I can't tell you how many times I have had writers approach me asking for advice on starting a group, or even asking to get in on mine. Though writing is a solitary experience, it could be argued that the process - brainstorming new ideas, finding solutions to script problems, fleshing out the concept - is best done in a group. This is where a writer's group comes in clutch to save the day!
My group is comprised of individuals that were all determined to be professional writers, so we reformatted our original, more relaxed group to be more structured, like a class. We now have writers in the Universal Writers Program, making semifinals at AFF and the Nichols, and signing with representation. Adopting these strategies has really helped everyone narrow their focus and grow their skillset. Don’t feel like you have to stick to every word presented here, take these ideas and apply them to your situation. The idea is that you have someone to get feedback from, and can hold each other accountable, which ultimately helps you crank out (great) work. So dig in to the top eight ways to form the best writer’s group in town!
Remember - writing is re-writing! Use this helpful free eBook to walk you through it.
1. BE CONSISTENT
This covers meet-up time and location. Whether you meet weekly or monthly, everyone should commit to the same schedule of day/place/time. Of course, life happens and things may need to change, but if you have issues or worries, just reach out to the group beforehand – ideally a few days before – and others may actually want to make the same change for that week. But here’s the key, even if you can’t be there in person, try your best to make it via video or voice. You’d be surprised how much easier it makes it to hold yourself accountable when you know you will see each other again in “6” days or so.
2. KEEP IT TIGHT
This can be more crucial to the success or failure of your group than you realize. If your group is too small, you risk everyone having the same voice or opinion on scripts. But if it's too large, you risk not ever being able to get your work read in a timely manner, and having your voice drowned out. So having a group that is in the "Goldilocks Zone" is key for a successful group. I have seen some that number in the hundreds and even thousands, and some of just three people. You will have to decide what you want out of your group - just people to read your script, give you their thoughts, talk movies and hang, or people to dig in and give detailed advice that you can grow with as you all pursue writing professionally. For the latter, in my opinion, your Goldilocks Zone should be set at a tight 8 people or less. If you are meeting monthly, this gives you the chance to cover about 2 scripts per meeting, with about forty-five minutes for feedback (where the writer is not allowed to speak) and fifteen minutes for questions from the writer in a two-hour time period. You probably want to allocate about thirty minutes for catching up and discussing the next meeting also. But two and a half hours a week to get trusted advice is invaluable!
3. FIND WRITERS ON THE SAME PAGE (No Pun Intended)
This might sound pretentious but it is really just to ensure you get the best value out of your meetings. Each person should ideally be around the same or higher skill level. The idea is that you are each learning and teaching each other, together. So just as iron sharpens iron, you will sharpen each other. This is not to say that writers of a lesser skill level cannot teach you a thing or two, but you want the feedback you receive to be constructive, to find your blind spots, and not be a repeat of the basic things you already know. If you are just starting out, that’s fine! You can still join a group and grow quickly with them. I find that writers tend to gravitate to other writers of the same level naturally.
4. MAKE IT DIVERSE
Try to have a variety of people from different places and backgrounds. This allows for many differing perspectives that help you get a more well-rounded set of notes and ideas for problem spots. You'd be surprised how often a certain plot or scene comes up that may not stand up to the smell test for someone of that actual background, culture or ethnicity. They will help you keep your story authentic and that is always a good thing.
5. BE RESPECTFUL
Don't be rude, condescending or holier than thou. On the converse side, don't be too sensitive, defensive or assume your sh*t doesn't stink. No one is perfect and even if your script won the top prize at one of the premier screenwriting competitions, you will still be getting notes from the industry that it needs work. You are all there to help and learn from each other. Accept the notes given to you but don't take them too personally if you feel they don't apply (and certainly don't take it as an attack on you). On the flip side, don't give someone a note without an explanation, or suggested answer to their problem either. Help with a solution!
6. ASSIGN A RINGLEADER
You will need someone to remind people of the deadlines, what work is due, and of any calendar changes. This can make it feel more like a “class” but that is a good thing. Your ringleader will ensure “homework” gets turned in. This can be one person or a rotating roster of people. Even if you keep one person as ringleader you can rotate moderators during the meetings. Just like in class when the teacher would call on you to read the next page aloud, this helps everyone stay awake, organized, and engaged in the conversation.
7. HAVE A SHARED FOLDER & GROUP CHAT
This is not necessary, but a shared folder on a cloud drive really helps for reference materials, spreadsheets for meeting dates, deadlines, and assignments, and downloading each other's scripts. This also goes for shared calendars. It really helps to have one place to go and see what is due, from whom and when. As for the group chat, I have seen some just use an email chain, but that can get unwieldy very quickly. Find an app that you all can download. I recommend GroupMe because it is available on all mobile phones and has a desktop app, but to each their own. This allows you to discuss group changes, ask questions, argue over Oscar predictions, whatever you want to say. Plus using an app allows you to mute the notifications if the conversation goes on past bedtime!
8. USE A DEFAULT FEEDBACK TEMPLATE
This just helps you cover the same topics for each person. So you have a common set of basics that everyone will get feedback on (i.e., the plot, structure, dialogue, characters, etc.). You may only want to cover these in an in-person discussion or actually fill out a set of notes that you then email the writer afterward, whatever works for you. But having a template to start from really helps with consistency and quality of notes. Speaking of feedback, make sure you give positive notes along with the more critical ones! We all know writing can be an emotional, energy-sucking affair and every writer needs a grain of hope to hold onto, so be sure to give each other a positive note or two to keep morale up. My group starts every discussion off with one or two things we liked/what's working about the script before digging into what needs work.
Now you have all of this great info on forming a group of kick-ass writers, but where do you find people for your group? It can be hard for sure. I have spoken to people who say they have no film/writer community whatsoever in their small town and those that live in film-focused cities like Los Angeles who still don't know where to meet people. I would suggest starting with the basics and going from there. Meetup.com, Facebook, film festivals & conferences, local film community mixers, school or a writing class, the Reddit Screenwriters sub are all great places to start if you don't already have a handful of people in mind. Regardless of where you find your group, make sure you can trust them before sending them your work, but also remember that being too precious with your work can keep you from improving it and getting it out there!!
Other helpful suggestions:
- Have an agreement that nobody goes to draft until the group approves their outline. Fixing problems in your script is a lot easier while it’s still in outline form and you’re not overly attached to scenes you’ve written that you may have to kill off later.
- Schedule time to party (if you meet in person)! Because my group also likes hanging out outside of meetings, we are sure to schedule happy hours or social events on occasion along with our weekly meetings. Getting to know each other outside of the weeklies is really helpful when it comes to decompressing!
The decision to treat writers’ group like a job or a class has paid off in big ways for every member of our group and in a relatively short time. Take from this list what you will, but hopefully you will now have a better idea of how to form a group that will pay out dividends for your future as a writer!
Steven DeBose is a writer, producer, and podcaster from Austin, Texas. He has worked as a judge for the Austin Youth Film Festival, Conference Coordinator for the GTX Film Festival and most recently as Director of Script Competitions at the Austin Film Festival. Follow Steven on Twitter @Steven_DeBose and Instagram @StevenKirin