Writing Group: How to Start and Run a GREAT Writing Group

Writers often promote writing groups to one another. You’ve probably heard a fellow writer say: “Oh, I have the best writing group. You should join one!” Or at least something similar. What is a writing group? Why do writers value them? And what separates a GREAT writing group from a BAD one? Let’s dig deeper into that…

What is a Writing Group?

A writing group is… a group of writers. Of course. But, it should be more than that. It should be a group of writers with an objective or a purpose. And, once the objective or purpose for that writing group has been defined, the members of the group should gather to determine how to help one another achieve the desired objective or purpose of the group. Yeah, it’s a little vague… so, let me give some examples of good and bad writing group objectives:

GOOD Writing Group Objectives/Purposes:

  • To help members of the writing group IMPROVE their writing by giving constructive feedback that leads to: (1) Better concepts/premises, (2) Stronger stories, (3) Improved grammar, and (4) Better novels/books/scripts, etc.
  • To help members of the writing group INCREASE their chances of publishing their works to [INSERT INTENDED AUDIENCE].
  • To help members of the writing group EARN more revenue by selling more books through the process of refining their works and networking with other professionals in an effort to present audiences with works that delight them and connections that help them become more successful.

Before I relate the bad objectives and purposes to you, note that while some of these are a bit vague (I’ll get into more details soon), they all have an end goal in mind. I would recommend adding measures to track the performance of the group, but at least the objectives and purposes I’ve given thus far give a definition of what the group is looking to accomplish. I started a writing group for the Reclamation Society (our nonprofit production company) based on the Pixar model. Our objective is:

The Purpose of the Reclamation Society’s Storytelling Braintrust (our Writing Group):

To release meaningful stories that move people. Stories that sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book fans desire to engage with, but that also communicate deep Truth that prompts them to reconsider their worldview.

This objective/purpose is critical because it does two things: (1) It allows me (as the writing group’s leader) to invite the right people into the group–people who I trust to contribute in a way that will benefit us, and (2) It allows those people to understand what kind of perspective to bring to the table. I’ve even spoken to the target audience we’re trying to reach, the people we call “geeks” (fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book stories). Notice also that I haven’t defined how we expect worldviews to change, which means our stories aren’t going to be preachy, but rather insightful and questioning. All of those are really important to the writing group and the nonprofit I run.

BAD Writing Group Objectives/Purposes:

  • To help members write better stories!
  • To give feedback to fellow writers so that they can become better writers.
  • To help writers publish their works.

The reason these are unhelpful should be obvious. They’re far less specific than those I listed under the “good” section. I believe that writing groups should be diverse (more on this later), but targeted. Meaning that everyone in the room has a unique perspective, but at the end of the day everyone is on the same page relative to the outcome they’re seeking. As an example, imagine that one writer intends to write a romance novel set in the Victorian Era while a second writer intends to write a Quentin Tarantino-style time travel novel. Could those writers benefit one another? Maybe, but their audiences are vastly different, which means they’re approaching their stories in totally divergent ways.

Why Should I Join a Writing Group?

Good question. First, you should never join a writing group just to be a part of one. That’s not very strategic, and it may be completely unhelpful. But, I highly recommend writing groups. Why?

  • Writers get stuck inside their own heads. It’s difficult for writers to see their stories from all angles, which makes sense. When we use certain words, phrases, concepts, or themes, we’re coming from one set of experiences. But other people aren’t, which means they can give us a broader perspective and help us say what we want to say with more clarity.
  • Writers get lonely. And this is why I think many writers join writing groups. Because most of the time, we’re alone with our stories. Getting out into the world and hearing shared experiences is incredibly helpful. Just be sure to follow the other guidelines in this article, because otherwise you may not be in a writing group so much as a support group (which isn’t bad, it’s just not the same).
  • Writers can always improve their (1) storytelling craft and their (2) ability to find an audience. The two biggest benefits to being in a writing group–particularly one focused on a similar objective–is that writers can not only improve their craft, but also include the salability of their works. And both of those things are–for many writers–definitions of success.

