tied to the success of your critiques.
    The Slow Sand way: We tackle two pieces during each meeting, typically taking between 45 to 60 minutes on each. If a member is submitting a book-length manuscript, we schedule just one critique.
  • Establish your own traditions and incorporate them into your meetings. For example, end with an inspirational quote about writing or have each member state what he/she hopes to accomplish before the next meeting.
    The Slow Sand way: Our longest-lasting tradition is to toast one another’s success and also to try to incorporate brief lit life updates from members during each meeting. But we’ve adapted and abandoned various practices throughout the years. Have traditions, yes, but be flexible according to the needs of your current membership.

 

Rules and Guidelines

  • Institute rules for your group and make sure each new member receives a copy. Try to stick to them, especially in the beginning, but feel free to revise as your group evolves.
    The Slow Sand way: We have added only a few rules in 17 years, though we often experiment with new ones. We keep a copy of our rules online, and refer prospective members to them…so they can know exactly what they’re getting into before they agree to join the group.
  • Decide on guidelines for critiques–how and when manuscripts should be turned in, whether or not members will read their work aloud before critique, if members will mark directly on manuscripts or provide a separate page of notes. Stick to your guidelines and ensure everyone submits drafts on time and writes adequate critiques.
    The Slow Sand way: We consider critiques to be the heart of what we do…and the secret to the longevity of our group. We require manuscripts be emailed one week prior to the meeting for a regular submission, one month prior for a book-length piece. Members must submit one single-spaced typewritten page of constructive critique, plus provide line-edits if the submitter’s ready for this level of detail. Sometimes members miss the Tuesday submission deadline, but if they send out a piece 4 days prior to the meeting the group will read work and provide oral critique only.
  • Distribute a schedule outlining who submits each time, hosts the meeting, and provides snacks.
    The Slow Sand way:We use a free online group scheduling calendar to set up our meetings.

By Daniel Schwen. Creative Commons.

 

  • Accountability should come from a feeling of belonging and wanting to contribute, but if members start shirking rules or missing submissions and critiques, you may need to convince them to take their roles seriously. A writers group only works when everyone is comitted and responsible.
    The Slow Sand way: Okay, we admit it. We’ve taken ourselves to task once or twice when we’ve become too lax with our rules. We once implemented–and then abandoned–token fines for missed deadlines.
  • If your group is large, you may want to consider appointing officers, such as scheduler, treasurer, historian, secretary, webmaster.
    The Slow Sand way: For convenience, we have a volunteer treasurer, email-answerer, webmaster, and schedulemeister. We even have a member who keeps track of the group’s publication history.

 

Motivation

  • Establish yearly or quarterly goals for each member and for what you hope to accomplish as a group.
    The Slow Sand way: You might wonder why we need a treasurer. Here’s the scoop: each Sander sets 6 month goals for him/herself and puts down a cash wager as motivation. If you don’t make your goal, the money goes into the Sander pot (which is often over $1k). If you make your goal you get the cash back in the form of a gift certificate to a local bookstore.
  • Recognize anniversaries, such as the first meeting of your group or other landmark events.
    The Slow Sand way: We celebrate the anniversary of our group’s first meeting every year and try to get a group photo.
  • Keep a group archive of each member’s published works.
    The Slow Sand way: One of our members keeps a folder with flyers for readings we’ve given, all previous member’s names and dates of attendance, and lists of special awards and achievements. We also keep a Slow Sand archive shelf. We ask each member to provide a copy of journals, magazines, or books that are published during their tenure in the group.
  • Consider becoming a nonprofit organization, so you can apply for local, state, or national grants.
    The Slow Sand way: A number of years ago, we formed a subcommittee that researched the possibility of becoming a legal 501c3 organization. It wasn’t the right decision for us, but your group might have different priorities. It’s worth a look.
  • Take part in community events. Do group readings. Create a website. Put together a chapbook. Network with other groups. Take retreats and field trips.
    The Slow Sand way: We’ve done it all! We’ve given readings and also had actors from a local theater group read our pieces. On our tenth anniversary we published an anthology of work. We try to schedule a writing retreat at least once a year and our field trips have included attending a David Sedaris reading and hearing members of our group give individual readings.
  • Have friendly competitions for who mailed out the most submissions for publication, who got the mosst rejection slips, who logged the most hours of writig time. Offer rewards.
    The Slow Sand way: We’re big on friendly competitions. We’ve given prizes for those who submit the most, those who are rejected the most (these “losers” are usually also the best published), and we’ve kept a chart to log time spent writing. We love prizes!
  • Toast one another’s success. Remind each other often of your strengths. Create wish lists for what you hope each member will achieve.
    The Slow Sand way: One of our members purchased a set of crystal champagne glasses for the group when she won a large monetary reward. We use these glasses to toast one another for every publication, prize, or other achievement. One year we came up with a lovely list of wishes for each others’ literary careers.
  • You’ll know your group is working when you realize you care as much about your colleagues writing as you do your own (well, almost).
    The Slow Sand promise: When each members’s  accomplishments are embraced and celebrated by all, you’ll not only rejoice in those achievements, you’ll make light of your rejections, hold each other on course, keep writing–and who knows? You might become a group so cohesive that you meet for two decades, inspire one another, and find great success in hundreds of publications and prizes. That’s exactly what has happened to the Slow Sand Writers Society, and we believe your group can share a similar bounty of luck, friendship, and literary rewards.

