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Growing a New Writing Group

1 December, 2014

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Are you looking for writing feedback? Like the idea of sharing ideas and techniques with other writers?  If so, joining a writing group may appeal.

The easiest option is to find an established group. It already has its structure sorted out, plus its members are used to the routine. If you join,  you’ll quickly find out if the way the group operates and its members interact suit you or not. But such groups may not publicise themselves, so they are difficult to find. They may not be actively seeking new members, or if they are, it may be invitation only.

The other option is to join a newly formed writing group. There’s no history or established rules to work within,  which may be good. The challenge with a new group is transforming a collection of disparate writers into a cohesive, supportive unit.

Fortunately, the development pattern of new groups has been a subject of research for many years. One important early finding is that any new groupwhether it deals with writing, lawn bowls, or world dominationtends to develop via four consecutive stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.

Knowing these stages can help you understand what is going on in your brand-new writing group. And this knowledge may help you in terms of your expectations, plus hanging in there during the inevitable rough patches the group encounters as it matures.

Here’s how the four stages may play out.

1. Forming

A new group is fragile during its forming stage. Its members are not yet loyal, and their main concern may be what the group can do for them. The group faces instability, churn, with some people quickly exiting—sorry, not my thing—and new strangers taking their place. Group members may differ in terms of how they think the group should operate.

These different needs and expectations do not surface immediately. Why?

Members of a new group tend to be on their best behaviour, wanting to make a good first impression. Because they want to be seen as a valued part of the group, they may agree with issues that go against their true needs and feelings.

2. Storming 

The name says it all. The brief honeymoon is over.

As members become more comfortable in their group, they now want to have their needs met. Members’ different interests and agendas often lead to clashes.

Some common storming issues in a new writing group:

  • Time.  People taking more than their fair share of the discussion time. Too much meeting time spent on inconsequential matters, or late starts and long tea breaks becoming the norm. Members who chronically arrive late.
  • Feedback.  People giving feedback that is too general, negative or trivial. Or not giving enough feedback, such as ‘Yeah, liked it.’
  • Behaviour.  Not preparing for the meeting. Rewriting others’ material without permission. Dominating the discussion. Going to pieces when others critique one’s work. Undermining the group’s leader. Not accepting group decisions. Getting into a writing rut, I.e., revising work again and again, rather than providing others with new material for comment.

Although this stage is difficult, these differences can get members to start thinking about what’s important for the group and what may need to be changed or discarded.

3.  Norming

Storming can lead to one of these outcomes:

  • The group continues, after resolving major issues and accommodating differences where possible.
  • The group continues, based on majority rule, and dissenters opt out or are expelled.
  • The original group splinters, and members either opt out or join one of the splinter groups.
  • The group dissolves.

If the group continues, members begin to resolve differences and come to trust or tolerate others. Members realise they need to change in some ways in order to help the group, and they understand that it takes conscious effort to maintain group harmony.

To achieve such harmony, members may start talking honestly about their needs and expectations. It is useful to understand what each member 1) wants from the group, 2) is willing to do to help the group, and 3) will put up with. One person may want feedback, will help the group by attending nearly every meeting, and will put up with some less-produvtive members. Another person may value talking shop with others who are writing in a similar vein, will help out by taking on the role of the group’s contact person, and will accept that some members write stuff he’s not interested in.

4: Performing

If things go well, the group moves to this final, productive stage. Members now share a sense of unity and belonging. They become more involved and loyal, and actively help the group succeed. They may even get to the point of appreciating rather than tolerating others strengths and contributions. They trust the other members, may seek their help more than before, and they may socialise and perhaps become friends.

They now view their group as providing more benefits than drawbacks. When an issue or problem arises, they assess  how it affects them individually and how it affects the group–and they may put their own wishes to one side if the group benefits are more important. If the  group has no leader, one may be chosen or emerge at this point.

 Evaluating the experience 

If you join a new writing group, it may help to set a future review date, say, six months. Be an active member, and then, when the date rolls around, assess how your group is working in terms of helping you meet your writing goals. Even if you find that it isn’t helping that much, you may decide to stay because you enjoy other elements that the group provides, such as friendships, deadlines, and good discussions.

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