Friday, February 18, 2011

How to organize an on-line writers' group

Yesterday I wrote about the question "Does a writer need a writers' group?" Bottom line: nothing beats a group of committed writers if the object is effective feedback on your pages. And you can do it on-line.

When I joined my on-line writer's group the old-timers had an established way of working, and it seemed pretty sound to me.

The process was informally understood. We did find that sometimes the informality left room for divergent expectations about what active membership required. So a few months after I joined we decided to write down what we were up to, to make sure everybody was on the same page. As a relatively new and entirely enthusiastic member of the group, I volunteered for this duty.

It turned out to be useful to have guidelines. One of their purposes is to keep us focused. Another is to orient new members and prospective new members to how the group operates.

Our guidelines currently weigh in at around 1200 words, and we revisit them from time to time. I've included a lightly-edited version below for those looking for a place to start drafting guidelines for their own groups.

But first things first ...

Questions to answer while forming a writers' group

The first thing to do if you're organizing a writer's group -- on-line or face-to-face -- is to ask and answer some questions. A bunch of questions, actually. Here's my proposed set:

  1. Will our group be about supporting each other? Helping each other improve as writers? Figuring out how to approach agents and editors? Vetting work for self-publication? If more than one of the foregoing, in what proportions, and how rigidly do we adhere to these purposes?
  2. Will we limit our members to fiction writers or to those who write non-fiction? Any particular genres, styles, or period focus? Memoirists? Short story writers? A mix of these? Is the mix well-suited to each of us getting the feedback we seek?
  3. Are we sharing first drafts, more polished work, or does anything go depending where a member is in her/his writing process?
  4. How often will we cycle through reading/critiquing sessions -- a week, two weeks, a month, something else?
  5. How much time can each member devote to reading and critiquing others' work each cycle? What does that time commitment translate to in word-count?
  6. How frequently do each of us want to have our own work critiqued? Each cycle? Every other cycle? Every three?
  7. Given that some people will need to step back from full participation every so often -- that's the way life happens -- what's a good group size to ensure we're getting a variety of perspectives each time a member's work is critiqued?
  8. Taking account of all the cycle and quantity questions so far, how many people per cycle should share how many words for how many others to review and critique?
  9. What ground rules or expectations should we establish about about how members ought to participate? What if some members fail to give as much attention to others' work as they receive on their own work?
  10. How do we recruit new members? How do we respond if some think that a member isn't working out?
  11. Who will facilitate the group's logistics -- scheduling and so on? One person or more? Is this a "permanent" position or a responsibility we share in turn?
  12. If we're an on-line group, will we just exchange e-mail or will we use some kind of discussion forum or website? Which? Who will maintain it?

The mechanics of forming an on-line writers' group

Having thought through the questions listed above, let's say you're interested in forming an on-line writer's group, or overhauling one you're in. There are mechanical issues to resolve ... including choices about technology you'll use to support your group. A full comparison of lots of options is more than I'll tackle in this post, so here's a concise description of the "infrastructure" my group uses.

Because the group began by using Google Groups for pretty much all its needs, we're pretty solidly embedded in Google's many offerings:

  1. We now use Google Calendar to manage our posting schedule
  2. Google Groups supports our communication (discussion threads), as it has from the start
  3. A Google Site is how we bring it all together
  4. Our guidelines (below) are maintained as a Google Doc

With links to "how do you do that?" pages, the calendar and the Google Groups discussion forum are embedded in pages on our Google Site. Our guidelines, as I mentioned, are a Google Doc, and we embed that too.

Other flavors of on-line tools are possible, of course, from Wordpress to Drupal to Joomla and beyond. If there's interest, maybe I'll circle around and review some alternate choices in a future post. Google's offerings work for us because the Googleplex worries about the infrastructure, all we have to do is respond to the sometimes-unpredictable changes in what's on-offer.

But the most important mechanics have to do with how the group functions, not the technology it uses to implement its processes. To that end, I've included my group's guidelines below, in the hope they might help shape other groups' operation. We started out with lots of bullets, but that looked too daunting ... so our guidelines are written in a less formal tone than, say, a national constitution (!) ... but at the same time we tried to be reasonably clear and concrete.

You're welcome to adopt or adapt our guidelines if they fit your needs. Please take note of the Creative Commons licensing terms under which the guidelines are shared.

Guidelines for an on-line writers group

[If you republish or repurpose these guidelines, please cite the author -- that would be Steve Masover -- and provide a link to this blog post. Permission to use these guidelines is granted under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.]

We are a group of writers committed to improving our work through engagement and mutual critique.

The main activity and primary responsibility of members is posting and reviewing pages of original writing, on a regular schedule.
Our cardinal rule is: What happens in the group stays in the group. No member may publish, post, blog, distribute, or make public in any way the original writing of any other member unless s/he asks for and receives explicit permission. Violation of this rule is grounds for immediate ejection from the group.

