| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life How Do You Find a Writers’ Group? Try Making Your Own
A roundtable discussion between five writers in a writers’ groups about building—and maintaining—writers’ groups.
Editor’s note: The conversation below is a roundtable conversation had and organized by five Catapult magazine authors: Jeanna Kadlec, Angela Chen, Nina St. Pierre, Deena ElGenaidi, and Lilly Dancyger. Click their names to read more of their work!
Writing is a solitary, often lonely endeavor, and the publishing industry is bafflingly opaque, full of unspoken rules and discouraging barriers. A writers’ group with whom to share your work—and your writerly anxieties and long-shot goals—is one of the most invaluable resources a writer can have. But how do you find a writers’ group? And how do you make sure it’s actually a supportive, nurturing group that will commit to each other’s work for the long haul, rather than devolving into competition or fizzling out?
Here, the members of a longstanding New York City writers’ group—Jeanna Kadlec, Angela Chen, Nina St. Pierre, Deena ElGenaidi, and Lilly Dancyger—answer the questions they hear most frequently from writers looking to find or form their own groups.
How do you start a writers’ group if you don’t have a lot of writer friends?
L: The original iteration of this group started with a Facebook post—the only person I knew going in was the person who wrote the post, so you definitely don’t need to already know everyone! That group came to a natural end after about a year (a couple of people moved away, others had too many commitments to keep meeting regularly), but two members, Nina and I, wanted to keep it going. Nina knew Deena from school, I knew Jeanna from Twitter, and Angela knew one of the original members, so the group re-formed in a new configuration that’s been going strong for almost four years of weekly meetings. That’s all to say, there are a lot of ways a writers’ group can form and most are pretty informal—a social media post, friends of friends, etc. (I’ve also seen several writers’ groups form when people who take a workshop together decide to keep sharing work after the class ends. That can be a great way to find your people.)
N: Like Lilly said about ours, groups often contract and expand before they reach their most consistent “final” form. Allow for this flexibility. It’s like decorating a house! You don’t want to purchase everything in a set all at once. The best combinations are organic and often take a few iterations.
A: Don’t forget that “writer friends” doesn’t need to mean professional writers. If you have friends who enjoy writing and want to practice and improve, that can be a good start and a great way to build community.
J: A writers’ group is an extension of a writing community you’ve begun to invest in, whether through social media, classes, or something else—remember that no group of people emerges fully formed.
How do I find a group that fits my needs as a person who isn’t white or cishet?
D: Our group includes people of color, and people that are sensitive to the stories of people of color, which was something pretty important to me, given that my writing often delves into Arab American culture and identity. I’ve been in rooms where white readers have made wildly offensive comments about my culture, and that’s not what I want in a writing group. I was lucky enough to find a group that is sensitive to and respectful of my work and identity, but I know not everybody is in the right environment to find those like-minded people. In that case, joining online communities and interacting with other writers on social media will ultimately help you find your own writing community.
J: Don’t be afraid to be picky, or to leave a group that doesn’t feel right for you. I had left a writers’ group that included cis men, which I quickly realized wouldn’t work for me in the long term, shortly before getting dinner with Lilly where she told me her group was looking to expand. As a lesbian, the fact that this group is all women and mostly queer is really important to me.
N: People in our group have a lot of different identities: Jewish, ex-evangelical, Muslim, Chinese, Egyptian, white, queer. We’re from the East Coast, the Midwest, and California, which the group insists is a planet of its own. (They’re not entirely wrong.) What I’ve observed is that everyone in our group seems to understand what they don’t know. Trust has been built the only way it can, really—slowly and over time. Sharing work requires vulnerability. A group that intentionally shies away from inevitable and often essential conversations around race, gender, religion, or orientation, may not be equipped to hold that trust. That said, you should not be expected to educate or perform your identities for anyone.
How do you determine the right sort of group for your writing goals and/or style? What are the signs that a group is working or not for you?