 

What next?

Gather up your writing buddies, get together, and put together some guidelines. Here are the current Slow Sand Writers Society Policies for some ideas.

  • Meetings run from 7pm to 9pm every other Tuesday evening (with schedule adjusted for holidays).  Occasionally meetings will last longer, but host is empowered to keep members on task and on time by methods including using a gong, a timer, and kicking Sanders to curb at 9 pm.
  • Members are required to arrive by 7 pm….or may come earlier, if host requests that group socialize or have snacks before meeting starts.
  • Hosting rotates between members equally. Members sign up on online calendar for a defined number of spots by deadline.
  • Spots are assigned in 8-week blocks. Anyone not signed up by deadline will be given spots by ScheduleBitch. To make changes after scheduling is complete, members must find someone willing to switch.
  • Host provides refreshments—typically snacks, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.
  • Host sends out a meeting agenda a few days prior to gathering, scheduling critique time and order, any breaks, time for business to be conducted or roundtable (sharing writing news/events).
  • Host gets to decide order of meeting and whether there will be time for any activities beyond critiques, such as snarky comments about agents or fake memoirs.
  • Two members are critiqued during each meeting unless submission is book-length. On occasion when writer has deadline and therefore needs to be critiqued out of order, we may schedule three critiques.
  • Members to be critiqued email MS Word documents to others 7 days prior to meeting (on a Tuesday). Document should be accompanied by specific queries the writer wants group to address.
  • If member wants a full book critiqued, piece should be submitted approximately 1 month before critique date.
  • When member does not make the Tuesday submission deadline, but sends out piece 4 days prior to meeting (on a Friday), Sanders will read work and provide oral critique only (if they have time).
  • No submission is accepted later than the Friday deadline, but member is still responsible for filling his/her time slot with constructive activity.
  • On your due date, you must turn in something (it can be a story/chapter/essay or it can be three pages of meandering nonsense or a character sketch or an outline for a book you’d like to write someday or an idea you would like to brainstorm with the group).
  • Member may alternatively use critique spot to design an exercise for the group, initiate discussion on some literary topic, or request feedback on a specific personal writing problem. (e.g. discussing a famous essay, doing a timed writing exercise, brainstorming plot or characterization), but it must be thought out. You can’t just say, “Let’s meet to talk about writing.”
  • Members are required to offer at least a 1-page typewritten critique on each piece, plus line edits on the manuscript itself (unless person being critiqued feels it’s too early in the writing process for detail). Critiques are due at meeting.
  • If member will be absent from meeting, he/she must email critique and line edits no later than the regularly scheduled meeting time and date.
  • Member should note pre-planned absences such as vacations on online calendar. If member will be absent due to sickness or schedule conflict, he/she can send email or phone members. It’s best to send email to entire group in case host is still in throes of cleaning bird shit off floor and does not check email prior to meeting.
  • We critique fiction and nonfiction; no poetry.

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