Getting Everyone to Participate in Writers’ Groups

You know how groups work. A chunk of people want to do as little as possible. A chunk of people are willing to volunteer now and then. And a few people end up running the show because they step forward. Writers groups are no exception.

A moment of self-centeredness here, if I may. Every time I join some new thing, I tell myself I’m going to be in the first chunk, but I somehow end up being in the third. I don’t know why this happens, but it does. That was certainly my intent with Book View Cafe, anyway. (Don’t tell the others!) I was going to quietly post stories and books, rake in untold thousands of dollars, and stay in the background with my mouth shut. But I somehow ended up as a weekly blogger and the secret typsetter for the BVC anthologies. And all my Sunday afternoons quietly vanished.

At any rate, writers groups can work successfully on the three-chunk model, but it can present a problem. You’ll get a group where the same set of writers submit their material regularly, a few writers submit once in a while, and a bunch of writers submit little or nothing.

This is an unfair system, really. First, the people who submit regularly are getting all the group’s attention. This isn’t good for them or the group–the focus has shifted to a handful of individuals, and not everyone is getting an equal share of time. Second, there’s a faction of people who remain unfairly “safe.” Submitting your writing to a group of critiquers is a risky business. You leave yourself open to a fair amount of emotional upheaval. People who critique regularly but refuse to submit anything are putting their fellow members through emotional risks that they themselves deliberately avoid. That’s unfair. Not only that, it seems a bit odd that someone would join a writers group and then refuse to write. Writing is difficult work, and we learn best by doing it, not avoiding it. People who want to read and critique belong more properly in a book club, not a writers group.

When you’re forming a writers group, it’s therefore a good idea to work out a system of getting people to submit their work. Obviously, you can’t force anyone to submit. But a group can encourage it. Groups can reward people who submit, for example. Some groups have all members put a small amount of money in a pot on a regular basis, and every time someone submits, their name is put into a drawing for that money. The more you submit, the bigger your chances of winning. Or you can have a booby prize for people who don’t submit. The Untitled Writers Group used to have a stuffed hamburger with pictures of a shirtless William Shatner pinned to it. Non-submitters had to take it home and explain what it was and why they had it to anyone who asked.

You’ll need to work out how often is often enough. Once a month? Every other meeting? Every six months? And how much writing is enough? A page? A paragraph? An entire story or chapter? A hundred words? For the record, the UWG asks its members to submit at least one piece of writing of any length once every four meetings (which is once every two months). We’ve had some pieces that were only two paragraphs long, clear attempts at dodging the Shatner-burger, but hey–they’re writing!

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Getting Everyone to Participate in Writers’ Groups — 2 Comments

  1. There is also a significant subset of the writer community which needs a deadline to get the words flowing. In a sense a writers group (or class, or job) is a device to create and enforce that deadline. It is therefore actually helpful to set up some kind of rule — everybody submit one ms minimum per year? per class? Something, anything, so that everybody is forced to produce.

    In my writing class, I threaten them with THE EYE OF ARGON. If we run out of student ms, it’s the Eye! Works like a charm in two ways. Not only is ARGON really really terrible, the very reverse of attractive. But reading it makes even the most timid author suddenly realize, “Holy Ned! I can write better than THIS.” And this realization is very liberating.