Running a Writers’ Group

Trumpet Issue 1

How, typically, does a writers’ group begin? In my case I approached two like-minded friends and suggested we form one. From the outset they were keen to be involved. Our aim was to provide a forum providing constructive critique for writers. From an initial core, which included one experienced writer, the group grew organically and here we are thriving over two decades later. I’d like to pass on what we’ve learned on our journey to anyone thinking of undertaking this same adventure. For the benefit of those unsure as to what a writers’ group / workshop (actual, not online) entails, here it is in a nutshell:
Original work is presented, listened to, appreciated and critiqued. The author may then accept some, all or none of the suggestions offered.

It would be difficult for a writers’ group to exist without first considering the following practical matters.

Venue: a local Library; a room above a pub; an Arts Centre; Community Centre; Church Hall; Sports Club; or members’ houses on a rotation-basis. Having acquired a venue, hold onto it if possible for continuity and stability.

Insurance: many venues have a public liability policy, but some groups take out their own which can be transferred to outside locations if the group is reading or holding workshops elsewhere.

Schedule of Meetings: for a workshop to be taken seriously it needs a schedule including dates, times and venues for the year ahead.

Social Media: having access to social media publicises the group and its activities. Also, it gives writers an opportunity to showcase occasional work in order to attract new members.

Guidelines: the group should agree a set of guidelines relating to procedure, behaviour, how work is critiqued and how authors should (ideally) respond.

Facilitator: most people prefer a structure with a facilitator instead of a talking shop everything other than the work is discussed. Some groups rotate the position, others prefer a panel of just two or three to fill this role.

Time Management: essential if as many voices as possible are to be heard. Invariably, different types of writing are brought to each meeting – short poems, long poems, flash fiction, short stories, long stories, extracts from novels, plays, essays and articles. If everybody is to get an opportunity to read, time must be managed fairly. Some workshops use a clock; others use an experienced Chair, who’ll allot time based on his/her judgment of how each piece is being received. Our group found it necessary to schedule a separate workshop each month for prose writers.

book: to record attendees and contact details.

News/Events/Networking: time can be set aside at each meeting to keep members informed about competitions, readings and festivals.

Funding: members can be asked for a contribution towards room rental or insurance. For larger projects fundraising and grant applications may need to be made. 

What writers’ groups should avoid: there are various ways a writing group will not succeed – confusion over venues/dates; meeting irregularly; a weak facilitator; unfair allotment of time; a clique within the group; letting stronger personalities dominate; poor feedback; low attendance leading to dwindling numbers; and not welcoming new members.

Once practical matters have been attended to, it’s time to appreciate the excitement of the group environment. The most enjoyable aspects of a workshop are the anticipation of original work, the interaction between writers, and the amazing variety of subjects and styles which surface. As a warm-up exercise, some groups / workshops provide a theme to write on at meetings. This can test a person’s ability to write within a short time-frame, sharpening the ability to come to terms with a topic at the mercy of the clock, while other groups may prefer to prepare exercises (if used at all) in advance.

In our workshop a poem is read twice if it is short to medium-length. Aspects such as imagery, rhyme (end and internal), rhythm, alliteration, line breaks, poetic cohesion, possible deletions, possible rearrangements of lines/verses, metre, beats, diction, subject and overarching theme are discussed.

With stories – plot, sub-plots, narration, dialogue, point of view, characters, imagery, description, location – will all come into play. Many new to story writing will over-write and editing will be required. After feedback the writer can react to what has been said, perhaps concentrating on points not clear in the poem or story. If there is a protracted debate on say one line or one word, time can be eaten up unnecessarily and the balance of a schedule tilted. As with poems, if members bring hard copies of their work the process becomes easier.

Criticism, as Alexander Pope observed, is an invidious task (‘Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss’). The ability to digest and assess creative work can be developed through time, but no judgment of merit (or lack of merit) can be absolute. Criticism should be positive and constructive, using judgement, learning, candour. The ethos of our workshop has been to welcome, respect and nurture new talent.

One of the biggest jumps we made was from workshop to publication. We were indebted to members who had expertise in this field. The launch of our first book brought the work to a broader audience. It inspired confidence particularly in those who had never been published before and encouraged them to continue writing.

People join workshops for all sorts of reasons – to meet other writers, to learn how to critique, to gain confidence with reading in public, to hear other people’s work, to make friends. A writing group succeeds if a dynamic is generated whereby each writer grows and develops within the group framework. By this definition Rathmines Writers’ Workshop is most definitely a success, in existence now for over 23 years and with 24 published books to its name.

James Conway is the founder of the Rathmines Writers’ Workshop. He is widely published in journals and magazines, and has broadcast his work on RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and elsewhere. His poetry collection Vertebrae of Journey was published in 2010.

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