A Practical Guide to Starting a Group of Your Own

Michelle Wildgen
From the March/April 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I recently joined a no-reading writers group. We meet once a month to talk writing, publishing, editing, teaching, and any other topics that arise, from Scotland to pet rats. The only thing we don’t do is share our work and discuss it. This no-reading approach was not my idea, but I did enthusiastically embrace it. (Actually, what I said was, “Not only do I have no new writing to share, but I categorically refuse to generate any.” I was having a bit of a dark afternoon of the soul, from which I’ve since recovered.) Anyway, the whole idea gets me thinking about just how malleable the goals of a writers group can, and should, be. 

The first hurdle is finding your people. I tell my writing students that half the reason to take a class—be it a tight four-weeker on characterization, a free library seminar, or an accredited university workshop—is to find the writers you enjoy and who seem to get your work, with hopes of beginning to build your writing community. (I’m still exchanging work with people from graduate school, and we graduated in 2002.) Nowadays an online meeting is as viable as an in-person one, maybe more so for reasons of ease and travel, which makes online classes a great option if you don’t live in a place with an abundance of literary events. You can look into forming or joining a group using a free tool like Poets & Writers Groups, investigate your local library or bookstore for classes and reading groups, or find a good place to post a notice for your own group. If you are near a university or community college, you might discover online bulletin boards, extension courses, readings, book groups, craft talks, conferences, and retreats for writers of all stripes: Show up, be an engaged literary citizen, and keep an eye out for one or two people with whom you click. If you live far from such possibilities, it might be worth traveling for a weekend-long retreat or conference. Find your people there and stay in touch as a group online. Ask around outside your writing circles too. Most of us know one of those people who knows everyone else—try them even if they aren’t a writer. And pay attention everywhere: Just as you steal anecdotes from unwitting companions, keep a raptor’s eye out for compatible writers. Be patient. These things tend to follow their own schedules, and you can start with just one partner.

Once you have a few people in your group, talk frankly about logistics and what you all desire. I recommend rotating meeting places, as the pandemic allows, particularly if you’re meeting at group members’ homes, so no one feels unduly put upon and everyone has to pony up for tea and seltzer every few months. (Maybe it goes without saying that if you have never met your new group, don’t start off at your homes but at a coffee shop or library meeting space.) Don’t bother with snacks, which just become another thing to worry about. Keep your group on the smallish side. I limit my workshops to eight writers plus me, and for a writers group, three to six might be the sweet spot.  I’ve never worked in a group with a designated leader, but some groups do appoint someone to run each session. If you think you have a leader who won’t become drunk with power, it might work beautifully. You might rotate this role: One month someone has to share their own writing, while another person has to share a published piece and lead the discussion of it, and so on. 

It may not be crucial that everyone work in the same microgenre, but you need some clear commonality. Be honest with yourselves about the kind of work you all connect with and on which you have insight. Are you really as sharp a reader of cozy mysteries as you are of spindly, demanding literary architectures? Maybe the picture book group needs to splinter off, and the YA novelists can do the same. 

Even more important than genre is a companionable level of writing commitment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a group of writers who have no desire to publish the work they share each month, nor with a group of cutthroat professionals who have spreadsheets of their awards and reviews, but I say don’t mix them. This is less about accomplishment than temperament—an unpublished but passionately dedicated writer might fit in with the intensity people; a well-published writer in need of a change of pace or a break from their usual genre might find that relaxed group just the thing. I know a few expert writers (in poetry and fiction) who hired someone to run a regular meeting on the essay—she gives them prompts and feedback, and they get to branch out into a genre they hadn’t focused on before. Before you all commit, have a frank conversation about your writing goals, and don’t pretend to share them if you really have other needs for your group. 

Decide on feedback expectations ahead of time. Line edits and margin comments? Just an editorial letter? Verbal discussion only? I recommend keeping feedback focused and simple: Vote yea or nay on marginalia, and limit written feedback to a page or two of specific notes. I do recommend some form of written commentary though. It forces readers to articulate their points and focus on the most important ones, and frankly it helps the writer recall all the feedback when they return to the work a week or two later. 

How about the discussion itself? Establish how long you will talk about each piece and then designate a rotating timekeeper to keep it all equal. How many works will you discuss at each meeting? This may change as you get a feel for your group, which is fine too.

Don’t assume everyone knows the conventions of workshops or wants to stick to them, but here are a few to consider. Conversation doesn’t have to occur around a table, as long as you can all face one another. Life is a lot nicer for everyone if you start by going around the circle to say what you loved before opening up the floor to free-flowing discussion. No interrupting the speaker, of course, and remind everyone that you are not evaluating the people in the story on personal terms (“Rory’s a jerk”), but rather on craft terms (“I could not tell why it was important to the story that Rory always kick someone in the shins before he leaves the room”). I like to stay with the workshop trope of the writer’s not participating in the discussion until we’re done, unless they need to seal off a rabbit hole of factually incorrect discussion by saying something like “Actually, Rory is not a ghost.” Open the floor to the writer after discussion, but consider doing so with pointed questions like “What’s still getting under your skin about this piece? What are you trying to figure out?” That time is for the writer to ask specific questions we didn’t focus on, to clarify confusing feedback. It’s not their chance to explain their work at length—the place to do that was the work itself.

You get back what you put into a writers group. You’d be amazed how often we forget that. I’ve seen writers who never read others’ work but then wondered why they got little feedback on their own; writers who made not even a cursory effort to modulate their tone and then were deeply offended when they received, shall we say, retributively honest feedback on their own work. But mostly what I see is writers taking a moment to think about what helped their writing and doing their level best to offer the same to others. Experienced or not, people generally rise to the occasion. 

