How To Lead a Great Writing Group

Leading a writing group is enjoyable. A few simple guidelines keep the duties fun and help the writing group flourish. They boil down to clear communication: actively listening + sharing clear decisions.

Leadership Responsibilities

Creating a confidential, clearly defined, and inclusive space is your goal. Prevent lack of trust, defensiveness, and feeling excluded.

    • Communicate that writing groups are confidential. Writing is personal.
    • Communicate that membership is a privilege. Members commit to being respectful to one another.
    • Communicate that feedback is constructive. Give members guidelines.
    • In meetings, ensure everyone has equal chance to speak. And not just at the end.
    • Take time regularly to listen to each member individually outside of the group.
    • Identify the 2 or 3 unifying characteristics that define the group. Communicate these to the members. This is the barometer for gauging new member candidates, or existing member suitability.
    • To lead effectively, go last. If there is a problem to solve, listen to others’ ideas first. If there is a project to embark on, listen to others’ ideas first.
    • To lead effectively, do not judge others’ ideas. Enable their ideas to succeed.

When good work, good teamwork, and good communication happen, it is your job to listen; observe; and clearly communicate thanks, recognition, and appreciation.

If gossip, disrespect, or other untrustworthy behavior occurs that violates the unifying characteristics, it is your responsibility as the leader to observe; listen to feedback; decide on a course of action; and clearly communicate the course of action.

It is not your job to make sure all of your ideas come first.

Logistics Responsibilities

Clear communication before, during, and after meetings is your goal. Prevent confusion and wasted time.

    • Set a predictable schedule. Gather feedback on good times, and then make a decision.
    • Communicate this schedule three times before each meeting.
    • Set time limits, both for the meeting as a whole and for discussion within the meeting to ensure the time is shared fairly.
    • Communicate these time limits; stick to them. Bring a timer. Start on time, end on time. Punctuality shows respect and garners respect.
    • Set (a) meeting space(s). Gather feedback on good locations, then make a decision.
    • Communicate this location three times before each meeting.
    • Set clear content guidelines.
      • Some groups meet to write together; others meet to critique work; others meet to do readings; others meet to discuss the business aspects of writing; others do a combination of the above, or something else entirely.
    • Set clear guidelines: time limits, word count limits, how far in advance work to critique needs to be submitted, etc. -whatever is appropriate so that the time spent is equitable.
    • Gather feedback on what members want out of the group, and then make a decision. Communicate content guidelines clearly. Repeat.
    • Set clear feedback guidelines. Constructive criticism and active listening are encouraged.
    • Follow up after meetings with a communiqué that summarizes any decisions or next steps from the meeting, and the next meeting time and place.

When meetings go smoothly, with members showing up at the right spot on time, sticking to content and feedback guidelines and time limits, it is your job to clearly communicate thanks, recognition, and appreciation.

If a meeting does not go smoothly, it is your responsibility to improve your communication. Most people need to hear something three times before they remember it. You may feel like you are repeating yourself – that is OK.

Trouble-shooting Responsibilities

 Addressing problems on a timely basis is your goal. Prevent festering member aggravation.

    • Actively listen to a member concern. Acknowledge their concern without taking sides.
    • Sleep on it. Do not jump to conclusions or go straight to fix-it mode.
    • Gather feedback from other members, if appropriate.
    • Decide on a course of action before the next meeting.
    • Discuss your decision with the concerned member. Actively listen.
    • Discuss your decision at the next meeting. Decisions do not communicate well on email.

Your job is to make everyone feel respected, make fair decisions, and communicate them clearly. This is different from always trying to make everyone happy (which usually fails).

Case Studies (The BACCA Story)

1.     Selecting members & starting the group

In January-March 2011, I was one of 10 students in a fiction writing class. This was a workshop class where most sessions were dedicated to critiquing the work of fellow students.

On June 1st, I sent this email to 3 hand-picked fellow students:

“Subject: Critique Swap?

Hi-de-ho peeps,

Might any of you be interested in a critique swap? Maybe get together one Saturday morning towards the end of the month? Just a thought.

I wrote a short story last weekend (approx. 1900 words) that I would appreciate some honest feedback on. I’m happy to reciprocate.”

This was sent to those students who I had clearly observed sharing these characteristics:

      • Balanced, insightful constructive criticism
      • Dedication to writing
      • Enjoyable to spend time with

We did not share genre, age, day job, regional culture – but I felt these differences would make the discussion richer since we do share a common commitment to our writing. I did not share these sentiments in the email but I did share in person when we met later that month at a local café.

2. Inviting new candidate members / Excluding candidates

As part of the initial email chain setting up our first meeting, one member replied:

“Re: Critique Swap?

Great idea! How about June 18 or 25? This will be a good excuse for me to work on some drafts, too.

Does anyone mind if I invite ‘Esmeralda’?” [Note: names are all changed]

I had considered including Esmeralda on the initial email, but I didn’t feel like I had gotten to know her as well during the class. However, all of the invitees were receptive to inviting her. Furthermore, she had never displayed anything contrary to the characteristics (insightful constructive criticism, dedication to good writing, enjoyable to spend time in class with) that had prompted me to invite the other three. So, we invited Esmeralda. As it turned out, she was going to be doing some extensive traveling and was unable to come – but I felt good about the communication and the decision.

***

In August (two months later), one of the members sent this email:

“Subject: Expanding the Group

Hello Ladies,

I’m looking forward to Saturday.  Noon?  Right?

I received a Facebook message from ‘Ficus’ (from our fiction class). He was just asking about whether I had formed a writing group…   I told him I would have to talk to you before formally inviting him in.   He would change the dynamics quite a bit.   Think about this and we can talk about it on Saturday.”

I immediately was disinclined to allow Ficus to join our group because I did not remember him either giving balanced feedback or being particularly enjoyable company. But keeping in mind my role as leader is to listen first and comment last, I did not say this in the email but waited to hear everyone else out at our meeting that Saturday. We did discuss – and two members of the group had been subject to inappropriate advances from this man during the class. He was politely declined. I was pleased about the group discussion prior to making the decision and the result. I heartily thanked the member who received this email for bringing the matter to the group for discussion first

3. Member ideas:  Naming the group

At the August meeting, one of the members suggested coming up with a name for our group. I have a very low cutesie tolerance threshold, so my internal reaction was “NO!” Keeping in mind, however, that my leadership role is to enable member idea success, my external reaction was “Great!” In fact, I should have had more faith in the members because they immediately came up with a wonderful name that really fits our group.

“Subject: Name for our group…

Not wedded to this name….   Just an idea:

Bacca

Meaning of the word bacca:  An indehiscent fruit derived from a single ovary having one or many seeds within a fleshy wall or pericarp: e.g. grape; tomato; cranberry

Classified under: Nouns denoting plants

Synonyms: bacca; simple fruit

Hypernyms: (“bacca” is a kind of…): berry (a small fruit having any of various structures, e.g., simple (grape or blueberry) or aggregate (blackberry or raspberry)

Our icon could be one of these fruits.  Grapes or berries.  Easy, somewhat feminine, food oriented.

Again, I’m not wedded to this idea.    Just getting the ball rolling…”

This was quickly embraced and we have been BACCA ever since. Having a name and the start of a brand has been extremely positive for our group.

4. Dealing with a concern: Lack of time to effectively critique

In September of our first year, we had a situation arise where one person did not have time to do critiques. This caused some concern among the members as to how we were going to keep the critiques fair. I solicited feedback from all of the members, and determined that what would be fair would be the member who did not have time to perform critiques would not submit a WIP for critique. This was communicated to the group and accepted as part of the BACCA rules & regulations… the issue has not come up since.  But I am glad we had the discussion and feel the most important outcomes were: everyone had the chance to be heard; a decision was made with the goal of being fair; the decision was communicated clearly

5. Defining the group: Writing-related activities above and beyond the “norm” – and what is the norm, exactly?

Later in September, several opportunities came up. One member was doing a public poetry read after winning a competition; another was going to be publishing a work as an e-book. Support for these endeavors was requested from the group, and worded as a favor. Some important questions were raised:

“Subject: 3 Flavors?

This is late in the day, but I’ve been reflecting about ‘Sapphira’ not sending out a work in progress for next Sunday’s meeting – Does her e-book fall into a separate category? She is not asking for constructive feedback – as it’s already published.

Maybe this is the first in a new category of things we do as a group – provide support for one another’s external activities.  Or the second, if you count Sapphira going to ‘Ruby’s reading the other night as another such support effort.

        1. So our group mostly does constructive feedback for works in progress
        2. We also confer from time to time on business aspects of writing and publishing and marketing and promotion, networking, etc.
        3. And maybe we also provide support, voluntarily, from time to time, on extra-group efforts like attending Ruby’s reading and writing comments about Sapphira’s e-book on the vendor site(s).

Now I may be pressuring [our leader] inadvertently here to come up w/ something for the group 😉 But I’ve been thinking it’s a different flavor of activity from the critique stuff we usually do.

Your thoughts?”

So, in a nutshell, what is the nature of BACCA? What is the “norm”? What is above-and-beyond?

Here is part of my response:

“Re: 3 Flavors?

I think that’s a good way of looking at it… different flavors, but it’s all ice cream. The ice cream being providing honest support to become a better writer.

Some additional thoughts:

Behind the scenes support: The core mission of Bacca.

The core part of becoming a better writer is [Captain Obvious enter stage left] the writing. Hence, it seems like WIP critiques is the core of how we can help each other.

Also, the industry of being a writer is undergoing some big shifts, presenting new challenges and opportunities. There is room here for some experimentation and creative thinking. If we can share our resources and experiences, we can help each other avoid recreating the wheel.

Public support: For when we have the time / energy / inclination to go above and beyond.

One thing that I expect will never change about the business of being a writer is that perseverance is a requisite. Perseverance is also really hard. So occasionally acting as cheer squad is nice. We can help each other stick with it.

But part of why [asking for public support is] a favor is that it’s venturing out into the realms of nebulous, time-consuming, and hard-to-keep-equitable. Nevermind that you just might think the [work] sucks. Providing public support is not behind the scenes, either, like critiquing a WIP is. So I think asking for public support is a fair thing to ask, but it’s also a very fair to say no to. It’s above-and-beyond. It’s optional.”

The discussion continued, and these ideas became part of the BACCA protocol. My role was to listen, define, communicate. For BACCA, monthly WIP critiques words are the “norm”; asking for more is considered a favor.

6. Dealing with a concern: Clarifying guidelines

In October of our first year, one member sent me an email regarding their WIP for the upcoming month:

Re: Feedback

I’m thinking of sending you guys [several times the typical WIP length] next session.  You are fast readers so I think that will be OK.

I REALLY appreciate your feedback!!!   Keep it coming!  🙂

This email concerned me. I realized I had left the group members vulnerable to accelerating demands on their time because we had never set formal guidelines on word count. After evaluating what we had read and critiqued up until this point, I suggested to the group that we stick to submitting the equivalent of one short story or one typical adult novel chapter (1000-3000 words) per month. I also suggested:

Re: Feedback

…It may be that no one has time to go above and beyond, or it may be that everyone has time to go above and beyond. But each person will know best about their own time and inclination…

But please feel it’s OK to ask people to go above and beyond – I have! – but also know that it’s perfectly ok if people say no.

Since then it has arisen several times where members have asked for extra help: Re-review a first page, edit an agent query letter, critique an extra chapter – but it has always been couched that doing so is a favor, going above-and-beyond, and it is not an insult or an offense if others can’t make the time, nor taken for granted if they do.

7.     Adding BACCA “Biz” Meetings

That October, we also had our first semi-annual “Biz” meeting. To be honest, I do not remember how this idea got started, but it was clearly a good one. We had a special extended meeting at one of our member’s homes to discuss the business side of writing: sharing query letter war stories, comparing notes on social media, discussing editors, etc. etc. The key leader takeaway is to remain open-minded to the many ways a writing group can help the members to achieve their goals.

8.     Experimenting with Communication

After starting out with email, the group has slowly evolved to also include texts, a dedicated private BACCA Facebook group, and Dropbox. These were all suggestions made by various members that I encouraged us to try, and they have been wonderful.

In June 2012, we tried doing electronic critiques, where we used our Facebook group to submit drafts and dialogue on the WIPs. Although not a waste of time, it was universally agreed that for our group it was inferior to getting together in person. I am glad that we tested the idea of a Plan B in case we came to a month where we couldn’t find time to meet.  Getting definitive results on this experiment – even in the negative – was positive, because it is that much more important to each of us to find time to meet together each month. There really is no such thing as a “failed” experiment. As a leader, pursuing perfection actually hinders effectiveness.

BACCA group portrait

Carolyn O’Neal, Claire Cameron, Bethany Carlson, AM Carley

9.     Celebrating Our Successes

It was very important to me to acknowledge the very positive impact BACCA has had on my writing and my life. On our one-year anniversary, we had a truly wonderful BACCA BBQ hosted at a member’s home. As a leader, I felt it was appropriate to do a brief toast to the group. I was intentional to thank each member individually for their work and share how I much I enjoy each of them.

10.  Member Ideas – Doing a BACCA session at Virginia Festival of the Book

At our Spring 2012 Biz meeting, following the Virginia Festival of the Book, one member suggested that BACCA should do a session. Much like Case Study #3 (Naming the Group), my internal reaction was “NO! Scary!” But it had already been proven repeatedly that BACCA members are inherently capable of amazing things, so it was much easier for my external reaction to be “Great! Let’s come up with some proposals.” And here we are.

Bethany Carlson

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