Designing the Perfect Writer's Group

Designing the Perfect Writer's Group

Christina, my podcasting partner, has had the same writers group for seven years, and Quinn, my fiancé, has had his for over eight. I, also a writer, have been endlessly jealous of this regular creative camaraderie, so when the opportunity arose to join not one but two separate writers groups, I jumped at the chance. For one, I was joining a preexisting group in need of new blood, but for the other, we’re all largely strangers in need of building a structure from the ground up.

As such, both from my pent up decade of jealousy and my own recent increase in writer’s group activity, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about all the variables in creating your ideal creative collective.

Below are the seven choices you need to make to DIY your Pinterest-perfect writers group.

Choice #1- Number of People

The obvious place to start is the group itself. I’ve been in (and observed) groups of all sizes, and they each have their benefits and drawbacks.

2-3 people (other than yourself): this is a solid, intimate writer’s group. In a group such as this, you’ll get a lot of attention and get feedback far more regularly, because you can reasonably get to everyone’s WIP (work in progress) in a single session, or two if you’re more in-depth in your feedback (more on that in Choice #4). That benefit is also a drawback, though; if you aren’t writing much, it’s harder to take a step back or a day off without affecting the rest of the group.

4-6 people: With a group this size you might end up with several months between getting your own work read, which can be both a blessing and a curse. You’ll get more diverse feedback perspectives, because once you have more than five people in a collective, there’s always a wild card (I consider this a huge benefit—the more eyeballs on a piece, the more data you have on how it’s being received!), but you also start to run into more regular scheduling frustrations if you don’t all have a preexisting reason to get together (school or work).

7+ people: Personally, I’d avoid a group any bigger than seven total people (yourself included), because generally speaking, the reason you’re in a writer’s group is to get regular accountability and feedback for your own work and to be inspired by those around you, and the former is tough when so many voices need to be read. Especially for screenwriting, a single draft can be 120+ pages, so focusing on more than 2-3 people’s work at a time is next to impossible. You also end up with the worst of the scheduling woes. That being said, a group so large that isn’t fussed if not everyone can make it to every session might course-correct for itself—if someone’s not available one month, no biggie, the whole group doesn’t have to cancel for their sake.

Choice #2- Frequency of Submissions

How often will each person be expected to send in work, whether it’s a brand new draft or a revised version of their previous piece? How much are they expected to submit, and how much are the rest of the group expected to read? And, most importantly, when is a new piece due to ensure notes?

I’ve seen some writer’s groups who do a live table read, which means new scripts aren’t due until the night of the session, as everyone’s reacting to the work as they read it together. This also means only one, maybe two people, can get their scripts read per session.

On the flip side, if you’re expecting people to come to the session with notes already written, how far in advance should that script be sent out? One of my writer’s groups, a group of six where two people get read per monthly session, requires scripts be sent two weeks ahead of meeting. Another group I’m in, also six people, only workshops one script per session, so the submission deadline is a little looser given people only have one per month or so to look over.

Another wrinkle is how you’re doling out feedback slots- first come, first serve? Anything goes? A regimented rotating schedule so everyone is guaranteed to get something workshopped regularly? This may change slightly depending on circumstance and the decisions you make on the next few choices, but it’s something to agree upon early, lest someone feels they’re being bulldozed by a group member who writes faster than them and always claims a slot.

Choice #3- Frequency of Sessions

How often do you expect to meet up? For a group size of four and under, twice a month seems fair to keep everyone accountable and working. Especially if you get creative with Choice 5, this ensures your solidarity is strong without overwhelming anyone.

For larger groups of people with disparate lives (school, work, kids), monthly probably makes more sense, and even that can be tough simply with scheduling. Any less frequent, though, and you’re likely to fall apart. The point of a writer’s group is to have regular contact and accountability with other writers, bolstered by getting second opinions on your latest drafts. The less regular it is, the less valuable the whole exercise becomes.

Choice #4- Feedback Stylings

Everyone processes and provides feedback differently, and it’s important to be on the same page (pun intended) before committing to a regular writer’s group. So get together and get honest: what kinds of notes are expected?

Complete Coverage: Readers go through the entire submission and provide notes on everything they feel the need to comment on. Characterization, plot, grammar, structure—everything is fair game.

