How to put together a writing group

Writing ToolsDecide what the goal of the group is and communicate it clearly. Generally, there are two types of writing groups:  writing date groups and workshopping groups.  The goal of a writing date group is to devote time to writing; the goal of a workshopping group is to, well, workshop.  Some groups do a mix of the two.  Regardless of the set up, communicate clearly to the participants what the purpose of the group is.  It’s frustrating for everyone if a writer shows up expecting to get feedback and doesn’t, or if someone shows up expecting to have time blocked out for writing and doesn’t get it.

Figure out a regular meeting place or at least a regular way of communicating where you’ll be meeting.  Inconsistent meeting times or places is swift way to kill a writing group, especially if the participants don’t know each other well.  The point of a writing group is to focus your energy on writing–if you have to spend energy figuring out logistics, then that’s less energy spent on the actual writing.  Here are the pros and cons of a couple of common meeting places:

a)  Libraries:  My favorite place to meet writing groups–they’re free, they are open to all ages, they are usually open until at least 8pm, and they often have meeting rooms or study tables available.  The Chicago Public Library system just launched an online reservation system for  their meeting rooms, which is one of the most exciting things that happened this summer (I lead a quiet life).  The cons?  You usually need a library card to make a reservation, there might be a lot of competition for particular time slots, no food or drink to purchase.


“Three hours of sitting and no drink or tip…that’s cool, that’s cool. Definitely not thinking about throwing this coffee at your head. Never even crossed my mind.”

b) Coffeeshops:  They are popular with writers for a reason, you can watch people without engaging with them, there are table and chairs and outlets and often WiFi, baristas are used to people writing there, coffeeshops are open to all ages, and of course, there’s readily available bean juice.  Cons include: you generally can’t reserve areas, which can be a problem is your writing group is big and there’s less privacy if you’re workshopping.  Further, while you can get away with just writing and not buying anything, it’s not recommended if you want to stay in the good graces of the staff–and if you’re meeting there regularly, you want to be in their good graces.

c) Private Homes:  I occaisionally run writing group session out of my home–it is convenient to the organizer, you can bring or make food, the group can stay as long as they want (provided you’ve worked it out with your roommates or partner), there’s lots of privacy if you are workshopping stuff that you don’t feel like shouting over the rattle of coffeecups.*  However, I’ve found that doing workshops or writing date sessions in a private home can feel more like a social get together which means it’s easy for the writers to get distracted.  And of course, there’s the safety and comfort issue–not everyone feels comfortable going to someone’s house, especially if you don’t know the host well.  And if your’re the host, it means you have to tidy up somewhat.**

d) Unusual spots: During National Novel Writing Month, there’s a lot of writing meet ups in unexpected places such as museums, hookah bars, train cars, and theatres.  There’s something really fun about meeting in place you don’t normally write in, it can spark creativity and be a good way to get out of a rut.  But of course, those places are less convenient–limited space, ticketed entry, etc.

If you are workshopping, have some agreed upon guidelines.  There are a lot of methods for workshopping, this post isn’t advocating a particular method but I do think that workshop participants should have an idea of what to expect (will they get written notes?  Are they allowed to respond to comments?).  If there are  rules you want to lay down, make that clear from the beginning (such as submitting no more than 10 pages, or submitting at least a week in advance).

If you are meeting to just get writing done, still structure the session.  I run a chapter of Just Write Chicago, in which we do exactly that–just write.  However, our writing sessions still have a regular format: we just write for about an hour and a half, then we spend 20-30 minutes introducing ourselves and talking about any writing issues that have come up that week.  Having a regular format helps focus the writing time and pushes folks to actually get stuff done, which is the point of writing date type groups.  I’m also a big fan of actually talking to people at the end of a writing session, it helps build community and gives people a chance to network.  And who else is going to listen to you talk about your imaginary friends that live on the page?

Think about community management.  If you are organizing a group of humans, whether it be a writing group, a sports team, or a rag-tag heist gang, you are going to have to think about community.  What are your values as a community and how do you practice them?  Do you want your writing group to focus on a particular demographic, such as novice writers, or working parents?  If so, how do you make your group accessible and helpful to them?  Similarly, if you value having a space for diverse experiences and voices, it’s worth looking at the specific ways white writers in workshop groups disregard writers of color and the ways in which women are disregarded by men in co-ed meetings so you can avoid those pitfalls.  Yes, it’s a lot to think about, but these issues are going to exist regardless of whether or not you address them–so you might as well be a responsible organizer and deal with them.

"Is this writing group working for me?"

This statue isn’t sure if she’s getting what she wants out of her writing group.

Check in with the group and yourself every so often.  I used to be really bad about this and would keep on attending or running a writing group, regardless of whether or not it was useful or fun for me.  It should be at least one of those things, preferably both.  So check in with everyone and see if it’s still worthwhile–people’s schedules and goals change, so sometimes even an awesome group stops working.  It’s hard enough to make time for writing, don’t let a writing group get in the way of writing.

*Fun fact:  In the 1940s Anais Nin ran a writing group in her apartment at the end of every month when all of her writer friends were broke and desperately trying to make rent.  They ate oatmeal (because that’s all they could afford), wrote naughty stories for about twelve hours straight, then sold them to a mysterious collector who paid by the page.  Flush with cash, the writers paid their rent and went on writing their novels and plays for the rest of the month.  Everyone won!

** For me, that usually means running around about 10 minutes before people arrive, frantically shoving laundry in the bedroom

APRA Prospect Development 2015 Recap + Some NOLA History

Last week I got back from that special time of year for all prospect researchers…APRA International’s Annual Prospect Development Meeting!  For the non-prospect researchers out there, APRA International is the primary professional organization for prospect researchers, managers, and affiliates.  The once a year international conference is 4+ days of workshops, seminars, vendor demos, and networking.  And of course, conference swag.