N: Do you want a group to generate work with? An accountability partner and positive-only encouragement to keep going? Or, are you seeking detailed rigorous feedback? If you know what you want, you can often tell after a couple sessions. If not, and it’s possible, I’d recommend trying out different groups and getting a sense for what works. We might think we want Gordon Lish-level evisceration, but it turns out that designated time to write or cheerleading from writers we respect is all we need to feel juiced. All are important. The key is knowing what you desire right now. And allowing that to change and evolve as you do.
Once you’re in a group: How do you feel after meetings? Energized? Challenged? Unheard? As someone invested in both careerist and spiritual aspects of writing, I love that our group is motivated toward tangible markers of success. But I also need space for the bigger questions. I think a lot about the value and cultural function of storytelling. When the sky is falling, it can be hard to believe that making things out of words is the best use of my resources. (Which, for the record, it absolutely is!) If I couldn’t pose those ideas to a group and hear how others are thinking through them, it wouldn’t be the place for me.
A: “How do you know if it’s working?” is a question that people ask about relationships, which makes perfect sense because a writers’ group is fundamentally a cluster of relationships! The same indicators of health can apply. Is everyone committed and invested in everyone else? Do you want the same things and have you figured out your communication styles? It’s working when you generally feel supported and energized, when you feel like the others really understand your work and goals, and when you’re comfortable sharing work that you’re stuck on without being embarrassed.
D: It’s important to be on the same page and address issues as they come up. When our group started, we agreed to meet once a week and created a rotating schedule for who should submit work each week. (Of course, the fact that none of us have kids makes this easier to commit to.) Sometimes, people will realize they can’t devote as much time as they’d like, or they’re looking for something different. Writing groups involve a good deal of trial and error. Before I joined this group, I was in another group that agreed to meet monthly, but that quickly fell apart because not everyone was as equally committed. So it’s a good idea to have a clear, open conversation about what each person is looking for and can commit to, not unlike entering a relationship.
Our group also has writers who work on both fiction and nonfiction, and for us, that has worked. But other people might find they only feel confident giving feedback for one specific genre, and that’s totally fine. If that’s the case, you should find a group specializing in your specific area.
L: Another thing to consider is whether you’re all at the same or similar levels in your career and in the development of your craft. We’re all professionals with ambition and big goals, and big-picture career strategy is as much a part of what we talk about as individual pieces of writing. A sense of individual and collective progress is important to the way we work, whereas some people might feel stressed out by that and prefer to just focus on craft without necessarily aiming to publish—that’s great too, as long as you’re all on the same page.
Do you want a group to generate work with? An accountability partner and positive-only encouragement to keep going?
How do you determine what level everyone is at, and how do you control for that in establishing a writers’ group?
D : This is a tricky question because it’s not always an easy conversation to have. You might enter a writers’ group and find that everyone is in a very different place than you. Maybe they have different goals, or maybe you feel that their feedback isn’t serving your needs, or on a very basic level, maybe you just don’t like their writing.
With our group, one of the “conditions” of joining, so to speak, was that we were all working on book projects. Although we were all at different levels in our careers (when I joined, I had maybe one or two bylines at most), we had similar levels of ambition. We were dedicated to completing our books, finding agents if we didn’t already have them, and selling those books. That similar trajectory we’re all on helps the group stay focused, and we very much encourage and motivate one another along the way. I often feel driven to produce more work because I see other members of my group doing so. There’s a sense of accountability in place, too, when we agree to share work.
J: I think there are two different ways to determine “level,” inasmuch as that is a helpful term, and they’re around craft and/or professionalism. Those are both different components of a writers’ life, and they’re also very different, equally valuable ways to shape a group’s goals. Of the two, professionalism is easier to control for when creating or re-defining a group. Professionalism isn’t hierarchical, it just is; some writers write with the intention of getting book deals and going full-time. Others don’t. That alignment or schism in a group is going to matter. When this configuration of our group really kicked off in 2018, we were all working writers with day jobs, bylines, books in progress, and the goal of eventually going full-time. Angela was agented and had a book deal; Lilly was on the cusp of firing an agent and had an anthology, but had not yet landed the right book deal for her own memoir. Nina, Deena, and I had no agent or book deal. Seemingly disparate places, but we had mutual respect, different beats and industry experience, and a shared professional north star—and it turns out that was enough. Having a mix of folks roughly in the same place with aligned professional interests is important to feeling like you’re on even footing, particularly if industry support is going to be a part of your group.
