ny writer who has been working at the craft for longer than an hour knows what an isolating profession it can be. It’s often difficult to emerge from your imaginary world of delightful characters or pull yourself away from some particularly gripping article you are researching; but, sadly, real life stops for no one—not even writers. It’s important to continue to hone your craft and network with fellow scribes, but classes and conferences, though helpful, are often expensive. This is where a writers’ group can come in handy.
If you don’t have a local group that meets regularly, you’re not alone. Kerrie Flanagan, founder of Northern Colorado Writers, had an hour’s drive to the nearest cities with any type of writers’ networking group. Kathy Higgs-Coulthard, founder of the Michiana Writers' Center, could expect a 3.5-hour drive to Indianapolis to participate in writers’ events. Richelle Putnam, founder of the Mississippi Writers Guild, had to visit a neighboring state to find the closest group.
So, why not start your own? In 2006, a fellow writer friend and I started a group for the same reason—the closest writers’ group that met regularly was over an hour away. We gave up almost an entire Saturday if we wanted to attend an afternoon workshop following the regular meeting. After an initial brainstorming session, we held our first meeting. Four years later, our little group has over thirty members, and we’re still growing. No matter where you live, you can start and maintain a thriving group by following these tips.
Establish a purpose and format
First things first: what kind of group do you want to start? Do you want to be an official organization with a board, bylaws, membership dues, and a monthly program, or a less structured critique group? Writers can certainly benefit from both, and one format can often lead into the other. But as you get started, be clear on what exactly you’d like to do. If you aren’t sure of what path to take, talk to your writer friends and gauge their interest. Ask them what would be more beneficial—are they looking to learn more about the craft of writing, or are they already producing and simply looking for feedback on their work?
Once you’ve decided on the group’s purpose, you should then determine the following:
- A name
- Meeting schedule
- Meeting location
- Meeting format/agenda
For my group, our focus has always been on providing education to our members—many of which have not written a word or have written and are unsure about next steps. We meet once a month at our local library. We established a board of directors and group bylaws within the first months of our group’s existence. We also charge a small annual membership fee. We held a contest to come up with a name for our group [Black Diamond Writers' Network].
“Provide your members with something valuable, and they will be happy to spread the word and bring their friends next time.”
Membership and marketing
Every group needs members, and you should start advertising and recruiting as soon as you schedule your first meeting or event. Keep your group’s name out in the public, so you can start establishing a presence in your community. It helps if your meetings are held in a semi-public place (such as a library)—people may stop by out of pure interest. Make marketing and recruiting a regular part of your group’s functions:
- Send out meeting and event notices to your local media.
- Make up fliers and distribute them anywhere writers may be—libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, art galleries, and museums.
- Design and create a promotional brochure that explains everything your group does. Distribute them at meetings, and ask your members to keep some on hand. They’re a simple and effective marketing tool.
- Look for unique ways to attract members. We once had a Membership Month, where we offered a half-price membership to anyone who attended a meeting with a paid member and joined on the spot. We brought in six new members. We also offered a free one-year membership as a door prize at our last writers’ conference.
Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth advertising, which works far better than any meeting notice or paid advertising ever could. Provide your members with something valuable, and they will be happy to spread the word and bring their friends next time.
“I found an empty office space near our local mall and leased it. NCW now had a home. Once this happened, membership shot up, and today we have over two hundred members.”
(Photo: Kerrie Flanagan, Northern Colorado Writers)
This is how Flanagan built NCW’s presence: “When I first began NCW, I had a couple hundred dollars in the bank for this new venture, and the hope that if I built it, they (writers) would come. And they did,” she says. “At this point, I had already organized two writers’ conferences, so I had a small list of writers I could contact. I started by offering a few classes at different locations in our area and letting people know the benefits they would get by joining. The monthly coffees were also held in different locations around town. Slowly, the word started getting around, and more and more people joined. By the end of the first year, there were about forty-five NCW members. As the organization grew, it grew more time consuming to find locations for classes and events.
I found an empty office space near our local mall and leased it. NCW now had a home. Once this happened, membership shot up, and today we have over two hundred members.”
Putnam and her associates traveled around Mississippi promoting the group in its early days. “We visited libraries, tourism offices, newspapers, coffee shops, bookstores—wherever we could get our foot in the door to leave brochures and business cards,” she says. It also helps if you can pair up with like-minded organizations to reach a broader audience, which they also did. “We held events like Literary Artists on Stage, Honoring Historic Mississippi Writers, Songwriters Night, and poetry slams. MWG partnered with local/regional organizations, like Meridian Museum of Art People’s Choice Awards and Eudora Welty Library.”
“Mississippi Writers Guild keeps a revolving board, so that ideas and events stay fresh and innovative.”
(Photo: Richelle Putnam, Mississippi Writers Guild)
The “business” of writing groups
Depending on your group’s structure, you may want to consider becoming a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Through this designation, your group can receive charitable contributions from donors and apply for grant funding for various programs.