Our culture assumes that members are in the group because they are willing to give and respond to honest critique. No one's work is unanimously praised. All of us learn to swallow our defensive instincts in order to understand and consider feedback our fellow-members have taken time to offer. We rarely get a chance to post a whole work; we give and receive feedback on work that is often read out of the context or flow of its place in a larger work. This takes getting used to. We either incorporate & apply lessons learned from members' feedback, or are able to articulate how our different choices strengthen the piece(s) on which we're working. The give-and-take is not always easy, but it makes us stronger as writers. Those who stick with it find in the group a source of support and strength for our writing, and are "toughened up" for the kind of reading and critique to which we each hope to be subjected by agents, editors, and reviewers.

Core Activities

Members post pages on which they are actively working and which are intended for publication. Pages on which members are "actively working" are usually fiction (a chapter, scenes, a short story); but might also be an outline or precis for work in development, a query letter, a synopsis for an agent or editor, etc. Questions about craft or the publishing business that are relevant to the member's work and direction are also fair game. Fiction is our usual focus, but non-fiction can be part of the mix; non-fiction with a narrative arc is preferred.

Each week, those members whose turn has come up on the group's Posting Schedule make their work available in a new discussion thread in our Forum (or, commonly, as a file in a commonly-readable word processing format); deadline to post is Saturday at 11:59 pm, poster's local time. However the material is made available, the poster initiates a new discussion thread to notify the group that material is ready for review and to serve as the thread in which feedback is given. Other members respond to posted pages by the following Wednesday, at 11:59 pm, respondent's local time.

These regularly scheduled postings are coordinated by a designated member of the group. Weekly pages to be reviewed are limited to under ~5000 words total, from all members scheduled to post -- e.g., 2500 words each from two posting members. If a member posts a larger quantity of work than is appropriate for that week's review & feedback, s/he is expected to indicate which within-size-limits portion is to be reviewed. Posted pages may be included in a discussion thread, or uploaded as files in a format accessible to all members.

Members posting pages are encouraged to ask for the type of feedback they want or need. Members offering feedback are encouraged to tailor feedback to what the poster has asked for; to honestly praise what's praiseworthy; and to couch criticism constructively. When a member enters or re-engages with the group, s/he is expected to "dive in" to the middle of other members' works-in-progress, responding to the currently-posted pages with whatever understanding s/he has of the larger context; the group will not 'rewind' to the beginning of their projects. The new or re-engaging member is welcome to catch up by reading previously posted chapters, but need not do so. Posting members are encouraged to provide an overview or synopsis to help new or re-engaging members get their bearings.

Members who are posting are expected to offer feedback on other members' posts. This is core to the 'economic proposition' of the group: the time a member commits to offering feedback is the 'dues' for receiving feedback on her/his own work. Members who have recused themselves from the posting schedule because they are unable to consistently offer feedback are welcome to participate in those discussion threads for which they have time and interest, including "other discussions" described below.

Members are encouraged to ask the scheduler for more or less frequent 'assignments' if they wish; accommodation depends on the group's aggregate needs. Members maintain a rough 'declaration' of the lengths and types of posts they expect to submit over the coming months on a simple table at the bottom of the group's Posting Schedule page. The posting schedule will be set 2-6 weeks in advance, give or take.

Optional Activities
Other discussion threads are initiated on an ad hoc basis, as individual members wish. For example:

  • Thematic scene threads: members might be invited to post a sex scene or an action scene from work-in-progress or older work for general discussion/comparison/critique/fun
  • Threads that treat an aspect of craft (voice, show-vs-tell, grammar, point-of-view, dialog, etc.)
  • Threads that summarize and/or discuss points from a How-To-Write book or article (or contrast advice from multiple sources)
  • Longer or 'extra' materials can be uploaded for optional reading and review. These might be full manuscripts, re-worked material, draft queries, older work, and other pages for optional, 'out of band' review. (Recognizing that time necessary to review additional material is non-trivial, prospective posters are advised to canvas members to see whether there's interest and ability to provide additional review.)
The group recognizes that material of this "optional" sort may or may not get reviewed, due to time constraints and/or member interest; and that no member is obligated to read or review 'extra' pages or posts.


Any member can propose new candidates for group membership. Proposals from members who have been with the group long enough to have a solid feel for its processes and dynamics are strongly preferred. New members are screened. The screening process seeks to assure that a candidate is an active writer; is willing and able to regularly and constructively participate in the group's core activities; and agrees to abide by these guidelines.

It's expected that members will need to take a break from the group from time to time, whether for personal reasons or because their writing process requires it. As a courtesy to other members, and because unexplained disappearances may weaken the group, notice of intent to take a break should be posted in a Discussion thread.

Thanks to AE, LG, SL, and SW for taking in this stray novelist. Thanks to DB, MM, and KR for joining us a few months later. Thanks to WallyG for the image of Jack Kerouac's manuscript of On The Road.

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