In the past year, I’ve been in my RL group at school, Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, the Mayhew group, and the Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame. Here are some things I have observed, with the caveat that YMMV and different things work differently for different personality types:
1. Clear stopping and starting dates are helpful. Even if you don’t take a long break, people seem to be more engaged and enthusiastic if they know they’re signing on for 6, 10, 12 or 15 weeks, rather than committing to report weekly for an indeterminate amount of time.
2. The personality and engagement of the leader(s) are important. It’s almost ridiculous how encouraging it feels to have a group leader comment positively or sympathetically on one’s progress.
3. That’s the drawback with being a leader: who nurtures the group leader? It’s nice when people say thank you, of course, but that’s not the same as being encouraged.
4. Having a weekly theme for people to comment on facilitates discussion, which means participants get to know each other a bit better, which makes their comments on other people’s progress more meaningful, and so everything seems to go better.
5. Structure and trust are so important that I’m going to repeat the point, even though I’ve really made it already. In my RL group, where we actually read each other’s work, discussion always begins with clarification questions from readers (if there’s anything that just didn’t make sense), followed by a “positive comment round” and then by discussion of questions that the writer posed to the group. Only after that can readers raise other issues.
6. I think it’s useful for participants to commit to a single project for the duration of a . . . what shall we call it? A sprint? A workshop? It keeps the individual focused; it also helps other participants keep track, and therefore feel more invested, and therefore foster that sense of trust and community that is so encouraging.
7. As Contingent Cassandra suggested in the comments to last Monday’s post, putting together the roll is the most time-consuming part of running a group. If I do this again, and I’m quite willing to do so, I think I will insist that comments come in a 4-paragraph format: 1. Last week’s goal. 2. What was achieved toward that goal. 3. Comments/analysis of what worked or what went wrong. 4. Goal for next week. Then it’s easy to cut and paste the next goal. This is also why ADM and Notorious imposed the you’ll-be-dropped rule, I suspect. It’s easy to look at a single week’s comments, but less easy to go back through several previous weeks wondering who’s in and who’s out. Personally, I’d rather people commented every week even if the comment is “no progress.”
8. But it’s funny how much professors can be like students and just want to duck and hide when something is coming due that they’re not done with.
9. Putting up posts on Fridays and allowing people to comment over the weekend seems to garner greater detail and involvement than posting on Monday. Friday posting encourages reflection backward, possibly more than planning forward, as well as allowing last-minute weekend work so that there is something to report. (I’m not sure why that doesn’t take effect so you can report progress on Monday; maybe it’s just a matter of what people will admit to doing.) I suspect that it works better for real-life groups to meet on Monday, to plan forward and to know that they’ve already done something about writing for the week, while for virtual groups, the weekend may be the best time to catch up on blogs and get down to work without distractions from e-mail and persons from Porlock.
Altogether I have been very happy with my writing group experiences. The accountability is helpful, the sense of having company in a predominantly solitary activity is great, and I have enjoyed getting to know some bloggers who were new to me. If there’s interest, I’d be up for continuing to run a spring-semester writing group, although I think I’d make it more structured than the Winter Writing Workshop was, and I would also switch to a Friday posting schedule.
One other thing: despite what I said in #6, I’m not in a position to work on one single thing for the next 12 weeks or whatever it will be. I want to work on one thing at a time, and that thing will change depending on the nearest due date. So if I do keep running a group, either it’ll be a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation, or we’ll have to allow multiple projects for everyone, which will make it a bit harder to keep track of how things are going for any one person.
So, gentle readers, what do you think? Comments of your own about what you’ve learned? Shall we continue? Or is this a case of “thank you, but we think you’ve done enough”?