How to run an effective writing group

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There's no better way to improve your writing than to share and workshop it with other writers. This idea can terrify some people, but once you conquer your fear, you'll find it invaluable. However, you need to find the right group for you, and your writing group should have clear guidelines.

If you've decided to start your own writing group, or want to improve how your current one runs, we've asked some of Australia's top authors – Pamela Freeman, Nicole Hayes and Pamela Cook – to share their tips on how to run an effective writing group.

When should your writing group meet?

The first thing you'll need to establish is your schedule. Most groups meet fortnightly or monthly, and a few meet weekly – although that can be harder to commit to. Pick a schedule that works for everyone in your group and stick to it.

“I’ve been involved in several different groups as a participant and each had a different composition and format,” says YA author Nicole Hayes. “But the one that worked best was when there were usually five, but no more than six members – often one would be absent – and we met monthly.”

As part of your schedule, it's a good idea to map out who's turn it is to workshop ahead of time.

“Do the schedule a long way ahead, so people know when they’ll be submitting,” says award-winning author and AWC presenter Pamela Freeman.

Who should be in your writing group?

At each session, it's good to have around five or six writers. Keep in mind that there will almost always be someone who can't make it, so your group should have between six and eight members to allow for that.

“There are eight people in my writing group and seven of us meet fortnightly,” says bestselling author Pamela Cook. “Everyone is published in some form ranging from short stories to multiple novels.”

Ideally, you'll have a range of different backgrounds, careers, family life, genders, ethnicities, etc. There is nothing like a different perspective to help see your story in a new light. However, while you do want a diverse mix of people, you should all be at a similar level of writing experience.

“Think about the composition of the writers and their level of experience,” says Nicole. “In a perfect world, you’d have a mix of experience and success, but truthfully, that benefits the less experienced more than those further along. Striking that balance is key, and it’s important to know what to expect from others upfront.”

Finding that right mix can be tricky. You want a diverse group of people, but you should share a common goal: to improve each other's writing and to support each other. If someone is only interested in their own writing goals, then they won't be a good fit for a supportive and collaborative group.

“Research the group before joining – or before adding a new member,” Pamela Cook says. “Personality clashes can bring the whole thing down in a screaming heap.”

Often, a writing group will form naturally out of an event like a course, workshop, or conference, after people have already formed a connection. Writer Kylie Fennell found her ‘write people‘ after attending GenreCon, a writing conference in Brisbane.

“A light-hearted dinner conversation led to a collaborative, multi-genre anthology, Lighthouse,” Kylie says. “Sure, there were dozens of steps and lots of hard work in between, but it all started with a simple conversation.”

That conversation can also start online, in a Facebook group or Twitter conversation. We've also seen countless writing groups form after writers connected in one of our writing courses, especially Novel Writing Essentials and Write Your Novel.

Where should you meet?

Commonly, writing groups will meet in a library, community centre, or each other's homes. Cafes and restaurants are not great settings because they're noisy and full of distractions – like food and alcohol.

For Pamela Freeman, this is her most important tip. “Do NOT serve food and drink until AFTER the discussion is over (if then),” she says. “Coffee, yes, but no food or alcohol. Otherwise, it descends into a social occasion, instead of a focused workshop. This is not a book club! You are here to work!”

A lot of writing groups fail for this reason, so choose your location wisely.

If you are geographically close, then meeting at each other's homes is a good option. Pamela's own group would meet on a Saturday morning at the house of the person whose work was being workshopped, which was decided several weeks in advance.

If you're further apart, then choose one central location – again, ideally a library meeting room rather than a bar. You can also meet online via Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook or myriad other communication platforms.

“If you’re on Zoom, you might want to nominate a moderator – you can rotate the moderation so that someone whose work is not being discussed does it,” Pamela Freeman advises. “You can also run it remotely via email.”

Of course, plans and situations change, so it's good to have both a physical and virtual location to meet. This allows members to ‘phone in' even if they can't attend physically.

“We try to meet in person but in the depths of Covid we ‘met’ weekly or fortnightly via Zoom,” says Pamela Cook. “We are back to fortnightly face to face meetings at one of the member's homes as it’s central for everyone.”

Do you all need to be writing the same genre?

The answer is a definite ‘no'! Having members writing across several genres can help everyone. Similar to having different life experiences, people writing in different genres will ask questions and see issues that would slip past people who are immersed in their genre.

“In fact, having people who don’t know the genre can be great, as any slightly confusing bits will confuse them a lot!” says Pamela Freeman. “It’s terrific to have different perspectives.”

Pamela Cook agrees. “Everyone in our group writes in different genres ranging from romance, suspense and literary to crime and women’s fiction. We are all pretty eclectic readers and have a broad understanding of genre so that helps.”

Of course, if someone in the group absolutely despises sci-fi, then they may not be a good fit if the rest of the writers focus on speculative fiction.

“It is completely useless to listen to a critique from someone who expressly or genuinely doesn’t like – or even read – your genre,” says Nicole. “There’s really nothing they can offer that others who are better read in your genre can.”

How should you structure each workshop?

Once you've found the right people and have an idea of the schedule, you should establish the structure of your meetings. That means that each time you meet, everybody knows what happens at the start, they know how many pieces will be workshopped, and they have a good idea of when it is going to end.

Some writing groups are very structured, with a clear agenda. Others are a bit looser. Either can work, depending on your group, but each time you meet, you should follow a familiar plan. Start with a catch up and allow everyone to settle in and share any news. But you should have a definite time when the work properly starts.

