How to Run A Writing Group
It’s very hard to believe, but Toronto Horror Writers has been running for over five years now (!).
I started the group because when I began writing again, all of my efforts fell squarely into the horror genre and, though this was very hard to believe at the time, there didn’t seem to exist a writing group for that here in Toronto. So I adopted an “if you build it, they will come” attitude. Sometimes, if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself, right? If what you’d like doesn’t exist out there, then maybe you should be the one to create it. That’s why you’re reading this blog post, isn’t it?
And I’m so glad I did decide to start the group. Over the past years I’ve met such a very wide variety of interesting people: writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, other folks just curious to explore the genre and talk horror - it’s been a real journey. This post is based on my experiences both from running THW and also from being a part of the Toronto Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) group.
I hope these learnings of mine and details to consider will be helpful to you if you have a desire to set out and start your own group. So, what do you need to do?
Decide on a purpose.
First things first - why are you starting a writing group in the first place? Do you want to bring together just casual fiction writers? A group specifically for horror geeks, hard sci-fi nerds, romance writers, literary novelists, or epic poets?
For me, it was easy: I knew exactly what the group was going to be about, because as mentioned above, there wasn’t a horror writing group existing in Toronto at the time (at least not one for unpublished / amateur writers - there is the Horror Writers Association (HWA), Ontario Chapter for published authors).
Keep in mind that, generally speaking, the broader your group definition, the higher your membership will be - and that this can be either a good or a bad thing.
A group such as the one I started for a less popular, niche genre such as horror will likely attract less members per meeting than a group open to all genres or a style of writing that many people are trying to break into (I’m looking at you, YA authors!). This is an important point to consider for group logistics.
Establish the format.
A group of writers meeting together is, in many regards, just like a meeting you’d have at a workplace. As such, you should give each meeting structure or an agenda - otherwise you’re just going to end up sitting around idly chatting, or listening to someone promote their new self-published urban fantasy, instead of focusing on becoming better writers together.
There are many different formats which your meetings could take, depending on the goals for your group, the expected membership, and the activities you wish to focus upon. Generally speaking, for THW, the format for goes something like this:
- Wait for a sufficient number of members to arrive (quorum).
- State that you are going to start the meeting.
- If there are any new members, or a sufficient number of people who don’t know each other, do introductions.
- Ask who has brought something to read and take note of the number and who.
- Do rounds of reading by authors and group feedback (~30 min each) for the bulk of the duration of the meeting (~2-3 hours).
- Take time for group announcements or any other miscellany from group members to conclude the meeting.
- Go back to socializing until the meeting naturally adjourns.
It’s worth noting that your group’s format could from the above vary considerably. Obviously if you’re writing at your meetings or have exchanged pieces for group members to be read beforehand, things will different. However, whether you’re reading, writing, or providing feedback, structured rounds of activity do tend to naturally emerge to provide the core of each meeting, and if they don’t, it’s best to establish them.
If you want make things crystal-clear for members and really ensure things run super smoothly, you may even wish to take the time to formally document your group’s values and meeting format, such as David has for the Toronto SFF Group.
Hammer out the logistics.
This seems like something that should be fairly straightforward, but I do recommend actually giving this aspect some thought before you set out to launch your writing group.
Most of the 5 W’s have already been covered above, so this is will mainly be about the “where” and “when”. For sure, you can decide to meet with your group wherever and whenever is most convenient for you personally, but in my experience, there are some pros and cons to consider about both time and location.
I’ve actually found that, depending upon your preferences for your group, finding a regular meeting place is the most difficult part of organizing.
Many places charge money for a meeting room (such as bars or office spaces), others are too noisy or crowded to do things like read aloud and have group discussions. If you can find a bar or restaurant with a private room, they will most likely happily accommodate your group in exchange for bringing business into their establishment - and as an added bonus, writers are often happier when there is food and drink to share together! Alternatively, some public libraries and community co-working spaces have meeting rooms you can reserve, like here locally at the Toronto Public Library or the Center for Social Innovation, though these can be costly. Finally, some coffee shops may also have spaces suitable at which to meet - or even have meeting rooms - for no charge other than buying coffee or food. This may require a fair bit of local research however, much of it of the “boots-on-the-ground” reconnaissance variety.
In terms of times to meet, I’ve found most people (even aspiring writers) lead quite busy lives and are much less likely to want to meet on a weekday evening after work than on the weekend. That being said, for our little group, I’d never encroach on the sanctity of someone’s Saturday night, so we meet in the afternoons until early evening which seems to work well.
Alternatively, if you’d like to meet on a different day but aren’t sure when, it may be worth polling your members through whatever communication channel you’ve landed on to organize the group.
Wait, you haven’t established a platform for organizing your group’s meetings? Hmmm… you definitely should! This is another important point to consider for logistics. How will you let your group members know when and where your meetings are occurring? What if different group members want to communicate with each other, or share annoucements with the whole member base outside of meetings?
There are a few ways to organize in this regard, I’m just going to quickly take a stab at a non-exhaustive pro / con list:
- Word of mouth
- Pros: simple, has underground “grassroots” appeal
- Cons: No communication outside of in-person meetings, difficult to get started (?)
- Pros: everyone has email
- Cons: building an email list, reply-all hell
- Messaging Apps (Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Slack, Discord, etc.)
- Pros: high-frequency interaction, simplicity and ease of use, emoji
- Cons: all members must be on platform or sign-up, getting usernames or phone numbers, group chat hell
- Pros: dedicated events functionality, messaging, commenting, etc.
- Cons: Facebook
- Pros: designed for organizing events, messaging, group boards, event comments
- Cons: member sign-up required, cost to organize
- Pros: dedicated platform, free to organize free events
- Cons: public and impersonal
And again, this is not an exhaustive list. I’ve had exposure to writing groups which have used all of these channels - you should experiment and figure out what works best for you, and also take into consideration the size of your group (e.g. event platforms scale well for large memberships, things like email or messaging do not).
Obviously, I am biased towards Meetup for my group even though there is a cost involved. If you opt to go this route or you have other charges associated with your group such as for the meeting location, you may choose to pass costs along to members or not. Most people are happy to pay a few dollars for the trouble of organizing, and the opportunity to meet with fellow writers, read their work, and give and receive feedback.
Get the word out.
People aren’t going to show up for you writing group if they don’t know it exists, right? For me, the group pretty much markets itself through Meetup which has made life easy. However, if you’re going not going to use it or another platform like Eventbrite or Facebook to run the group as mentioned above, you may need to make an effort to get the word out more.
This might include doing things like advertising on local community bulletin boards “IRL” as the kids say, or their digital equivalents online.
Again here for the former, just as for potential locations, coffee shops and branches of your local public library are best bets as they are public, communal spaces and more often than not have boards for local interests and annoucements. You can also try independent bookstores if they permit advertising - hopefully you’ll find your target market of fellow writers there! Some cities also have dedicated spaces for writers, such as the Toronto Writers Center, which may also permit advertising for related events such as local writing groups.
When it comes to the latter, it’s best to think geographically when putting the word out in a digital space. For example, I’d expected better response to advertising my writing group on reddit in /r/Toronto than I would in any global writing subreddit. For Toronto, this would also include places like the event page on blogto. It’s also worth noting that sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone, as doing things like holding your writing group at a certain venue may also result in it automatically being advertisted online, as is the case with writers groups and books clubs held at the Toronto Public Library
Enjoy the benefits.
Sometimes, running the group will feel like work, because it is. But hey, it’s also your group, so you get to enjoy everything that comes along with it. I’ll be honest - there will be highs and lows of being an organizer - just like there will be in your group membership, turnout, quality and character of meetings, personal lives of group members, and the writing you share together.
But remember it’s also an immensely rewarding experience to discover a like-minded community of individuals around you that you might never have known existed. And there is something truly amazing and inspiring about coming together with a group to achieve the common goal of furthering yourselves in becoming better writers. This is the real reason to create something, to make it happen, to bring people together, in the first place.
Don’t give up.
Finally, keep at it. Just like with your writing. Who knows what the future will bring?