Running an online workshopping group is a great way to stay accountable while watching your writing improve in leaps and bounds. And finding your tribe will keep you motivated and encouraged.
Students in our Write Your Novel program enjoy such benefits as they workshop each other’s writing across six or 12 months, with the support of an experienced tutor. In fact, following their program – many students decide to stay in touch so they can continue to critique one another’s work. But what's the best way to set up a writing group?
Pamela Freeman is one of the amazing tutors of the Write Your Novel program, as well as the author of dozens of popular novels. And she knows that having a solid framework in place can make all the difference when running a successful online workshopping group. Here, she shares her top tips so you have a valuable meet up every time.
#1 Be explicit about the rules and what you expect
Upfront, have people sign off on the rules, whatever they might be. Some workshops have just a few rules; others are more strict. But you must have rules of some description or your meetings will be messy.
Some suggestions for rules to put in place:
- Everyone gives their feedback before the author can respond
- Strict limits on the word count of submissions
- Taking turns to be the moderator
- Helpful critiques only (use the word ‘critique’ or ‘feedback’ rather than ‘criticism’)
- Feedback to be as technical as possible. For example, don’t say ‘I didn’t get into it’, rather, ‘The story took too long to get to the first action so I lost interest.’
#2 Decide on the size of submissions and stick to it
The size of submissions should be agreed upon by all participants.
You have two main options:
- Everyone submits a short piece (500 words or fewer) and everyone receives feedback at each meeting
- There is a roster and people submit longer pieces periodically. For example, they can submit 3000-5000 words every three meetings.
Be firm about submission sizes and ignore anything that goes over the limit.
#3 Make it clear that writers are responsible for their submissions
When there is a roster, whoever is scheduled to submit for the next meeting is responsible for:
- Submitting the work a week ahead so that people have time to read it
- Organising a swap with another participant if they can’t meet that deadline or attend the meeting
- Giving participants enough information about the submission so that they can assess it properly (e.g. ‘the story so far’ or a synopsis).
When there isn’t a roster, each member of the group is responsible for:
- Submitting their work a week ahead so that people have time to read it
- Letting people know if they will not be submitting for this round
- Letting people know if they will not be attending the meeting.
#4 Set the length of time for feedback
A good length for a workshop meeting is two hours. These can easily be run via online platforms such as Zoom.
To determine the length of time for feedback, simply divide your meeting length by how many people are submitting. Yes, sorry, you’ll have to do some maths.
So, if you have four people submitting 3-5000 words, each writer gets half an hour of feedback.
If you have eight people submitting shorter pieces, they each get 15 minutes.
As you can see, this doesn’t leave room for chit chat. You’re there to work, not socialise.
#5 Operate by the ‘first come, first served' rule
Discuss pieces in the order in which they were submitted – first come, first served!
#6 Choose a moderator
Meetings should be moderated – or, at the very least, nominate someone to be the official timekeeper.
Someone may volunteer for the moderator role permanently. But the alternative is to share the role, each person taking a turn at running the show. This is the fairest option. Do set up a roster in advance so that everyone knows when it’s their turn.
The most important part of a moderator’s role is timekeeping.
Three to five minutes before each person’s time is up, the moderator should say: ‘We are running out of time. Author, do you have any questions you want to ask?’
This makes sure the author gets a chance to probe feedback in a way which is useful to them, but also alerts the group that this part of the discussion is winding up.
#7 Make written feedback optional
Depending on how you share the writing, you may have the option of people marking up the submissions and reposting them for the author. Decide whether or not this is an expectation in your rules – however, the more work you are asking people to do, the less likely they are to do it!
It is less complicated to ask people to read the submissions and give verbal feedback, with the option of doing more if they want to. You are most likely to get full participation this way.
#8 Be kind but firm
Workshopping meetings are not a social group, so if you want to chat, make arrangements to meet before or after the meeting.
Keep to time.
Be firm about when to submit – if someone submits a day before the meeting, they don’t get feedback and they miss their turn.
Be kind and encouraging to each other. This is your tribe, and you need to give each other support.
For more tips on running your writing group, check out our blog post How to run an effective writing group.