(This article was originally published at my old website, lifeinoleg.com, on November 19, 2010. It was originally written for an audience of librarians — and subsequently re-published on my library’s internal staff blog — but upon rereading it, I realize that it could work for anyone interested in helping writers find a supportive community.)
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 writers 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.
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.