Now let’s talk punctuality. You must never underestimate the teenage sloths lurking inside even the most capable adults. Honoring the group’s established timeline is nonnegotiable. I am telling you from long workshop experience that the very nanosecond someone blows a deadline, heads of state and captains of industry will be powerless to stop the switch in members’ brains that tells them now they too can send half-drafts with lots of “[plot twist TK]” the night before the meeting. I am a humorless martinet about deadlines for this reason. 

You should also consider the method by which you share your work. I was once in a group that only read work aloud at the table and commented right in the moment. I respect this idea and its ability to help fresh new work find direction without drowning it in feedback, and yet I also learned it was not quite right for me. Just as with the no-reading writers group, you may have more flexibility than you thought to consider a few offbeat approaches.

The most successful group I’ve ever been in comprised six female novelists (some of us also write poetry and nonfiction but not for this group). We all have different styles, and some of us have written one book, and others a dozen, but we were all interested in fiction that examined relationships, generations and families, and careers. We met on an ad hoc basis, reading one another’s book manuscripts once they were ready, and debated how to handle agents, editors, cryptic feedback, and the heart-attack-inducing stress of submission. At the end of this group, every one of those books had been published. We met for a celebratory dinner and toasted our productive work together. We even let the husbands join us.

I have also been in groups that did not make it past a few meetings. Have you ever tried gathering people from all five New York City boroughs and Westchester on a regular basis? It’s a little like knitting while the wool is still attached to an energetic sheep. We tried, but the endless train rides and subways got the better of us quickly. Nowadays we would meet over Zoom, and we would likely still be meeting.

I know this because one of my writer friends still meets with her writers group, even now that she lives in Dublin and the other two are still in Seattle. She has to get up at 4:30 AM to make it happen, and things get cranky on those days (I get the e-mails), but these are her people: Their feedback styles mesh, they all know one another well, and they have found a schedule that is equally inconvenient to all. This three-person group is more than twelve years old, they all have different editorial strengths but all work in some channel of YA, and they allow everyone to be brutally honest with feedback. 

This brings me back to the question of compatible workshopping styles. It is easy to quash a nascent idea, so be careful whom you give it to—and be careful with others’ ideas as well. Arrive with the hope of offering feedback that will help your fellow writers realize their ideas, whatever they may be. At the same time, don’t be too precious, people. You’re doing this to be better writers, in whatever way you define that. Be honest with yourself, not only in offering feedback to others, but in considering the feedback you receive. 

This is another reason for an exploratory session or two before you decide if the group will work for everyone. Why not stipulate that the first few meetings are just to see if it works, and then you can all decide on committing? Particularly if you don’t know one another well, consider easing in with a few smaller pieces or discussions of published work before you all hand out your full manuscripts. Maybe everyone can bring a favorite essay or story to that first meeting, and each of you can read a page aloud and talk about what you love in its language and storytelling. I start workshops by asking what people do in their non–writing lives, what their involvement with writing has been, and what piece of writing made them want to write themselves—a very different question from “What’s your favorite book?” These early meetings are also a good time to hash out submission and meeting schedules and put them all into your phones then and there. Make it consistent and easy to remember, like the first or last Saturday of the month. 

Even after all of this, you may face the delicate problem of the group that doesn’t gel. A carefully worded, nonconfrontational chat with a difficult member might fix everything, but some groups prefer to disband and then discreetly reform as a smaller one a respectable while later. (Suddenly I am gripped by fear that I have left a trail of re-formed groups in my wake.) Obviously we should be self-aware and graciously withdraw if our erotic space adventures don’t find purchase, but offenders are offenders because they lack self-awareness. If you accidentally invited one of these monsters into your group, a break and re-formation may be the simplest option.

Remember the most productive group I was ever in? Even that lovely group no longer meets. People left town, changed jobs, and shifted focus. It just changed. That’s a key too—a writers group’s marker of success is not solely publication, nor solely longevity. Sometimes a group does exactly what you needed it to—just not forever.

Lack of time and energy might be the biggest obstacles of all. We are adults, with jobs and kids and gardens and the occasional pet iguana we swore we’d never agree to, and the easiest thing in the world is to let all your creative work dissipate while you focus on laundry and spreadsheets, which at least get tangibly done someday. But if you are teetering on the brink of skipping writing to do online jigsaw puzzles, maybe you can keep your sanity and your practice by adjusting your approach. Meet every other month, with writers scheduled to turn in work well in advance and with long-term deadlines to guide them? Shorter page counts? More curated feedback formats, like “One or two things that are working, one or two specific concrete suggestions and reasons why” or “One good, one bad, one prompt, one question”? If you have a lull in new pages, read a book and discuss it from a craft standpoint for a month or two. Don’t cancel the whole meeting because one person can’t make it—it just isn’t reasonable or realistic. 

A dose of flexibility will take you far. I know this thanks not to a writers group, but to my weekly dinner party. This party happens with four families every single Wednesday barring holidays and pandemics, and it met the first time not because we thought we would start an ongoing routine, but because we were all scared and sad and we needed fellowship. (It was a Wednesday early in November 2016, if you must know.) But we found right away that if we split up meal duties, rotate venues, use text threads robustly for planning, have the occasional tricky conversation with care and honesty, and don’t worry if a dish kind of flops or a person misses a week here and there due to Life, we could do this thing…well, indefinitely.

Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel will be published in 2023 by Zibby Books. She is the cofounder of the Madison Writers’ Studio in Madison, Wisconsin.