Highlights: Readers only give high-level feedback about plot, characterization, and structure. This is likely to be less in-depth than complete coverage both in scope and content of feedback, and is better for early drafts where things are still possibly in flux.

Simon Says: Readers give feedback based on the request of the writer, who, along with their submission, clarifies what they’re looking for notes on. This is useful for rewrite submissions when you’re doing passes on individual elements of your work that need extra attention rather than doing a full rewrite. For example, if you recently got a lot of notes on a particular character, perhaps you focused this rewrite just on that character and thus it’s the only thing that’s changed and is the only thing in need of eyes at this stage.

Chronological Adventure: If your group is focusing on developing new work, it may make sense to take it step by step. This month, your Act 1 is due, next month is Act 2, etc. etc. That way you’re getting feedback as you develop (you may also end up starting with your outline or beat sheet for this style of feedback).

If you’ve got a bigger writer’s group that only meets monthly, go ahead and skip to Choice #6.

Choice #5- Content of sessions

For more intimate, regular writer’s groups, it can often be helpful to alternate feedback sessions for completed or in-progress drafts with sessions more focused on exploration, solidarity, and collaboration. Some options I’ve seen writers groups employ in the past:

Prompts: Whether you’re picking from a book of writer’s prompts or coming up with them together, have everyone bring either a new short script or pitch around a particular prompt. Need a place to start? My filmmaking podcast has a new free newsletter of monthly creative inspiration! This keeps the juices flowing and keeps you in the habit of writing, even if the resulting idea or script doesn’t go anywhere.

Timed pitches: Christina’s writers group sometimes starts sessions with something they used to do in the TV writing class where they originally met: a 10-minute pitch sprint at the start of the meeting based off some kind of prompt. The difference between this and the first suggestion is that you don’t know the prompt before coming to the session. Bring an interesting news story and swap with another writer, put a setting, a genre, and a profession in a hat and pick at random, but then you only have 10 minutes to develop some kind of script pitch to deliver to the rest of the group.

Sprints: If no one has anything major to discuss, instead set this time aside to just get together, have a coffee or tea, and write, or use it as a time to prep for a fellowship or contest submission. Everyone quietly works on their own project but has the ability to ask questions, take a quick break, and feel the energy of the other folks involved. You can do this virtually or IRL!

Brainstorm: If you have an idea but no entry point to start the story or even the outline, take advantage of this smart group of fellow writers and talk it out. Not all of writing is actually writing, and you’ll be amazed how much more clarified your idea becomes once you’re asked enough questions about it, or hear how someone else would tackle it from their own perspective.

Choice #6- Accountability

Don’t be the writers group where no one writes. How are you supporting and ensuring accountability without pressuring anyone?

A helpful place to start might be the aligning goal of the group: are you coming together to create lots of new work, to hone a particular piece of work, to get better scores at screenplay competitions, or to prepare your individual scripts for production? All of these reasons for joining have different accountability needs, and if too many people have too many disparate goals, it might not be the right collection of people.

On the subject of accountability, how might you check in with people in between sessions? One group I’m in proposed rotating accountability buddies, where at the end of each session you pair off with another member of the group (or two, if it’s an uneven number) to specifically keep track of each other instead of reply-all-ing to the whole group when you have a question or need a kick in the pants.

Other groups set up Slack workspaces with channels organized to support the different needs of the collective, creating a channel for brainstorming help, for scheduling, for accountability requests, and for general conversations.

How will we ever stay organized?

In school, writer’s groups have a faculty advisor and external deadlines to keep everyone on track. In the adult world, however, your structure is what you make of it, and someone has to be in charge of pushing things forward and ensuring the group survives.

Who’s in charge of coordinating and documenting Choices #1-6? Do you trade off? Decide as a group at the end of each session? Will someone be in charge of taking notes during sessions to have fun things to report at the end of the year?

As someone who’s often the self-appointed leader of such groups, I can tell you it’s exhausting, so I recommend a round robin of some kind. There shouldn’t have to be a choice between putting it all on one person’s shoulders or total collapse—find a middle ground that works for your members and stick to it.

We’re all in this together, after all!

*Feature photo by Medhat Ayad (Pexels)

Bri Castellini is a screenwriter, director, adjunct professor, and, like any good millennial, a podcaster. She’s known for the short film Ace and Anxious and the podcast Breaking Out of Breaking In.
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