Craft is trickier, but I think the absolute baseline comes down to having mutual respect for each others’ work.
A: Shared goals are important, but I think the wrong way to think about “level” is thinking about things like bylines, MFAs, agents. There are so many talented and committed writers who don’t have the traditional markers of success, often for structural reasons. For me, level as it applies to writing groups is simply about whether I think everyone’s body of work is good. Do I admire it and do I feel excited to help them improve? It’s a bit “I know it when I see it,” but that works for me. Whereas if I feel deep down that the work isn’t something I admire or respect, or vice versa, I don’t think it’d be a good fit.
L: It’s important that we all see each other as equals—nobody is here to share wisdom as if from on high, and nobody is stuck feeling like they’re playing catch-up. That equity feels really important to the harmony of the group, and I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if any of us ever felt talked down to, or worried that admitting to not knowing something would make us look amateur, or, conversely, felt like we had to explain basic things to each other. That’s not to say you can’t have a variety of newer vs. more experienced writers in a group together, but this is what has worked for us and allowed us to grow together. We’re all definitely at a different level in our careers than we were when we started meeting four years ago, but we’ve gotten to enjoy the rise together and motivate each other without competitiveness or jealousy or anyone feeling like they’ve outgrown the group.
N: I like to think of level as in flux. Maybe one person has achieved a lot in a particular genre or field, but if they decide to branch out, they’ll be starting anew. I’ve done reported work for over a decade, but in the last two years started co-writing other people’s memoirs. Jeanna, an essayist and culture writer, promises us a queer romance novel (which we eagerly await). I totally agree with what Angela said about a baseline of liking, or even more important respecting the work. But stitching your idea of “level” too tightly to linear achievement can be a recipe for jealousy and one-uppance. (Is that a word?) I want to be in a group where we can simultaneously kill it in one aspect of our career/creativity and not be afraid to begin, again, in another.
How do you juggle conflicting input about your work from group members?
J: I personally tend to consider it a wash if one person loves A and the other person dislikes A. However, in our group, we tend to see these disagreements as opportunities for a deep discussion about why people are interpreting the material differently, and typically, upon reflection, some kind of more refined consensus emerges.
A: We talk in detail about our reactions. Someone might say that a part didn’t work, someone else might say that, given their particular reading and interpretation, it did work. I’m usually the one really pushing for clarity and scaffolding in a draft. I’ve often said, “This is beautiful, but it doesn’t make sense. What are you actually saying ?” Others are more concerned with craft on a line level and the rhythm of the prose. We all make fun of Jeanna for her ex-academic writing tics, like saying “of course” about things that “of course” should not be added to.
Providing this detail helps the writer understand where the critique is coming from and whether it’s relevant and important to incorporate, or whether it’s a more niche concern that they’re less worried about. We’re different types of writers and have different tastes, so the disagreement can shed light on how various types of readers might react. It’s also good that each individual member isn’t necessarily the target audience for each book project—that means it’s not an echo chamber.
N: For sure. We’re in community with real people, not word-cogs, and it’s useful to filter feedback through a lens of what you know about that person’s style and strengths. If I’m looking for serious help with structure, which, yes, always, I might lean into Lilly’s Gemini-brain. Or for logical continuity of argument, Jeanna or Angela. And Deena is rarely swayed by the beauty of language when its meaning is murky. In terms of people disagreeing, those are my favorite meetings. When people have strong feelings about the work to the extent of arguing, you’ve hit upon something juicy.
