PRIMETIME: Using or Starting a Writers Group

Today’s first question comes from Anthony, who posed a question last month about script coverage services.  That question generated a ton of great debate on the blog—thanks to everyone who responded!—and Anthony posted an interesting follow-up question.

In my initial post, I had suggested forming a writers group instead of using script coverage services (which I’m not a big fan of).  Anthony then asked…

My worries with a writers group sound similar to your worries about a coverage service. The reason I had stayed away from writers groups is my belief that people in writers groups, if they were qualified to help me get my script to a professional level, wouldn’t their scripts be at a professional level, and wouldn’t they be working? But maybe this was improper thinking?

Yes!  Anthony, this is “improper thinking!”  A good writers group can be invaluable,  much more helpful than a coverage service, provided it’s run the right way.

First of all, whether or not someone is working isn’t always an indication of their professional ability or level… or whether they belong in a writers group.

I used to be in a writers group, and it consisted of six people: 1) A mid-level sitcom writer; who worked non-stop; 2) A baby TV drama writer who’d written two freelance episodes and was working as a script coordinator; 3) A screenwriter who’d sold one feature a couple years ago; 4) A mid-level reality producer who wanted to get into the world of late-night comedy and sketch; 5) An aspiring comedy writer—who had sold an option on one feature script—just writing his first TV specs; 6) A mid-level reality/alternative producer trying to hop over to scripted TV.

We were all at fairly different places in our career.  Some of us were employed as writers or producers; others weren’t.  And those who were working, like the mid-level sitcom writer, were still writing other material on the side—pilots, spec scripts, movies, shorts, sketches.  They’d go to their regular job during the day… then bring their original material to the writers group at night.

Wanna network with professional screenwriters? Try here.

(Also: as a TV or film writer, you will always go through periods of unemployment.  I mean, as a TV writer, shows get canceled regularly… leaving staffs of writers, no matter how talented, unemployed until the next staffing season, often months away.  If you want to be in this industry, you must embrace the fact that you are an eternal freelancer… which means you will, no matter how successful you are, go through periods of unemployment.  Thus, not working professionally isn’t necessarily a sign of incompetence or lack of talent.  There are thousands upon thousands of writers, professional and amateur, swarming the streets of L.A… and only a few hundred TV writing jobs each year.)

However, while everyone in that writers group was at a different professional level, we all had immense respect for each others’ work… and believed we were at similar levels creatively.

In other words, the “professional” level of the writers within the group is not as important as the “creative” level of their work.

People are at different career levels for various reasons… I’ve known low-level staff writers who were just as talented as co-EP’s; they simply had different career paths.  So it’s fine if people are at different professional levels, as long as everyone believes they’re in the same ballpark ability-wise.

You do NOT want a writers group mixing seasoned, polished writers with first-timers just trying to learn structure, character, tone, process, etc.  (Having said that, it’s rare that you find veteran writers and newbies who actually are at the same level creatively, so you’ll probably end up in a group with people near your same professional and ability levels.)

(ALSO, AN EXCEPTION:  This may depend on exactly how you wish to use your writers group.  Ours was primarily used as a creative sounding board; each writer would bring in material and receive feedback or suggestions from other group members.  Some writers, however, want groups where they can also discuss career problems, get professional advice from peers, etc.  If this is the kind of writers group you want, then it’s probably advantageous to be with people close to your same “professional level.”)

Here are some criteria and “rules” I’d consider when putting together a writers group:

EACH WRITER SHOULD BE AT SIMILAR CREATIVE LEVELS.

Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter what professional level each writer is at, as long as everyone in the group feels they’re all at the same creative level, churning out the same quality of work.

WRITERS SHOULD BE WORKING IN SIMILAR MEDIUMS.

While our group had people working in TV, features, sketch, drama, comedy, etc., everyone was some form of screenwriter.  We all understood the language and challenges of writing for a screen, as well as the paths and tribulations of the business.  You do NOT want a writers group comprised of screenwriters, novelists, poets, and journalists.  The forms are too wildly different, as are the industries.

(And to be fair, maybe our writers group would’ve been more helpful had it been even more homogenous—all TV drama writers, or all feature writers doing romantic comedies, or all late-night sketch writers.  I don’t know.  I tend to think a bit of diversity added to the group… everyone seemed to bring a unique perspective and skill set… but I could be wrong on that.)

WRITERS SHOULD HAVE SIMILAR GOALS.

While writers in the group can be at various professional levels, it’s important to find writers with similar professional (or non-professional) goals.  Everyone in your group should be trying to succeed as a paid professional screenwriter… or as a published novelist or short story writer… or as a published journalist… or, if they’re not professionals, as hobbyists who simply want to enjoy and improve their—and other people’s—work.

In other words, an effective writers group should NOT be a mix of professionals and hobbyists. Every needs to be on the same page, career goal-wise, as this will affect how they treat the other writers, their work, etc.

ESTABLISH A “CONSTITUTION.”

Draft a document articulating the “mission statement,” or purpose of the group… as well as ground rules for processes and procedures.

Not just for fledgling nations anymore.

Is this a group formed primarily to give creative feedback on works in progress?  Is it a forum for discussing career challenges and advice?  How do you want feedback given– do you have a specific process for feedback (i.e., positives first, questions second, criticisms third, etc.)?  Do you want to incorporate spontaneous writing exercises?  Is every writer expected to bring material to each meeting?  Should material be emailed to members so it can be read before the meeting… or will you read work aloud?

Different people may prefer different methods, but don’t be afraid to establish a document listing the rules or processes; you can even read it before each meeting to remind people of the group’s intentions and processes.

SET ESTABLISHED MEETING TIMES AND PLACES.

Ideally, you can find a specific location where you group can meet regularly—an office conference room, a library, somebody’s house.  Wherever you decide, it should be quiet, comfortable, and suitable for private discussion of people’s work.  You don’t want to host a writers group in a living room where someone’s kids or husband will be poking in every few minutes.  Avoid bars or coffee shops.

Also, establish—up front—”rules” for how often the group will meet: every third Wednesday, weekly on Saturday mornings, etc.—and stick to it.

WRITERS NEED TO COMMIT TO THE GROUP.

Life can get busy and complicated, but writers in your group must make this a commitment.  Inevitably, people will have to cancel at some point, but lay ground rules: if you fail to make two or three meetings, you’re booted from the group.  This group is not a social club; it’s a tool to help you achieve your professional goals… just like an important business meeting, a job interview, or an appointment with a loan officer.  If people aren’t willing to treat it as such, they don’t belong in the group.

So… how do you find appropriate people for your writers group?  If you don’t personally know some interested parties, put up flyers or postings in places where literary types might hang out: libraries, bookstores, theaters, art house cinemas, local colleges, etc.  Put ads on Craigslist or Facebook.  Visit writing and screenwriting websites or forums, looking for local writers.

Also, don’t be afraid to “audition” people.  Have interested candidates submit writing samples; if their work isn’t at the level you want in your group, reject them.  Meet people for coffee before allowing them into the group; feel out their personalities, their goals.  Talk about books, movies, art, and TV shows you like; while you don’t need similar tastes, you do want writers who can talk critically and articulately about various pieces of work.  Explain the groups rules and “mission statement” up front; ensure you’re on the same page about what you each need from a writers group—and what the group is designed to provide.

Like putting together a band—or, more appropriately, a writing staff—you want to make sure you have the right team of people, the right blend of personalities, goals, senses of humor, abilities.

I hope this helps, Anthony.  I believe a good writers group is often much more helpful than a coverage service… and it’s free!  (And by the way, if you get into a writers group and it’s not for you, if you’re not getting what you need, find or start another!)

If you or anyone else has other questions, please don’t hesitate to post them below or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

In the mean time, here are some quick links to other sites about starting a writers group; you may find some more helpful information there.

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2 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Using or Starting a Writers Group

  1. Patrick Gabridge

    Great post. I’m part of a playwright’s group, Rhombus, that sounds quite similar to what you’ve laid out (we’re in our 8th year now; another group I started in Denver lasted for 18 years). I totally agree with your guidelines. Similar goals, commitment, and chemistry are all critical, whether your group is working on screenplays, stage plays, or novels.

  2. T. Jay O'Brien

    Great article, Chad! You really cover the important fundamentals for any group of writers starting to form a group of their own. My Writers Lab just celebrated our 14th Birthday and from that experience, a few observations to add to your terrific list. Try and get some actors involved with you if possible. Writers can hear the voices in their head and write down what they say, but aren’t always good at reading lines and bringing a character to life. Who better than people who (want to)do it for a living? This gives you the chance to direct the actors and then it’s out of your hands so you can be objective about your writing and really listen to it!
    The secret to a successful Writers Lab is — have cookies; everyone needs something sweet during the evening and if you tell actors there’s food, you usually can get some involved. Finally go for constructive criticism and by that I mean criticism in the finest sense of the word. You recognize there are flaws and weaknesses in the script (not the writer), and you offer suggestions on choices that will serve to make the script more dramatic, comic, will ratchet up the tension, suspense, horror, etc. No script, or writer ever got better by only being stroked. So call the writer on the choices made that you think could be stronger and ultimately better for the material. And when something works, let the writer know that too. Let them know about the good along with the bad!
    Fantastic piece Chad! If a burgeoning group just follows your advice they will be way ahead of the game!

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