Starting a Writing Group

I’ve written before about the benefits of writing groups and recently I decided to start my own. A women’s writers’ group. We call ourselves Bics’n’Brunch because we had visions of doing lots of lovely writing, and then celebrating with lots of lovely brunch (and rivers of booze…) but so far, all we’ve managed is lots of lovely writing, lunch and caffeinated beverages and I’m okay with that. For now.

So we had our third meeting yesterday and we have a nice mix of members. And we’re all We have a member who has produced a short film and won a competition to have it screened. We have a member who has written the bones of a memoir. We have a member (Liz Cullen) who just launched her website and who has written a collection of short stories. She is now starting the path to self-publication. We have a member (Maria Colgan) who writes a personal development blog. We have a member who is a former journalist. We have a number of members who are just starting out with creative writing, and I’m excited about the future of our little group, and the future of our writing and the friendships we will make. And I’ve learned so much and I want to share it with anyone who thinks they want to set up a writers’ group. So here are some tips:

1. Identify the reasons why you want to establish a group and who you want to include:

There are lots of reasons why you might want to set up a writing group. If you’re in a town without one that’s a really, really good reason to set one up. But even if there are plenty of groups to choose from in your hometown, those groups might not be what you’re looking for. This was the case with me. Despite the fact that there were plenty of options in Dublin I ended up leaving all of them eventually for the following reasons:

  • They were too big which resulted in the sessions being dominated by reading aloud rather than working on our writing or discussing our writing.
  • They were almost entirely focused on essay-style non-fiction writing.
  • They only permitted positive feedback.
  • The groups felt fully established and the members were all very close friends.
  • Certain personalities had become dominant within the groups and ended up monopolising talking time.
  • They were mainly attended by white men of retirement age. They were lovely men and I learned a lot from them, so that wasn’t the problem but I found the writing didn’t have much diversity, and certainly, I didn’t have a huge amount in common with them.
  • The writing, for them, was more of a hobby than a serious endeavour.

The groups weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to be amongst people that took the writing seriously because I felt lonely doing what I was doing. I needed beta-readers who would be brutally honest with me. I also wanted to hear some female writers’ voices, at least for a while. So I decided to set up the kind of writers’ group that I wanted to go to. A group of women of different ages,  interests and backgrounds. Women who write all kinds of things. Women who write for different reasons. Women who take the group seriously. So before launching into starting your group, decide why you want to establish a writing group and who you want to join. These are the questions you should ask yourself:

  • What kinds of writers do you want to invite? Do you want mainly fiction/non-fiction? Bloggers? Poets? Motivational writers? I kept my group mixed because I think we can all learn from one another and it adds a richness to the group, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t narrow your requirements down and be as specific as you want.
  • Do you want to restrict membership to a certain demographic?
  • How often does it suit you to meet up? This is your group, so you decide what suits you best. I think anything less than once a month is too big a gap between meetings.

2. Find Members:

Establishing the group was quite easy for me. There’s a popular social networking app called GirlCrew. It’s an international app, but was founded in Ireland and is extremely popular here. It was created for women who want to socialise with other women (platonically) and form friendships. I went on there and posted an event. I started panicking when I got twenty-two responses. I didn’t know what to do, but the weather on the day of our inaugural meeting was horrific: torrential rain, apocalyptic wind. It was miserable. Four people showed up, so that made five including myself. I thought ‘what a disaster’ but actually, it gave me a good idea of who was serious about the group and in fact, five is a reasonably good number to start off with. It’s easy to manage and not too intimidating, plus you will actually get to know one another. Having had a few meetings now, I’d say a group of eight is optimum. Other ways to find members are:

  • To use socialising apps and websites like GirlCrew, Meetup.com etc.
  • Post on Twitter and Facebook. Invite people to share your post and use hashtags to gain traction.
  • Make your local university/ college/ arts or cultural centre, library and bookshop aware of your existence and leave posters for them to put up on their notice boards.
  • Look at writerly websites for your area. Some writers’ websites have sections that list writers’ groups (The Irish Writers’ Centre and writing.ie has one, for example).
  • Attend book and literary festivals, writing workshops or writers’ retreats and get talking to people.

3. Find a venue:

The most important qualities that a venue must have are: that it is available on a regular basis, that you can relax, that you have a level of privacy that your members are comfortable with, that it is reasonably quiet so that you can concentrate/read aloud without interruption, that it is cheap/free of charge.

Your options are:

  • Writers’/ Arts/ Cultural centres
  • Members’ homes (on a rotational basis)
  • Library meeting rooms
  • Quiet cafes/pub lounges/hotel lobbies (ask permission in advance, and offer to purchase beverages/ food)
  • Pay-as-you-go social or working spaces. For example, in Dublin, we have a place called The Clockwork Door and they charge really reasonable rates for renting a room for a specific length of time. The charge includes coffee, biscuits etc. 