D: Ultimately, your work is your own, and you have the final say in what’s working and not working. When group members have entirely opposing opinions, which happens to us frequently, you can just collectively talk about it. Figure out why someone thinks what they think and whether or not you agree. Hearing more details about someone’s reading experience will help you figure out what you’re trying to do and what you want your readers to think or feel.
Photograph courtesy of the authors
How do you reset/regroup when there needs to be some sort of shift? (Like everyone is in new stages of their projects, or you need to shift a meeting schedule, etc.)
L: We’ve had a few big pivots—when we first started we were all working on our first books, deep in drafting and revisions with lots of work to share on a consistent basis. Eventually we all reached different stages with those projects—either submitting and getting ready for their publication and the publicity stuff that’s so different from generative writing work, or needing to take breaks for other paid work, etc. We took part of a summer off at one point, and skipped one meeting a month for a few months at another point when we were not producing a lot of work. It just comes down to communication and having occasional check-ins where we discuss the scope and focus of the group. Being open to pivoting when needed has been one of the biggest things that has kept us going, I think.
J: Communication, communication, communication! Like Angela said, a writers’ group is like any other relationship. You don’t meet almost weekly for almost four years by not talking about how you’re feeling about each other and what you’re accomplishing together. We don’t just talk about our individual professional goals; we talk about our goals as a collective, as well.
A: We update what we talk about. It feels like we’re not just resetting, but also continuing to grow and learn about the various facets of the industry together. Deena wrote a web series and will talk about that process. I work as a magazine editor, so I can explain what the commissioning and editing process looks like from the inside. Lilly has been running a freelance book-editing business for years, so she’ll provide guidance on setting rates and has shared a spreadsheet she uses to track money. Jeanna runs her own online classes and has excellent advice on how to develop, build, and market those. Recently, Nina took a class on IP and wills and presented her findings to the rest of the group. We’ve been talking about creating a system where one person will take a workshop and then share the knowledge with the others.
If you are all friends, how do you actually constructively critique each other/make sure to make time for the hard writing work? If you are not friends, how do you also be friends?
D: Our group didn’t start out as friends. Nina and I were friends from grad school, but everyone else just met for the sake of this writing group, and we’ve naturally developed a friendship as a result of four years of meeting up. While I can’t exactly answer how to become friends, since that’s something that occurs naturally if you vibe with someone, I can say it’s important to be honest but not harsh about another person’s work. For me, this was a little easier because I had just come from an MFA program where we were always constructively critiquing each other’s writing, but I know that giving and receiving feedback is something that takes getting used to.
Our meetings are pretty structured in that we start out by discussing what our writing life has been in the past week (what we’re working on, pitches we’ve sent, articles we have coming up, any writing that’s been difficult, etc.). Once we’ve all given our updates, we discuss the work that was shared for that week. Being respectful and encouraging is enough to offset the inevitable critique.
We also all came into this group looking for feedback on our work, and that feedback includes critique. I want to receive criticism to improve my own work. Although we’re all friends now, we can separate friend discussions from work discussions as needed. That’s an important balance to strike, and it comes with time.
N: When Lilly stops laughing at our jokes, we know it’s time to get back to work. We love/fear her for this.
J: Lilly was the only person I knew coming into the group. We were basically only Twitter mutuals who sometimes DM-ed each other. We’d had dinner in the West Village once before she invited me to try out a week with everyone. I was the last person to join this existing configuration of the group. Everyone’s work spoke for itself, but honestly? There are no assholes and no show-offs, and I really can’t say enough how much of a difference that makes. Everyone coming into the group was a professional who respected each others’ work and each others’ time. The other thing was that everyone was ambitious, but also keenly wanted to get better and wasn’t afraid to put themselves out there, asking for help. No one in this group acts like they know everything, and that made it easier from the jump to be like, oh, I can be myself, and these people will meet me where I am. That’s a pretty good place to start a relationship from.