This year’s APRA International was full of firsts for me.  First time presenting, first time meeting several researchers I’ve only interacted with through Twitter, first time time going to New Orleans, first time eating shrimp everyday for four days straight.  It was all beautiful.

My colleague Catherine Cefalu does a daily recap of the conference, available on her YouTube channel here.  For my part, here were questions and challenges from my colleagues that I

This cafe was a great writing spot.

So many beignets, so little time.

left APRA Prospect Development 2015 pondering:

  • How Does Prospects’ Gender Affect My Research? :  Preeti Gill and Jennifer Filla’s presentation on researching wealthy women made me reconsider how I was researching couples and how prospects’ gender affects their cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.  My biggest takeaway from the talk was to be more creative in how I looked for information on female prospects–since women are not in executive or board positions as often as men, and their wealth is often inherited (though not always), they may not appear on the “rich lists” and other traditional sources for prospecting.
  • How Do Societal Views of Non-Profits Affect Our Impact?:  The keynote speaker, TED talk alum Dan Pallotta, argued that non-profits are held back from achieving their goals by a series of unspoken rules, such as “overhead deducts from the mission,” and “non-profit employees should not earn as much money as their for profit counterparts.”  I didn’t agree off the bat with some of his arguments, but he certainly made me think, which I appreciate.  I’m planning on reading his book about non-profits in the U.S.A.
  • Communicate:  Every single session I attended and every single researcher I spoke to talked about the importance of communication in their work and the challenge of communicating effectively.  Didn’t matter how large or small their shop was, or how many years they had been in the field, or what their expertise was, they all talked about communication.  This was a good reminder that “good communication skills” however cliche, are always in demand and that effective communication is a moving target.
  • Be Fearless with Tech!:  My co-presenter, John Connelly of Northwestern, gave a practical breakdown on how and why he learned Python to help him complete research-related tasks.  Now I’m inspired to reconsider how I can use technology, even forms with which I’m not familiar (yet) to make my work easier.  Learning new skills is always a little scary, but his presentation certainly demonstrated how being fearless and willing to try new things can really pay off.
  • Be Willing to do Some Old-Fashioned Fieldwork!:  My colleagues Lindsey Royer, Namrata Padhi, and Melissa Carpenter did a very informative session on industry outlook, compensation, and philanthropy in law, private equity, and pharmaceuticals.  One of the reasons their session was so informative was that they interviewed people in the industry.  As a former anthropology student, I heartily approve–talking to someone actually working in the field gives a fresh perspective and up to date info that can be hard to access as an outsider.  As prospect researchers, we tend to rely on sources we can read–but there’s no reason we can’t do some field research too.  Not to mention it can be a good way to engage prospects who aren’t ready to give yet, but are interested in volunteering their time…

And now, for some interesting philanthropic history…

In preparation for visiting New Orleans, I read Black Life in Old New Orleans by Keith Medley.  The book was a very good introduction to New Orleans history, especially for someone like me, who has never visited NOLA and doesn’t know much about the city’s past.  One chapter of the book was about Madame Marie Couvent, an 19th century philanthropist in NOLA.  She was kidnapped from West Africa (specific place unknown) when she was about seven years old, and sold in Saint Dominique.  After the Haitian Revolution, she emigrated to New Orleans as a free woman, married Bernard Couvent, another free black man, and proceeded to build a new life for herself and her family.   When she died in 1837, her will stipulated that her property in the Faubourg-Marigny neighborhood be used for a school for orphans of color and that “…I declare that said lands and buildings shall never be sold under any pretext whatsoever.”

The land in question has been used as a school ever since.  The faculty included poets,

Madame Couvent's tomb

Madame Couvent’s tomb

journalists and prominent civil rights advocates. In 1890,  Board of Directors president Arthur Esteves and several other directors waged a legal fight against segregated railroad cars that led to the famous United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson.  Despite administration changes, two hurricanes, and all of the social and political changes of the last one hundred and seventy-eight years, a school continues to operate on Madame Couvent’s land.  Today, the school is St. Gerard Majella Alternative School.

As I wandered through the Faubourg-Marigny and French Quarter neighborhoods, and listened to discussions on the role of philanthropy in the world, I kept thinking about Madame Couvent.   On one hand, her gift was so very simple–a school.  On the other hand, it was so very sophisticated–I imagine, given her lifelong fight in New Orleans on behalf of black folks and to achieve social/economic standing herself, she knew the power of education and the need for a stable employer and a community center for organizing.  And she knew that anything that empowered black folks would be a threat to the established social order, so she locked the purpose of her donation, as best she could, into perpetuity.  And it worked–she created something that managed to outlast and dismantle the system that kidnapped her.   Madame Couvent’s story is complex and like most philanthropists, it is important to acknowledge her whole history*, but one thing I take from the story of Madame Couvent’s life is the power of thoughtful philanthropy that considers both the long-term and short term needs of a community.

* She and her husband’s activities included buying several slaves in order to free them.  This was a common practice among black folks in the 19th century who wanted to free relatives and friends, since the process of manumission was convoluted and took a very long time.  However, there is also evidence that Madame and Monsieur Couvent may have also engaged purchasing slaves as a financial investment.  The participation in the slave economy by free people of color is complicated issue–for more information about this history and how the students of the school have engaged with Madame Couvent’s philanthropic legacy here are two articles.  (Article 1) (Article 2)