The first time I joined a writing group, I didn’t know any of the members, and since they didn’t know me, I decided to write in a genre I don’t normally work in. Not that I was “working” in any genre at the time. I had long since quit my job as a newspaper reporter, and not one of my query letters for nonfiction magazine articles had produced any assignments. What would it hurt to try my hand at fiction? I carefully crafted stories every two weeks before the group met, making enough copies for each person to read.

I joined a second writing group about the same time and continued with my fiction for this group, too, though one evening I read a short nonfiction essay about an eye-opening experience I had with a homeless woman in downtown Chicago. As with the other group, I handed out copies to each group member, and during the comment section, one man told me to be careful because I was clearly naive. I felt insulted, and tucked the essay away. I didn’t change it, but I also never submitted the work for publication.

I moved away shortly after I joined those groups and didn’t find my way into another writing group until about ten years later. By that time, I was working as a writer, and the input and feedback I was looking for was much different than my “naive” younger self.

Why You Should Be in a Writing Group

The writing life can be a lonely life if we don’t find some way to connect with others pursuing the same passion. Perhaps you’ve heard friends talk about their wonderful experiences being part of a writers group. Or maybe, like me, you were in a writing group once but circumstances changed and you stopped going. On the other hand, you might have heard horror stories of writers groups gone bad and are fearful of making the leap. It’s possible you are even in a writing group already, and it just isn’t working out.

Writing groups aren’t for everyone, but writing groups aren’t all alike either. They come in different sizes, they have a variety of purposes, they meet according to various schedules. The first step toward having a good experience in a writing group is to determine why youwant to be in one. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I crave professional connection?
  2. Do I need encouragement?
  3. Do I want to encourage other writers?
  4. Am I looking for ways to grow as a writer?
  5. Would I like feedback on my work?

Writing groups can provide these benefits and more. Once you recognize what you are looking for in a writing group, the next step is finding one that can meet your expectations.

Joining an Existing Writing Group

The writing group I currently belong to meets at a cafe one evening a month. The women in my group (mine happens to be all women, but of course other groups have men and women or just men, too) have all become friends, and we share many things in common in addition to our love of writing. There’s only one problem. The group meets about an hour from my home. Right now, I’m committed to making the two-hour roundtrip drive each month. But sometimes, I wonder if a writing group closer to home would be better. However, I don’t know if there is an organized writing group I could join in my city. Maybe your circumstances are similar.

If you are considering being part of a writing group, step one is to determine if one already exists in your city or area. How do you find existing writing groups? There are several places to start. First, contact your local library. That’s how I found my first writing group. You also can look on the community information boards at local coffee shops and bookstores. (You know how much writers like to drink coffee and read!) If you don’t find a group using those resources, take your efforts online. Do a Google search for “writing groups in YOUR CITY” or check Meetup,  whose tagline is “Find Your People.” A few writing groups in cities near mine post their meetings there.

If you do find a group, the next step is to determine whether this group is even an option for you. Practically speaking, does the group meet at a time and place you can attend? Also, does the group allow new members?

If yes, then beyond just the when and where, here are a few other things to ask when you are considering joining a writing group:

  1. Who comprises the group—writers of a specific genre, geography, age, etc.?
  2. Why does the group exist? What is its purpose?
  3. How are the meetings conducted? How are new members introduced to the group?
  4. What does the group do during meetings—critique each other’s work, write to prompts, listen to speakers, read a book and respond? Does the group do other activities in addition to their regular meetings (attend conferences, host workshops, create collaborative books or magazines)?
  5. Are there dues or other requirements for joining?

Once you find a group that fits your schedule and your goals, contact them to schedule a visit. Attend the group once or twice (if allowed) before you commit to joining. This will give you and the group a trial run together.

But what if you’ve searched and searched and can’t find a writing group to join?

Consider Starting a New Writing Group

Maybe it’s time for you to start a new writing group in your area. Where do you start? Use the same process you did above for finding a group, only this time, you are free to answer the questions however you like. Or, find one or two other writers in your area (go back to the library, coffee shops, and bookstores, or start your own Meetup group if you don’t already know other writers) and together work through the questions above.

Planning from the start how to adapt your group to growth and change will help ensure a long life for your new group. Depending on your goals, you may want to organize the group more officially by establishing membership documents, setting up your group legally as a non-profit organization, or electing leaders.

Now What?

Whether you’ve joined an existing group or established a new one of your own, your writing group is counting on you for its success—well, you and all the other members. But still, here are a few things that you can do to make the most out of your writing group experience.

Step Up. Whether you are the founding member or are joining an established group, offer your suggestions for making the group a meaningful experience for all. Suggest activities for group meetings, offer ideas for group outings, invite potential new members if your group is open. Does your group need a Facebook or Meetup page to help everyone stay in touch? Could you be the one to create it? If things aren’t going well, maybe you need to be the one to suggest changes, wade through misunderstandings, or offer a new plan for structuring your meetings. Sure, you could wait around for someone else to recognize and solve the problem, or you could be the one to offer a solution.

Step Out. Trust is built over time as members of the group get to know each other. Be the person who sets the tone for honesty and authenticity. Share successes and failures with the group. Be willing to speak up when you have a different opinion than others—kindly, of course. And if appropriate, let others in the group know when you are struggling personally, especially if it affects your attendance or your writing.

Step Aside. Although you may be an instrument for change or direction, a writing group can’t be about one person. That is called a fan club. Lead the way, then let others take ownership. Encourage everyone in the group to participate in conversations as well as group projects or outings. When appropriate, delegate.

Step Away. Groups take time to operate successfully. Yours won’t meet every one of your expectations at the first meeting. But f the members of your writing group aren’t gelling or if your expectations are never met—despite your own best effort over time—or if other members seem to lack commitment, there may come a time to leave the group. Don’t leave at the first sign of trouble. Every group will have its ups and downs. But if you’ve given it time and effort, don’t feel you have to stay in a group that’s going nowhere. Maybe it’s just time for something new.

Writing groups aren’t for everyone, but the finding the right group for you will go a long way in helping you live a satisfying and productive writing life.

Have you ever been part of a writing group? What tips can you share?

Essay originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on June 5, 2015. Photo by Alexander Park,  Creative Commons license via Flickr.