How to run a writing group

Photo of Jo Case
Jo Case
22 January 2015
Jo Case

As a writer and editor, Jo Case understands the writing process and how difficult it can be. She spoke to Writers Victoria about how writing groups help her navigate that process, a subject she explored in detail during her workshop on how to run a writing group.

Writing groups vs writing classes – where do you stand?

That’s a funny question, as my first writing group emerged from my fiction writing class at RMIT. There were two students I shared a sensibility with, and whose writing I admired, and we decided to form a group outside class to revise our work and encourage each other to keep writing. The group outlasted the degree for two of us (the third is still studying). I know other writers who’ve had similar experiences, with writing groups springing from – and outlasting – writing classes.

So, I can’t choose between writing groups and writing classes. Both can be excellent! I think that, at their best, both offer deadlines, encouragement, honest feedback, camaraderie beyond the quiet room where you sit alone at your desk. And the success of both depends, in large part, on accessing the right people for your work.

Do you think writers' groups can help turn a work-in-progress into published work?

My second writing group, the one I’m still a part of, came about because a friend of mine, Rebecca Starford, whom I’d worked with as an editor (on ‘Kill Your Darlings’ and ‘Australian Book Review’) wanted to write a memoir and decided to start a writing group in order to create a structure for herself to write it. We joined with Rochelle Siemienowicz, a writer and editor I’d worked with at ‘The Big Issue’, who’d had an autobiographical novel-in-progress in her “bottom drawer” for years and felt it needed reworking. I’d just gotten a contract to write my memoir and had a whole book to write.

A few years on, I’ve published my book, and both Rebecca’s and Rochelle’s books are coming out this year. I think we’d all agree that the group – and the deadlines, editing and support it offers – has been invaluable in getting us to (and past) the finish line.

The group now includes essayist and reviewer Estelle Tang (occasional pop-in via email from New York since she moved there a year ago) and novelist S.A. Jones, who’s working on her next novel. We also use the group to workshop and polish reviews, essays and other work on occasion.

Do you have any writing group horror stories for us?

Sorry, I don’t. I have a writing class horror story, in which a fellow student and I got into an argument after she said she didn’t believe in editing because that part is the publisher’s responsibility. We just agreed to disagree in the end, but it’s the closest thing I have to a horror story. I remember it because I so passionately believe the opposite! Editing – even at the level of punctuation and grammar – can make the difference between publication or not, in the competitive world of publishing. I don’t mean making sure your work is as perfect as a proofreader would get it. What I mean is making sure your rhythm works, your sentences flow, and your dialogue sounds like conversation. Editing matters for all these things.

What does that have to do with writers’ groups? They’re on-call editors. It doesn’t matter if they work as editors or not – they’re a dedicated group of readers you can call on, who know your work and your intentions for it, who are dedicated to writing as a craft. They can point out where and when all these things aren’t working, because they’ll hear it as they read. Plus, they can point out inconsistent characterisation, plot holes and more.

Do writing groups always need to be run, or can they run themselves?

I think they can run themselves, to some extent…with basic systems set up that you follow. Our system is that we email each other our work in advance and then we make notes on print-outs, and discuss our writing, one piece/writer at a time, when we get together. That’s about it. And if we get off-track – as happens, and it’s fine – one of us will bring it back to the work at hand. Whether someone needs to run the group or it’s a group effort probably depends on the people and personalities involved.

About Jo Case

Jo Case is Program Manager at Melbourne Writers Festival and the author of ‘Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s’ (Hardie Grant). She was recently senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre.