7 Things I Learned as a Writers' Group Facilitator
Writers’ groups are wonderful gatherings of creative force and camaraderie. Starting one, though, is not always as easy as inviting a few writers to get together and share their work. When I started my first writers’ group, the attendees of that initial meeting did not know one another well or at all. I made the mistake of thinking a meeting of peers would automatically generate a smooth evening of conversation about craft enjoyed by all. I failed to consider the rich variety of personalities and approaches I had brought together, complete with their insecurities and defenses surrounding their work. People are complex at their most mundane moments. Throwing near strangers together and asking them to share the creative work of their innermost beings without providing a well-organized framework for that was…well, a little bumpy. I learned a lot that night. As difficult as it was, we all persevered, and together we formed a strong community of bonded friends. Here are some of the basic principles I learned for happy group dynamics.
1. Small and in-person has power.
The intimacy of a small, familiar gathering encourages a true incubator atmosphere. It may seem an old-school aesthetic, but the congregation of writers comfortable in one another’s company is profoundly supportive and inspiring in the most satisfying fashion. Meeting in real life brings a heightened sense of accountability for regular progress, and authors are less likely to abandon WIPs or treat them cavalierly.
2. Consistency is king.
Regular meeting dates and times and the rules of the group should be things that members can count on. Once-a-month meetings are the norm, and that usually works well to give members time to work on their WIPs between gatherings. A conscientious facilitator can distribute information to all and moderate feedback and discussion sessions.
3. Ground rules of diplomacy are necessary.
There will be a broad range of personalities in the room. Especially when a group is new and still learning about one another, there can be awkward moments and resistance to the opinions or advice of others. Respect and kindness are always the best defaults for all interactions. Writers can be quite tender at first, and the real magic doesn’t happen until the group has had some time to forge bonds of trust.
4. Feedback is essential but must be constructive, precise, and delivered with the express purpose of strengthening the work.
When delivering feedback, it’s important to set aside your personal preferences for certain genres or styles. Focus on the quality and clarity of each piece. Ask questions. Avoid vague opinions. Don’t try to rewrite the piece for your fellow writer but do provide some examples of the kinds of changes you think could help and why. Remember that your feelings about the work and what could benefit it are suggestions that your fellow writer may choose to take or leave. Again, the watchwords are respect and kindness.
5. Defending one’s work against constructive feedback is counterproductive.
It can be hard to receive feedback, but this is the heart of a writers’ group. Feedback works best when accepted without argument (take notes!) and processed later. Those receiving will not always agree with what their fellows have to say, nor will they always take proffered advice. Constructive feedback is always meant to shine a light onto the blind spots all writers develop when working closely with their own material. Fresh ears and eyes pick out the areas that can benefit from extra polish.
6. Readings need time limits.
For the sake of a reasonable meeting length, reading times should be brief, focused, and equal for all members. This allows time for discussion and feedback. Some groups are small enough that all members can share during every meeting. Other groups allot reading and feedback time to members on a rolling schedule so that only a few will be addressed at each meeting. It is beneficial if those who will be sharing come prepared for discussion of a discrete segment of their WIP and specific questions of craft. One of the time-saving rules we enacted in my first writers’ group was NO DISCLAIMERS. This meant that when it was your turn to share your work, you got right to it without any preamble (we found that we all had a penchant for several minutes worth of excuse-making for our poor offerings). Voila! It saved us quite a bit of time.
7. Sharing food builds relationships.
What is it about a potluck that reduces barriers to rubble and builds solid relationships in their place? I do not understand the magic of meal-sharing, but I know it is infallible. When people gather around a shared table, or even around snacks and drinks, a relaxation of formality occurs, and the resultant conversation and laughter create the bonding heart of a group. Good food shared with good friends brings love to the worktable.
Following these principles can create a safe, comfortable space for writers to learn, share, and flourish. Plus, it’s just plain fun.