Some groups, such as the Mississippi Writers Guild, are governed by an elected board of directors. “We hold elections every other year. Mississippi Writers Guild keeps a revolving board, so that ideas and events stay fresh and innovative,” Putnam says.
Higgs-Coulthard converted the Michiana Writers’ Center to a Limited Liability Partnership (LLC). Through this determination, all partners involved in the business can take an active role in its day-to-day operations. Each shareholder would then be given limited liability protection. “As an LLC, I registered with the state, received an Employer Identification Number, pay taxes on the fees I collect, and officially hire instructors,” Higgs-Coulthard says. An LLC does not pay income tax, but does pay an annual tax.
Even if you are forming a more informal critique group with the purpose of providing feedback on each other’s works-in-progress, you may want to have a petty cash fund, if not a formal bank account, for any expenses that may arise (such as copies, room rental fees, or refreshments for meetings). It is also a good idea to designate a treasurer who will be responsible for the finances.
“Until a writer realizes that it is not a hobby—but a passion, a talent, a calling—he or she may be reluctant to invest the time or money it takes to take his or her work to the next level.”
(Photo: Kathy Higgs-Coulthard, Michiana Writers’ Center)
Once all of the paperwork is filed and your group is a reality, the fun can really start—scheduling workshops, contests, and other initiatives that bring writers together.
Your group’s programming will likely change and adapt according to your members’ needs and suggestions. For BDWN, our focus has always been on education. Our membership largely consists of beginning writers, so we bring in speakers for our monthly meetings who talk about a specific aspect of the art or craft of writing or something writing-related. We have heard from professional organizers who spoke about creating a writing-friendly space in your home, a Civil War buff who spoke on researching his historical books and local history resources available in our area, a travel writer who impressed us all with the sheer amount of traveling she and her husband have done, and New York Times bestselling authors who shared their journeys to publication with us. Our group also holds occasional workshops, has made a critique group part of our monthly meeting schedule, and holds an annual conference.
Membership is constantly changing, but we average approximately twenty people at a meeting in any given month; and I hear from many more folks who see information about our meeting notices and want to attend. Many former speakers have become official members over the years, as well.
Both Flanagan and Higgs-Coulthard have a more fluid “membership” in that they do not charge dues, but they rely on a core group of fellow writers to maintain their programming. In addition to NCW’s monthly programs, Flanagan and her fellow writers hold an annual writers’ retreat at Sylvan Dale Ranch—an opportunity for thirteen lucky writers to get away for the weekend and write. NCW also holds an annual writers’ conference in Fort Collins that attracts writers from all over the country.
Higgs-Coulthard’s group holds craft sessions with local writers, a novel writing boot camp run by well-known author April Pulley Sayre, picture book workshops by Cynthia Reynolds, a women’s writing group, and a writers’ marathon. She has also teamed up with other organizations like the International Reading Association to hold contests focused on a featured book.
Higgs-Coulthard has had great success with their programs for young writers, too. “Our most noteworthy event is the Summer Youth Writing Project, where local writers spend two weeks writing alongside aspiring authors,” she says. “At the end of the summer, we publish their accomplishments in an anthology and hold a publication party at Barnes and Noble, where our young writers autograph copies of their work.” She says that it’s been tougher to attract adults because many view writing as a guilty pleasure. “I think that is due in part to how selfish it can feel to invest in this ‘hobby’ of writing. Until a writer realizes that it is not a hobby—but a passion, a talent, a calling—he or she may be reluctant to invest the time or money it takes to take his or her work to the next level,” she says.
“It’s about providing opportunities to those who don’t yet know how to use their voices...”
Benefits of joining a writers’ group
It may sound like a lot of work to form and maintain a writers’ group, and it is; but as many will tell you, the personal and professional benefits a group provides more than make the investment worthwhile.
Writers’ groups have helped to increase members’ visibility and strengthen their platforms. Higgs-Coulthard has landed paying work thanks to her group. “The editor of a local newspaper contacted me out of the blue to request that I write an article for her. A neighbor whose child wrote with me last summer hired me as a writing consultant for a project. Even the accountant who helped me file my taxes suggested that I lead a workshop on professional writing for his firm,” she says.
Across the board, most writers find that the relationships they are able to build with other writers, as well as the encouragement they receive to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, are the biggest reasons to join a writers’ organization. “It’s about providing opportunities to those who don’t yet know how to use their voices—that eight-year-old reading his first poem or the seventy-year-old reading hers,” Putnam says. “That’s why you should join a group [like Mississippi Writers Guild], to be encouraged and to encourage.”
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Match.com’s Happen Magazine, History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and LiteraryTraveler.com, among others. She is co-founder of the Black Diamond Writers' Network, a writers’ group in Northeast Pennsylvania. She discusses the trials and triumphs of the writing life on her blog, Adventures in the Writing Life.
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