Pamela Cook's writing group has a fairly loose structure, with a strong emphasis on camaraderie, not just workshopping, but there is still an order of events.

“We generally do a roundup of how we are going with our writing and any issues we are having,” Pamela says. “If someone has a scene, chapter or blurb they need feedback on, that comes next. Then we discuss a podcast or article we have read on craft or another aspect of the business like marketing or querying. Then we lunch! We also swap longer pieces via email.”

Even within Pamela's loose framework, the time is focused on the art and craft of writing. Nicole agrees that this is essential.

“Ensure the night is about work, and not about the social experience,” Nicole says. “Or set a time for catching up before, then designate a hard and fast ‘start work' time that you police rigidly.”

Decide in advance how many pieces you'll workshop each meeting. For example, you can workshop just one writer's work per meeting, or you can do several.

“We would often discuss two or more people’s work in each session, with strict time limits so that no one missed out,” Pamela Freeman says.

For Nicole Hayes' group, they prefer to focus on one writer at a time.

“Ordinarily, there would be a designated week for your work to be read,” Nicole says. “You would provide the work at least a week in advance so everyone had a chance to read and write comments. On the night there would be a discussion that allowed everyone to flesh out their critique, ask questions of the author, and for the author to respond or ask questions of the critique group.”

If you don't have guidelines for how your writing group runs, it will quickly turn into a disorganised (but fun!) social event. Or it will be hijacked by the writers with the strongest personalities. Guidelines create structure and a safe place for writers to share their work.

Keep the following in mind:

Deadlines. If someone is submitting their work for critique, they must meet the deadline. Everyone's time is valuable and meeting deadlines shows respect for your fellow writers. One week before the meet-up is a good rule of thumb. If anyone doesn't submit on time, they don't get feedback.

Word or page limits. Make it clear how long a writer's submission can be. If you're only workshopping one writer during a meet-up, then they can submit a longer piece – for example, up to 5000 words. But if you plan to workshop a few writers during the group time, then each person needs to keep their submission short – say 1000 words.

Timing and moderation As well as deadlines, have timelines during the event. For example, each person has a maximum of 10 minutes to provide their feedback. Having a moderator/timekeeper can help your workshop to run more smoothly.

Reading work out loud. Will writers read an excerpt from their submission? Or the whole thing? Or will you workshop it without having the writer read it out loud? Factor this into your timings.

How do you provide feedback?

It's important that you set out your feedback protocols explicitly. You need to make sure every writer in the group feels comfortable both giving and receiving feedback and having protocols in place will help with that. You can do this in a welcome email, a shared Google Doc, or in a Facebook or WhatsApp group.

Providing feedback is (usually) the whole point of a writing group. To make sure it works for everyone, have clear guidelines about what is expected and what is unacceptable.

There are several different ways you can run the feedback portion of the writing group but two main ones are:

1. Read, critique, listen, respond. 

The writer sends round their workshop piece at least a week before. Everyone reads it several times, making notes. At the writing group, each person provides their verbal feedback and the author is not allowed to respond. Once everyone has critiqued the piece, the author can then address anything that came up.

This is the system that Pamela Freeman prefers.

“It allows the writer to actually LISTEN to what people are saying, rather than start thinking about their response to it,” Pamela says. “It allows things to sink in, particularly if several people are saying the same thing. It allows space for embarrassment to subside and stops you crying as you blurt out a defence of your work. And, importantly, it reassures the participants that they are not going to get into a nasty argument with the writer. This encourages honesty.”

At the end of the session, members share their written notes with the writer, either in hard copy or via email.

2. Read, critique, discussion.

Similar to the above example, writers send round their workshop piece at least a week before. Everyone reads it several times, making notes. During the meet-up, people provide their feedback in turn, but the writer can respond, and all the members get involved in the discussion.

This is the preferred format for Nicole.

“On the night there would be a discussion that allowed everyone to flesh out their critique, ask questions of the author, and for the author to respond or ask questions of the critique group,” Nicole says. “Some say the author shouldn’t speak before their work is read and the critique provided. I’m not sure that’s helpful. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position when we share our work, and unless the read is a final draft, where it really is entirely about what’s on the page, then everything is a work in progress and will require additional thoughts and conversation. Whatever makes the authors and those providing their critique comfortable is what matters.”

If you're providing feedback by email, rather than meeting up physically or virtually, make sure you have a shared Google Drive or Dropbox folder where everyone can put their stories and comments. It's fine for the discussion to take place via email (or chat), but keeping all the submissions and feedback in one place will make your life easier.

Have fun and be supportive!

Finally, enjoy the process! If you hate it, you won't benefit from it. And if you do hate it, question why. Is it the people? Is it the structure? Is it the timing? All of those things can be changed. If you simply hate giving or receiving feedback, you have to ask yourself if a writing group is really for you.

The best writing groups are composed of people who share a goal – to improve their own writing and to improve the writing of their fellow writers.

“You are all there to support each other’s writing,” Pamela Cook says. “It’s a give and take process.”

Being supportive means going beyond the allotted time at your meet-up. You can also share Tweets and Facebook posts, celebrate each other's successes, commiserate over rejections, and exchange opportunities.

“Support each other, encourage each other, barrack for each other – publicly, privately, every chance you can,” says Nicole. “It’s a glorious thing to watch a manuscript and author rise out of the ashes and into the publishing world – and to know you’ve had a hand in it. Celebrate others’ successes because 1) it’s the right thing to do and 2) you helped build this thing and that’s a great feeling!”

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