Starting and Running a Fantastic Writers’ Group

This was first posted on the County of Los Angeles Public Library Staff Blog in September 2010.

There are a number of programs that have become standards for libraries; concerts,
book clubs, story times, afternoon movies are all relatively easy to plan and well-attended in most communities. To that list of standards, I propose adding the writer’s
group. Because writing is generally a solitary act, many of your local poets, novelists,
and playwrights may find a weekly or bi-weekly get-together of like-minded creatives
useful and fun. The nice thing is that organizing and moderating a writer’s group is time- efficient for even the most harried of librarians. Below are a few tips for launching and
maintaining a successful writer’s group:

1. Plan to Promote: Getting the word out about your new writer’s group starts
approximately two months before the first meeting. The initial time investment is
small since all that is really necessary is a flyer, a simple press release, and a
media contact list. The latter starts with the local newspaper – if you’re branch
doesn’t already have a relationship with the paper, pick up the phone. A simple
call was all it took to get an article about the Lancaster Library Writers’ Group in
the Antelope Valley Press, but more than that, we now have a person to call if we
want help marketing future programs. Other promotional opportunities are
available through radio stations, local groups like Toastmasters or Rotary Clubs,
city newsletters, and local businesses. Also don’t forget to contact other writers’
groups in the vicinity. These groups can be found through bookstores,
educational institutions, and online. Don’t worry about competing with them; as
long as your meetings are at different times membership is not mutually
exclusive. In fact, a few of the people at my writers’ group are also members of
other groups in the area. Finally, don’t forget in-house advertising: make sure
everyone on the staff knows some basic info about the group, that flyers are
always handy, and to make an announcement over the library’s loudspeaker a
few minutes before the program begins. It’s so simple, yet loudspeaker
announcements have been responsible for bringing in several writers who have
since become regular attendees.

2. Set the Stage: It’s a good idea to put some thought into the meeting space.
Starting in a small room or in a large room with a one or two tables brings people
closer together, allowing them to see and hear each other better. While a table in
the reading room will work if it’s separated from the rest of the library, an intimate
space without distractions is better. Part of setting the stage is also deciding how
long you want the program to last – remember, the more people participate, the
longer the meetings will last so give yourself some scheduling leeway until
attendance levels out and you can expect an approximate time-frame. Be ready
to run a little long if a few new writers come since the group will quickly dissipate
if you cut people off just because of the time. People will come and go based on
their schedules, but everyone should get a chance to read. In order to be able to
better manage time, there should be a page limit made clear at the outset – my
writers may bring up to three double-spaced pages whether they are reading
prose or poetry, occasionally exceptions are made for drama and screenplays
since there’s less text per page. Another consideration is food. I think snack
packages are noisy when passed around and people getting up for coffee is
disruptive so I don’t bother with it. It’s your stage, however, so if your group will
be charmed by cupcakes, by all means serve them.

3. Foster Community: More important than sharing their own work, a good writers’
group is one in which the members like and support each other. As the facilitator
of the group, your job is to create a mood that makes people feel comfortable
sharing. A fine way to do that at the very beginning of each meeting is to have
everyone introduce themselves and share something about their week. This
allows new attendees to take stock of the room and continuing members to catch
up with their friends. It also lets everyone settle down after their drive and the
world outside in general. Likewise, before ending a meeting, allowing a moment
for general announcements not only gives you chance to plug other library
happenings, but also gives members further opportunity to make connections.
When you notice your writers exchanging contact information, you know you’ve
done a good job of fostering community. When people feel like they’re part of
something bigger than themselves, they’ll be coming back and bring other others
with them.

4. Moderate: An important point to remember in running a writers’ group is that you
serve in a dual role; on one hand, you are a member of the group like everyone
else, on the other, you are the moderator. That means, as hard as it sometimes
is, you are responsible for keeping the group on task and responding to any
disruptive situations. The former is usually necessary when feedback begins to
get off-track – people respond to the writer and not her text – and before you
know it, the group has been discussing the writer’s mother for that last ten
minutes. In this type of situation, a light reminder is sufficient to bring the
conversation back to the writing. Light reminders are also necessary if you notice
that someone is moving beyond the stated page-limit. Rarely will other group
members say anything about this because it is always the moderator’s
responsibility to politely ask the reader to conclude. If going over the page-limit
becomes a chronic condition for a particular writer, a private conversation will
usually do the trick. A more insidious problem is when a member of the group or
a visitor makes offensive remarks or is too harsh with critiques – in that case it is
vital to call attention to the situation right away. The first warning need not carry a
serious tone, but subsequent warnings should get progressively more strict.
Though this rarely happens, if an individual continues to behave badly, the
moderator should not be afraid to ask the person to leave. An effective moderator
is like a good host at a party, it is his job to make sure that everyone is having a
pleasant time.

5. Stay Positive: Part of being a successful group leader is knowing that others will
take cues from you. That’s why it is especially crucial to stay positive in and out
of group meetings. At the meeting, encourage constructive feedback by finding
agreeable qualities in people’s writing; you won’t like everything about every
piece, but there is bound to be something you like about each one, make sure to
accentuate the good even while giving suggestions for improvement. If you find
that you have nothing positive to say, just smile and say “thank you for reading,”
likely other group members will fill in the blanks. It’s also important to stay
positive about the attendance count; groups will sometimes take a few months to
find their feet but as long as members are benefiting and you keep promoting in
and out of the library building, you can be sure that the group will grow.

A writers’ group gives community members a forum for expression that is both enjoyable
and helpful. It empowers writers to hone their craft with peers who care about each
other’s improvement. Mostly however, it gets people writing; when an artist knows that
they’ll have an audience every week and all they have to do is bring a few pages, it’s
wonderful motivation. Facilitating this for your customers should be worth the while of
any librarian. So get to it.

This entry was posted in How-To, Librarianship. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *