A travel writing class I took online many years ago became the turning point in my life as writer. Not only did I receive the best writing advice ever, but I met Joyce Finn. She invited me to join an online writing group she was a member of and thereby opened up the world of the writing community to me.
When that group faltered, we set out to create our own. It was clear from the very beginning that Joyce was the ideal moderator. She has amazing empathy, energy and yet a firm hand and a clear idea of what she wants. Seven years later that group, Writers and Critters, is still thriving, and even though I had to leave it when I pursued my MFA (too many commitments!), I still consider myself a member-at-large. I asked Joyce to share her insights on how to keep an online writers group thriving. Here’s her guest post (Thank you, Joyce!):
When I started the online writer-critique group, Writers and Critters, I had firm ideas about what I wanted and expected from an Internet group. I wanted an international community for women writers with enough structure and staying power to last. I knew it wasn't enough to assemble compatible writers and expect it to prosper. I had seen too many others fail from lack of focus, ill will, or loose organization. Here’s how Writers and Critters avoided those pitfalls:
Don’t accept just anyone. Acceptance to Writers and Critters is by application. Like many other moderators, I ask potential members for a writing sample to determine whether a writer is willing to share her work with strangers and to broadly ascertain her writing level.
Have a diverse and robust membership. Members range from poets to novelists and everything in between. We even had, a few years back, an obituary writer. At any given time, membership bounces between 20 and 30 members. As part of the membership selection process, my job, as moderator, is to keep in mind the different forms and genres within the group. An overabundance of any one genre can throw the group dynamic off balance.
Have rules for participation. Our basic rules stress constructive, not useless "attagirl" critiques. We require two submissions and four critiques per month. Participation is tallied on a spreadsheet. Results are posted mid-month and at the end of the month, both to motivate--it's a record of what members have achieved--and to prompt anyone who may be struggling.
Offer group activities that foster participation. We offer a weekly free-write exercise as well as other writing prompts and challenges, and a weekly market listing. I encourage members to consider overseas possibilities and will often include applicable publications relevant to members' work. The listings are a good nudge to stop tinkering with a piece and flinging it out to fend for itself.
Consider meeting in person. In 2008, we were featured in Poets & Writers Magazine when we took our group from cyberspace to a face-to-face conference. Since then we've had three more conferences with a fourth planned for October 2011. Sessions are geared specifically to member needs. Annette has often been a guest speaker.
The success of Writers and Critters is evident in the many books, magazines, and anthologies on my shelves that contain work by members. In the past five years, there have been three nominations for the Pushcart Prize and one for the Agatha Award.
Although we write from all corners of the world--Shanghai and Australia to the Netherlands and Norway--bonds have been forged and writing honed. My own success as a writer is certainly attributable to the help I've received by the women in Writers and Critters. With a firm structure, our group has become more than I hoped for all those years ago. Annette will tell you, when a group rocks, it rocks!