For our May Writing Question of the Month, we asked a few writers what advice they’d give to someone who wants to start a writing group for the first time
As a Writing Programs Coordinator at Catapult, I get a lot of questions from students about forming writing groups. Whether you’re just beginning a writing career and are hoping to find like-minded peers who can hold you accountable or you’re about to be published for the first time and want someone to commiserate with, a writing group could be just what you need. Writing is often a solitary practice, but not every step of the journey has to be made alone!
For our second writing question of the month, we asked several writers, some of whom are in the same writing group, What advice would give to writers who want to form a writing group for the first time?
’s reporting and essays have also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Aeon Magazine, Paris Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Lapham’s Quarterly, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and more.
But even the best plans can be upended by external forces—job changes, moves, book deadlines that take more out of us than expected. And for a writers’ group to stay strong through everything life has to throw at it, it has to be nimble and able to adapt. Several members have left my group over the years, and we’ve brought new members in to take their spots (after careful consideration of the group’s genre and personality balance!). We’ve taken breaks when everyone had too much on their plates (for short, set periods of time). And we reassess periodically to make sure that we’re making the best use of our weekly meetings. For example, during a period when none of us were producing new work, we brainstormed a list of discussion topics to spend our meeting time on instead, and that was really fruitful and fun—and eventually people started having work to bring in again. But the point is, rather than throwing in the towel when members left or when we all got busy or stressed or were having fallow writing periods, we shifted and adjusted so the group continued to suit all of our needs. I hope we can keep doing that for many more years to come.”
Jeanna Kadlec’smemoir Hereticis forthcoming in 2022 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Jeanna has written for publications across the internet, from a Disney column at Longreadsto Elle to Autostraddle to LitHub.
“First of all, just do it! Second, invite people who understand the purpose of the group and are committed to meeting regularly. Writing groups vary in how they structure time (some are more fluid with “friend hangout” time than others, although even if you are close friends I’d advise keeping friend time outside of group), but the general purpose is to help everyone involved develop their work more rigorously together than they would alone. This requires a collective discipline. This requires people who show up, who have done the work, and who give thoughtful feedback. Essentially, it requires people who are mutually invested and who consequently push each others’ work forward. Groups tend to suffer when there’s a member or two who doesn’t understand the assignment, as it were. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to people, or to prune accordingly. When everyone is on the same page, the group thrives.”
Alex Marzano-Lesnevichis the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE, the Prix des libraires du Quebec 2020, and the Prix France Inter-JDD. It has been translated into ten languages. Marzano-Lesnevich has received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Oxford American, Harper’s, and more. Their next book, Both and Neither, is forthcoming in 2023.
“When I joined my beloved writing group, the Chunky Monkeys, a very early version of what would become my first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, had just failed to sell. So I remember how I felt when I got the email inviting me; like an imposter. Still, I was thrilled at the invitation. I said yes, keeping the secret of my unsold book.
But then my first workshop deadline approached. And I didn’t have a new idea—I had only my old idea, which still haunted me. That I felt I secretly no one was ever going to publish it suddenly freed me, as did how much I did not want to let this smart group of people down. Working with the same material, I wrote something riskier and weirder, something daringly closer to what I dreamed. And then I wrote them the next section. And the next.
Seven years later, the Chunks (as we call ourselves for short) are my cheerleading squad, my consoling cry-team, the group I show a new idea to first and the group I turn to for shoring up along the way. So many times they’ve carried the faith for me that yes, I can pull off whatever weird thing I’m dreaming of. But on another level, they all still intimidate me! And I’m still hoping to impress and enthrall them.
So that’s my advice: Find the smartest group of people, with the biggest hearts you can. Find the people you just really don’t want to let down.”
Find the people you just really don’t want to let down.
Julia Phillips is the debut author of the internationally bestselling novel Disappearing Earth, whichwas a finalist for the National Book Award. A Fulbright fellow, Julia has written for The New York Times,The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. She teaches at the Randolph College MFA program and lives in Brooklyn.
“If you’re setting out to make a writing group for the first time, I urge you to be thoughtful, be brave, and be ready for things to change.
At the start of the process, you might reflect on what kind of writing group you want. A writing group can take so many different forms, each of which may serve you in a different way. Just during this quarantine year, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in (and messy enough to flake out of some of) the following:
A support group where we talk daily on Slack and every Thursday on Zoom to share how we’re feeling about our writing
A generative group where we video chat for an hour every Tuesday evening to do a series of two- to five-minute writing exercises together
A different generative group with a perpetually open Zoom room where we can sign on at any time of day and work on our separate projects in communal silence
An accountability group where we call in every Tuesday to set writing goals for the coming week and gauge how we did on our goals the previous week
A different accountability group where we check in every Sunday on WhatsApp about our writing goals (and share photos of any homemade baked goods from the week before)
A workshop group where we meet every other month to read and provide feedback on each other’s writing
Literary community has spread out across every platform the digital age can offer in order to support each other’s creativity through this pandemic. We are all living in a time of previously unimaginable isolation; during this long lonely period, a writing group feels more precious, more necessary, than ever. What kind of community are you craving right now? Your writing group(s) can be any of these—support, accountability, generative, workshop—or operate in an entirely different way. How often and in what way would you meet? Would you and your fellow group members share work with each other? Do you wish to give updates on your writing projects only by texting gifs of people weeping or kittens wearing party hats?
Be thoughtful, be brave, and be ready for things to change.
Defining your desires will help you form your invitations to fellow writers you hope might participate. And where will you find these writers? Oh, God, where won’t you find them . . .
If you have just a single writer friend, ask them if they want to join and if they have any friends they can bring along. (I found my first group in pretty much just this way: I askedThe Only Writer Friend I Had if she knew of any group openings. She brought me to her workshop, which, seven years later, is now the daily Slack support channel and the light of my life.) If you ever took a writing class, email your favorite former classmates. Reach out to that nice person you met once at a bookstore event, back when meeting people at bookstore events was possible. Or DM your mutuals on Twitter who always like your #amwriting Tweets. Post in your neighborhood’s Facebook group to see if any strangers want to get in the mix. Flyer your local telephone poles!
Once you get the gang together, know that things will inevitably develop into something different from what you expect at the outset. In my experience, a writing group develops by way of the scientific method: We hypothesize that a certain collection of people will work well together in a certain way, perform the experiment of gathering everyone in a room (or in a Zoom), analyze our results, refine our hypothesis, and test again. Schedules, working strategies, and members may change. (See: The explosion of Covid-era channels of communication.) Don’t be discouraged! In this fragile world, nothing stays the same forever. Experiments of science and/or art are especially subject to change.
So be thoughtful. Be brave. Be flexible enough to bear a group shifting, growing, falling apart, and coming back together in a new form. No matter what, maintain the conviction that made you wish for a writing group in the first place: Writing is important, worth working on, deserving of your and others’ time. Be sure of that every step of the way. Be the writer you dream to be.”