Here elements to consider and discuss with your group. Once you’ve agreed on a workable structure, write it down in a group charter (or in your group’s profile for Inked Voices).
Many of these structural elements focus on critique groups. If you’re looking to start another type of writing group, pick and choose the ones that apply to you.
A genre focus can be helpful if there are particulars to a type of writing. For example, poetry is very different than a mystery novel. On the other hand, a mix of genres lets members learn about writing they haven’t tried before and may encourage experimentation. A light genre focus can often be a good option because it allows some focus, but still the opportunity for variety. Some example light focuses include science fiction & fantasy, children’s, or short fiction.
Is the group for new writers, experienced writers, or a mix? And how will you determine what constitutes “experienced”? Some examples include relevant education or training, work experience and publishing credits. Pursuit of craft can be a strong indicator.
In some groups, this is up to the discretion of the group leader. In others, it is discussed with all members and put to a vote. Some groups have a trial period in which the new person can first observe and then submit work for critique / give critique. Finally, in some groups, people just show up.
Group leaders help lead the initial group discussions on the group’s purpose, structure and format. The group leader is typically more of a facilitator once the group gets going, helping the group make adjustments to stay on course. Sometimes, the group leader has to fish out any members who have fallen overboard. And sometimes, the initial group structure isn’t working for the group and needs to be revisited.
Roles emerge in a group over time, whether formal or informal.
Roles can be assigned or volunteered for. Perhaps your group wants to have one person let people know about upcoming conferences or events. Your group could get ambitious and host its own rotating blog. The group could even host events in your area (or online).
Some roles emerge over time. For example, a writer becomes a specialist at a particular type of critique or on a particular type of writing. Or someone informally becomes “the silly one” or “the cheerleader”.
Being part of a writing group is work—fun work, but it requires a commitment. It’s helpful when group members want the same intensity or pace. There are several factors that go into this:
It’s usually helpful to think about your long-term pace. Maybe you are going into this with a novel ready to workshop or several picture book drafts. Where will you be in a few months with your writing? Remember to pick a pace that allows you to write and participate. It’s a marathon, not a sprint (hat tip to Rob Adams for that insight).
Also think about the time you are willing and able to commit. In a group with writers of long fiction, it may take an hour to read and critique a piece. Short fiction, poems or many children’s pieces will be shorter.
More people, more frequent submissions, longer submissions, and full critique participation will drive larger time commitments. So, if you want full critique participation, you may want to consider a smaller group.
More members means more people to get to know and have discussions with. There are also more eyes for feedback. At the same time, more people will submit, so, if your group uses a schedule, your turn comes less frequently—though this can be solved by giving a monthly submissions day instead of a rotation. You’ll also have a heavier load of critiques to give.
In person groups
For in-person groups, there are the questions of day, time, length of meeting and frequency. Once or twice a month are pretty common. Meetings could range from one to three hours, depending on the needs of the group.
In some groups, all attendees bring material to the meeting. These meetings tend to be longer unless the groups are very small. In other groups, there is a rotation of submissions so that 2-3 people bring material per meeting.
Even though online groups work asynchronously (people are not working at the same time) and remotely, virtual groups still need a way to make a regular commitment. That often comes in the form of a schedule, whether a shared deadline or a rotation pattern for submissions.
Here are some example “schedules”:
In person groups
At an in-person meeting, typically each attendee will critique all of the submitted manuscripts. Sometimes, groups will break into pairs for one-on-one feedback and then rotate pairings. The key is to keep attendance up so everyone gets feedback, particularly in those groups where a few people submit for each meeting.
With online groups, shared expectations on participation are critical. Otherwise, feathers will quickly become ruffled. I would recommend either agreeing to critique it all or to use a credits system.
Critique it all
All members critique all work unless an illness or event prevents it. If a writer can’t give a critique, he or she should let the group know through a message or the discussion board. Because online groups are asynchronous, it is usually possible to critique all submissions if the group size and submission schedule are manageable. But there are exceptions. People move, have babies, get sick, take vacation or do something admirably crazy, like participate in NaNoWriMo. Communication usually smooths it over.
When members will critique less than all/almost all submissions, it can be helpful to use the credits system. Why? A credits system allows you to set a minimum bar of participation in a group. Here is how it works. Let’s say there is a group of 9 people and members want to critique about half of the submissions. This means that when John submits, we want at least 4 of the 8 people to critique. If every critique earns 1 credit, then we would set the critique ratio at 4. With 4 credits needed to submit, each individual has to critique 4 pieces—or half of submissions before submitting. This assumes that people have about the same submissions pace, so err towards fewer credits if you have a question, but it gets pretty close to creating that ratio.
Will the group submit chapter by chapter, or 2-3 chapters at a time? Will the group submit by work up to a certain word limit? Whole manuscripts? A set number of poems? Will there be a word count limit? It doesn’t matter as long as you create a shared expectation.
Are you looking for a group for your current project or an ongoing group?
For in person meetings, think about the location of members’ homes and workplaces, or a place in your town and city that is generally easy to get to. The space should accommodate a group of your size and, ahem, decibel level. Some groups also rotate meetings among their own homes.
Online groups should pick a format that works well for their size and scope. Email, Google Documents, Facebook and Inked Voices are each options.
For more on group formats, head to the next chapter.