Why did I start our Storytelling Braintrust? Because I wanted to release the best possible stories (i.e., meaningful stories that engage sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book story fans and drive them to think more deeply about their worldviews). Here’s a helpful exercise: Step back for a moment and pretend that you’re a producer or a publisher, and that you’re attempting to find a way to reach a larger audience and make more profits utilizing the story that you just wrote… Interesting, right?

As writers, we tend to think of our stories based on our personal value. Meaning that, we tend to conflate our personal value with our writing skill. I highly encourage you not to do that. It’s a waste of time. Let me just assure you: you can be a good writer. In fact, you might already be one. But… how do you know? For me, it’s great if someone tells me I’m a good writer, but it’s far better if someone engages with the story I wrote. Which means they have to read it. Which then also means they (probably) have to buy it. If I spend all my time trying to hear, “You’re a great writer,” I might never learn how to turn that into a broader audience who cares about my stories enough to invest in them. I’d prefer the latter, wouldn’t you?

Conclusion: Join a writing group because the end goal is expanding your audience and getting people to engage with your stories in a more meaningful way, not just because you want people to think you’re a good writer.

How to Start and Run a KILLER Writing Group

All right, hopefully you’re onboard with being a part of a writing group. Maybe you’re even inspired to start one! Well, here are my recommendations for starting a killer writing group:

  • Define the Writing Group’s Objective and Purpose: What do you want the endgame to be? What audience do you want to reach and why? Think about those things, and then define them by writing them down.
  • Invite Writers Who LOVE Your Objective and Purpose: I didn’t invite period piece romance novelists to join my Storytelling Braintrust. And that has nothing to do with the their talent or worth. It has everything to do with what I’m trying to accomplish. If a writer doesn’t love sci-fi, fantasy, or comic book stories or they’re not interested in meaningful stories… do I need their opinion? Naw.
  • Make Your Writing Group as Diverse as Possible: At first glance, this point seems to contradict the previous one. It doesn’t. What I’m referring to here are the experiences, backgrounds, and abilities of the writers you invite, not their interests. I didn’t start our Storytelling Braintrust until I had female representation and a person of color represented–and I aim to have more of both. Now, my group has a singular purpose, but we also have different experiences and backgrounds to help guide the best possible stories that will reach a bigger audience in a more meaningful way.
  • Invite Writers Who are Better than You. If you want to be told you’re a great writer, then invite a bunch of amateurs and have them gawk at your skill. Congratulations, you’ll feel good about your superiority. Invite writers who are better than you, and then see how much your stories improve. The latter is far superior. Do the latter.
  • Structure Your Time Together: Writing groups can quickly devolve into “friendly hangouts” if the time isn’t structured properly. Here’s the structure I use in our Writing Group:
    • Prior to the Writing Group Meeting: Everyone is required to read the material being presented. Usually this is a story that’s in pre-production.
    • Part 1 (approximately 45 minutes): The writer(s) receive feedback on the story they’ve presented. This, in and of itself, is an art form. I’ll do a separate post with the questions that I use to get the discussion moving and targeted in the right direction.
    • Part 2 (approximately 20 minutes): We talk about the other stories we’re working on that we’ll be discussing in upcoming meetings. Since we’re a production company, we look at stories that we intend to produce, but other groups would have writers taking turns collecting feedback.
    • Part 3 (approximately 20 minutes): We pitch new ideas that the writers in the group are working on that might be something the group could provide feedback on.

Obviously, our Storytelling Braintrust is a bit different because we’re producing the stories that are being discussed. Most writing groups will consider all the stories being worked on by the writers in the group. But the concept is the same.

Next Steps: Start or Join a Writing Group

If I haven’t convinced you yet, I may never convince you. But, you should start or join a writing group. Not a support group. Not a writing cult. A writing group. And if you don’t know of one that follows the rules I just outlined, then start your own! The benefits of being a part of a writing group are too amazing to pass up. So stop stalling and start making some phone calls.

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