I found that almost everywhere other than the libraries charged, either directly or indirectly. If you’re meeting in a cafe, you should buy something. It’s only polite and right that you should, but as most writers I know aren’t exactly flush with cash, an expensive coffee or two might not feature in the budget. So I approached the newly refurbished Kevin Street Library as our place. And lads! This place is only gorgeous! It’s an old building given a modern revamp with lots of high ceilings, light and airy spaces, comfy seats and books glorious books! They set us up every month with tables and chairs in a lovely space with books lining the walls. Many libraries are only too happy to host writers’ groups. So give your local library a call first. See if they (a) have a meeting room suitable and (b) how regularly it may be available to you. 

4. Decide What You Want to Do:

There are loads of activities that writers’ groups can engage in during their meet-ups, and outside of them. Here’s a list:

  • Writing! Obviously. But what do you want to write? Decide whether you want to do a mix of free writing, working off prompts (see my article on prompts here) or working on existing projects.
  • Reading aloud from your work. You can read stuff you’re working on within the group or finished or almost finished work from outside of it. My group is still a little shy, and so I’ve asked them to read from other people’s work, works that they enjoy and find inspirational.
  • Holding each other accountable. Sharing your goals with the group, sharing your strategy for achieving those goals, and updating the group at every meeting on how you are progressing with projects. I use the SMART goal-setting formula for maintaining focus and planning. It’s a good one to share with your group. 
  • Sharing information. Informing the group about competitions that are coming up or literary events that might be of interest.
  • Problem-solving. A problem shared is a problem halved. Many writing groups discuss problems with their writing and brainstorm solutions. 
  • Teaching and Learning. Sharing tips with one another is one of the greatest benefits of a writing group. 
  • Critiquing as a Group. Not all writing groups give critique, and that’s fine. Sometimes in-depth critiquing can’t be combined with writing and reading aloud. There may not be time to do everything, especially if you’re a large group. Circulating manuscripts before meetings does save time.  Decide what your priorities are. Good quality, objective constructive criticism is a resource that’s hard to come by and personally, I welcome it because I want to write as a career. Fluffy, over-generous and gushing praise for bad writing is not good for my progression. Equally, people who like to write for fun shouldn’t have to face having their tyres deflated by a negative Nelly. So, at the outset decide what kind of group you are, manage expectations, set boundaries and at first, regardless of what kind of group you are, work on developing trust. 
  • Finding a beta-reader. Beta-readers carry out a deep analysis of a full manuscript and give written responses to questions posed by the author. Beta reading involves a lot of focus, a lot of effort and is a huge commitment, and should be taken seriously. I am so grateful to all of the people that beta-read my novel, and it absolutely wouldn’t have been as good as it is without them. Give-and-take is important with beta-reading, so make members aware that if if agrees to beta-read for a group member, they should offer to return the favour. 
  • Having company at writerly events. I’ve been to a lot of events solo. It’s nice to have company that shares your interest. As a group, you can Attend book-launches, open-mics, literary festivals, plays, movies that are book-related as a group.
  • Organising your own writerly events.  It’s easy to organise a writers’ retreat nowadays with AirBnb. Pick a beautiful, peaceful location and organise yourself a bit of solid writing time together. You can also agree to take turns in researching writing lessons and teaching the group. If you’re a decent sized group and you are all willing to pay you could contact established writers directly and ask them to give a workshop. Most writers give workshops and talks to earn extra cash. You could possibly organise it in collaboration with your local library or other writers’ groups. You could also look at staging plays written by group members or by the group as a whole. 
  • Working on group projects. One group I know published their own book of short stories, essays and poetry. Another group did a reading on the radio together and wrote a play collaboratively. The Boyne Writers have their own literary magazine. You could create a group blog and take turns in contributing content. All brilliant ideas. But it could be as simple as writing a short story together, creating a group podcast or a Spotify playlist for your group.
  • Book recommendations. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading for pleasure and reading to learn is important when working on your craft. I love getting reading suggestions from people I trust.

5. Pick a Chair and Communicate:

Every group needs a Chairperson to put a structure on the meeting. Most groups rotate chairs, and I recommend this. It’ll make the group democratic and make everyone feel invested in the group.

Chairing involves:

  • Preparing an agenda which may include: updates on member progress on projects, selecting a ‘writing tip of the month’, supplying prompts, making members aware of upcoming competitions, events etc.
  • Allocating and managing time for discussion, free-writing, writing and reading aloud.
  • Arranging a date for the next meeting. Notifying any absent members and the venue of the date and time of the next meeting.
  • Organising tea/coffee, cakes, lunch where necessary.

Also, pick a method of communication between group members so that you can share work, share tips, suggest meet-ups etc. I use WhatsApp but other groups use Facebook Groups or communicate via email.

So there you go, you have everything you need to establish your writing group! Except for a name (just FYI Bics’n’Brunch is copyrighted. Devastating, I know. It’s a good one).

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CatherineEDay

My name is Catherine Day. After practising law for many years, I've decided to take the leap, leave law temporarily, and write the novel I've always wanted to write.

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