A: The check-ins at the beginning of each meeting helped develop the friendship. They place our work within the larger context of our lives and also give us opportunities to talk about the emotional component and doubts that come with writing. If we only talked about craft, the dynamic might have felt more transactional, but after spending years talking honestly about the stages of the publishing process, or asking for advice, it’s hard not to be friends.
L: I think our genuine admiration and respect for each other as both writers and people helps keep our feedback honest rather than hindering it. Nobody is harsh or cruel and there’s no such thing here as “brutal honesty,” but we don’t hold back either. We all know what everyone is capable of after reading so much of each other’s work over several years, as well as what we need to work on, so we’re able to really push each other and call out specific things like when Deena’s fiction needs more interiority or a passage in one of Nina’s essays is gorgeous but not grounded in place or time, or when I go too sparse on emotional reflection after a scene.
Another natural extension of the friendship/professional aspect of our group is our group text, which is ongoing and a great balance of writing questions, writing-related emotional spirals, and jokes and general conversations (but also not overwhelming or full of memes, and we have an understanding that people might not always respond).
We also all came into this group looking for feedback on our work, and that feedback includes critique. I want to receive criticism to improve my own work.
Any advice about maintaining momentum? I’ve had writers ’ groups start out strong and then slowly peter out.
N: Honestly, consistency. Life happens, and we are always considerate, flexible, and person-first. But we expect each person to show up every week or let us know as far ahead of time as possible if they cannot. I’ve been in a handful of groups and the only ones that lasted had 80 to 90 percent (depending on size) of members showing up every time. In our group if more than one person is going to be out for the week, we skip it. That prevents anyone from spending time on what feels like a half-assed group. Everyone is so essential and unique and we feel their absence. For us, weekly meetings work best. Maybe that’s because New York is such a kinetic place? A week here is like a month everywhere else. Meeting regularly keeps us plugged into each other’s writing lives in a way that feels vital and immediately relevant. If we met once a month, it might feel more like a retroactive catch-up.
D: Maintaining momentum is something you can talk about upfront. What is each person looking for? How much can you realistically commit? My old writing group naturally petered out because we weren’t on the same page in terms of how often we wanted to meet and how much each person was writing. When that happens, it might be time to start a new group.
If you feel like your group doesn’t have the same momentum as when it started, you can have a check-in conversation to see where everyone is at. Maybe people aren’t feeling as enthusiastic because the group isn’t quite giving them what they wanted, or maybe people are just busy. Either way, you should reconvene to see that everyone is still on the same page and what can be done to regain momentum. Our group very often does check-in conversations to discuss what’s working and what isn’t, and what we’d like to accomplish individually and as a group.
J: At one point in 2020, there was a stretch where all of us were coming up dry and just didn’t have work to share. We ended up making a backup list of topics to discuss for weeks when no one had anything for feedback — talking about things like contracts, social media strategy, our next proposals. That list helped motivate and create space for some really fruitful conversations about our overarching career goals and current practices.
It would have been very, very easy for us to stop meeting during the pandemic. Our meeting at a diner in the East Village was the last thing I went to in person before the city shut down. But, at least speaking for myself, when the world was spiraling and people in our city were dying and ambulances were going 24/7, this pre-existing weekly commitment was a saving grace. Even on Zoom. I am so glad we kept going, even when we were all tired. These days, we are all vaccinated and get weekly Covid tests so that we can meet in person at my house.
A: I actually didn’t meet with the group for roughly a year when I was writing my book. I had a full-time reporting job, no book leave, and family stuff going on. I really did not have the energy to read people’s work carefully in the way that it deserved, so I stepped back because I didn’t want the group to feel like an obligation that I would grow to resent. It was the right decision. I returned once my book manuscript was finished and my headspace felt more clear. It felt really natural to be back and the momentum was as strong as ever.
N: We were so happy to have you back!
What’s the X-factor for a successful writing group?
D: At least three members need to have rhyming names: Deena, Nina, Jeanna.
L: And three people have to have curly hair.
J: And everyone has to have an earth moon.
N: And occasionally wear matching outfits.
A: It’s all about vibes.