A few weeks ago an acquaintance asked me for advice on setting up a writers' group. I immediately said, Sure. Then I paused and wondered, What kind of writers' group? My friend didn't know. I shouldn't have been surprised. Writers talk about their writers' groups usually with reverence and affection, but few actually describe what the group is like. As a result, most beginning or non writers think a writers' group is a writers' group is a writers' group. And they would be wrong.
Over the last forty plus years I have been in a variety of writers' groups, ranging from the informal two-person (actually two-woman support group for struggling dissertation writers only able to meet over lunch) to the large, highly structured group with strict membership requirements (and no nonsense whatsoever). But a few types stand out for the gratitude and affection I came to feel towards my fellow members, and these are the ones I described to my friend. This is not a definitive list, but a few suggestions for how to structure the coming-together of writers who want to help each other. These are roughly in chronological order.
First was the group of writers of all genres and all levels of publication history, including the writer who managed to get a contract for a nonfiction book about hikes in New England and then didn't look at the contract again until four months before the manuscript was due. She hadn't written a word. The purpose of this group turned out to be to provide massive amounts of encouragement and a small dose of envy for anyone who could get a contract and be so cavalier about deadlines. Another member sought information on a particular free-lance job, received highly specific warnings about avoiding this magazine at all costs, ignored them, and then received massive amounts of encouragement in suing the vendor who refused to pay her. If nothing else, this group was consistent. We were promiscuous in our praise and unstinting in our support and generally ignored all good advice.
The second group I attended seemed to be based on whom you had worked for. All genres were acceptable, including a few that had no names as yet. We all knew each other and our professional paths continued to cross. We were expected to show up with something to read at least every other week, and to take not longer than five or ten minutes. We were expected to listen attentively and offer suggestions for improvement. This was another support group but a little more discerning. It was rare that anyone said anything negative, but when someone did, we took it as a sign that we were ready to graduate and move on.
A third group was among the most structured, meeting once a month and requiring each writer to present a complete chapter or two (about 50 pages) for everyone to read beforehand, then listen without verbal response (eye rolling was allowed) as everyone else commented and discussed among themselves. At the end of this, if the writer was still able to speak and could stop biting his or her tongue, he or she could comment on the discussion and the specific points made. I lasted about a month (that's one meeting for those not following this discussion closely).
A variation on the third group requires that a writer send out by email or snail mail copies of whatever she or he wants to discuss at the weekly meeting, and then at the regular meeting each member can comment and discuss with other members including the writer whose work it is. No one is barred from speaking. All genres are acceptable.
A fourth group is probably the result of the first three. This group has a monitor, also a writer but one who does not participate in the readings and critiques. This person is expected to facilitate discussion, keep writers from acting out the crimes they are so graphically describing in their novels and short stories, and generally keep the group feeling positive and motivated and out of the clutches of the authorities.
These then are the four basic writers' groups. And while I might have had some unusual experiences as a writer when among other writers, I hasten to assure all you beginning writers our there that you will survive participation in a writers' group, you will learn a great deal, you will get that boost you need to finish your novel and then sell it. But in the process you will meet a few oddballs and hear some painful descriptions of your brilliant Pulitzer quality work. You may even wonder why you thought writing a novel was a good idea in the first place. But when you finally sell that novel, your writer group friends will bring a bottle of champagne, cheer you loudly, and you will know you really are a genius.