Someone wrote to say, “I signed up for an online writing group. The first meeting was great. Then… nothing. There’s no direction. I don’t know what to do. Help!”
I know what you mean: You sign up for a writing group, and you’re excited when you receive an email telling you who else is in your group. You introduce yourself to the others. Maybe you go back to check out the things these folks have said on recent topics. One morning you sit down at your computer, log on, and can’t wait to start emailing back and forth with your writing buddies. Then something deflating happens…nobody has much to say. You’re not sure where to start. There’s not really a “leader,” so you don’t want to be the one pushing the group toward a topic, but everybody just seems to be sitting there, waiting for someone else to DO SOMETHING. You start to wonder if this group is a bit off the mark…or if it’s you. Instead of participating in the group, you start thinking of spending your time at something considerably more helpful — like online mah jong.
If that describes you and your online writing group, may I offer a handful of helpful thoughts?
First, some perspectives regarding a writing group…
-The group should be a SUPPORTIVE experience. So keep it positive.
-The group should be an EDUCATIONAL experience. Share your thoughts openly.
-The group should be a CHALLENGING experience. Learn to listen.
-The group should be a FOCUSED experience. The others are there to critique your work, not your character.
-The group should be a FUN experience. Let people vent, say stupid things, poke fun, make jokes…and you do the same.
Next, let me offer some ideas to get the most out of your group:
1. Everybody read an article (maybe an online article) and discuss the writing.
2. Ditto with a book…but this is considerably harder. The length of a book makes it tough to write short emails about your response, so if you do this, consider focusing on certain qualities of the novel — your favorite passage, favorite character, favorite scene, favorite lines, favorite description.
3. Share writing exercises. For example, ask everybody to share something about their worst day ever, or to describe their neighborhood growing up, or to create a conversation with someone they’ve always wanted to meet. This can be a lot of fun, so long as you don’t try to do it every day.
4. Make a pact that what is said in the group STAYS in the group… then share your thoughts. Tell where you’re struggling as a writer. Tell what your dreams are as a writer.
5. Respond to the questions people raise. (Or, if you prefer, make snarky comments about the other people — always works for me.)
6. Have everybody share their story. One day per person, a limit of, say, 600 words.
7. Once in a while, one of the members sends around an article or chapter or story they’ve written. Everybody in the group reads it and posts comments, asks questions, points out what worked and what didn’t. No value judgments (“this is awful”), but instead focus on ways to improve the writing. But always have a rule that there has to be a positive comment. And another rule that nobody gets to defend themselves — if you write something and ask for comments, you’re not allowed to explain. Oh, and a third rule: the person getting critiqued doesn’t have to take your advice. If it’s bad advice, ignore it.
8. Occasionally do something fun. Ask everybody to tell a joke in print (which can be tough to do well).
9. Focus on words. If you’re all reading the newspaper, compare writing styles of the journalists. What works? What doesn’t? How would you change it?
10. Encourage, encourage, encourage. Think of it as a Barnabas group — the name means, literally, “the Encourager” or “the Person Who Encourages” or “the Son of Encouragement.” Take that to heart. Let people talk in your group, and be supportive of them. Learn to celebrate when somebody has something good happen.
That should get you started.