The Screenwriters’ Guide to… Writers’ Groups!
I am a huge fan of writers’ groups. After all, I’ve been working with writers for many years, and in those years I’ve been able to observe what a huge difference a strong and steady writers’ group can make in a writer’s life. In fact, every time I take on a new career coaching client, one of the questions I ask them is: Are you part of a writer’s group? And if not, why not? To say that I am a proponent of writers’ groups would be an understatement.
All of this was true long before COVID-19. And in it? In the time of social distancing and expanded isolation, I have found that writers’ groups have become lifelines for many of my screenwriters and TV writers.
What makes writers’ groups so great? My friend Marissa Jo Cerar, a supervising producer on The Handmaid’s Tale who recently set up her new show Women of the Movement at ABC with Jay-Z and Will Smith executive producing, broke it down best when she advised the following a few years back:
“If you can, join or create a writers’ group. Navigating this business can be tough, especially if you don’t have a great support system who understands rejection and the amount of work a screenwriter must do to finish a script. It can take a year (or longer) to finish a script, and it can “die” in 2 weeks (or less). That sucks. You need people by your side who understand just how much it sucks, and who will inspire you to keep writing. My writers’ group offers unconditional support, and we’ve seen amazing successes in the two years since we’ve formed. We help each other break stories, craft stronger characters, and when we have a crappy day we know there are six other writers we can call who will get it. So….if you can form a writers’ group, do it!”
What she said. And… let me add to it or, rather, rephrase:
The best writers’ groups can and should provide its members with…
Feedback. If becoming a better writer is all about getting good notes, then a group populated with other talented, smart writers, who are available to give you notes regularly, should be key to helping you push your craft to the next level.
Community. Whether you’re a feature writer or a TV writer, a strong, dependable community can only help you in your journey towards a screenwriting career, especially in times like these, when isolation abounds, even for many writers who tend to like their quiet writing hours. Nothing else quite compares to this industry, to how it works and what it requires. Therefore, having other writers on the journey with you can only better your experience.
Support. If one thing is guaranteed about most any writers’ journey to and through a screenwriting career, it’s that it will come chock full of frustrations, disappointments and aggravations. Therefore, having other writers in it with you, who are no strangers to frustrations themselves, and who can help you navigate the realities of the industry, stay motivated and on task, and devise smart next steps, can become key to your ability to continue to show up powerfully and thrive.
The basic rule for successful groups is simple: Give notes. Get notes.
However, that basic rule, and the coming together for giving and getting said notes on screenplays and TV pilots is rarely enough of a foundational structure to help construct the sort of lasting, meaningful writers’ group that Marissa Jo spoke about. So what are some of the things that you should consider when putting together your writers group?
Level of Writers.
While most writers, especially those earlier in their screenwriting journey, would love to be invited into a writer’s group populated with writers whose writing careers, be they in TV or film, are well on their way and who have been writing for a much longer period, the reality is that most writers tend to find themselves in writers’ groups made of writers who are somewhere around the same level writing-wise. Which, if we’re talking about building a lasting group here, is advantageous. If one writer is specifically further along in the development of her craft than the others, then she is may tire of the group in time, or feel frustrated that she is not getting as good as she is giving. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t find writers’ groups made of both working and non-working writers. It’s about the level of craft in the room and the ability to give astute, smart notes, rather than the job titles of the participating writers.
And Speaking of Craft…
In order for a group to work well together, there has to be an agreement on what makes for good writing. That is, fundamentally, what is the foundation of screenwriting? What makes for a good screenplay? What are the expected standards of a strong pilot?
Groups that emerge from a class often seem to hit the ground running on this front: All the writers are, effectively, working from the same rule book. Accordingly, when a group comes together more at random, it can be more hit or miss: one writer can swear by Save the Cat, while another might hate it, and instead abide by the sequencing method for structure. It doesn’t mean that two writers with two differing points of view can’t help one another with great writing. There does, however, mean that there has to be some sort of agreement about the foundation of craft before writers can start giving notes to one another, unless we want it to get really frustrating, really fast.
With groups made of writers who are all just starting out, there can become scenarios of the the “blind leading the blind,” especially if none of the members have dug too substantially into the craft side, and instead just started writing without a lot of experience of base knowledge. For such groups, I often recommend identifying some required reading materials, be they books on craft, masterclasses or celebrated screenplays or pilots, and then taking time to discuss. There are many ways to learn screenwriting and TV writing, and each group has to decide on its method for defining its standards!
Are all writers in the group showing the same level of dedication to both their craft and their career? A particular answer to this question doesn’t mean that the only groups to thrive are ones set on making their screenwriting aspirations a reality in short time; some groups are incredibly resilient, whether they consist of writers who all treat their screenwriting as a fun hobby or long-term aspiration to follow down the line. So it’s not about the level of dedication to screenwriting or TV writing, but, instead, having a similar outlook and similar goals shared by the writers. Otherwise, a hobbyist screenwriter may find that his more career-driven counterparts bring an unnecessary intensity, while more career-minded scribes may get frustrated that they are not seeing the same work ethic in their counterparts.
Features, TV or both.
Some half-hour TV writers have no desire to read, or note, feature screenplays. And some feature writers have no interest in writing TV, and therefore posses little understanding of its structure and standards. Because of this, it’s important for the members of the writers’ group to decide what kind of material will be reviewed in the group. Of course, some groups are open to all sorts of formats.
Got all that? Alright! Now it’s time to decide on…
While I do tend to lean towards those groups where different genres are written by the various writers, I am aware of those writers’ groups who prefer to stick to a particular genre. This, in my experience, tends to be more prevalent with horror and comedy writers, who often want to spend their time getting notes, fixes and potential joke pitches from writers who have trained similar muscles.
Number of writers in your group.
I find that the best groups tend to have somewhere between 5 and 8 members. For a group to be effective and help you move your writing forward, you want to get a collection of notes and opinions, not just one or two. In my experience, 5 members in a writers’ group tend to be the minimum; this way, any writer submitting materials would get a solid 4 sets of notes.
Of course, you don’t want a group to be too big, so don’t go crazy inviting people in with the rational that more writers mean more notes. The larger the group, the less frequently its members will be able to submit material to group. Therefore, you want to find the right number that will allow each member of the group to get enough notes to help bring any project along with ongoing improvements.
How often you meet should correlate directly with the needs, bandwidth and availability of the writers in the group. The more hours your group members are able to put into their writing on a weekly basis, the more frequent your meetings should be. That said, you need to make sure that enough time to read ahead of group meetings is given to all group members. In my experience, few groups are able to sustain – and generate enough content as well as time for reads for – weekly meetings. My most successful groups meet every 2-, 3- or 4-weeks, a clip that allows all members enough time to both read and write ahead of the next group session.
Session submission guidelines.
Another important factor in determining meeting frequency is how many of the group’s writers are going to be allowed to submit material or “go up” for notes at each session. The more frequent the group meetings, the fewer writers should be going up at any one time. Writers are usually not expected to have something new to show every two weeks. Therefore, for those groups aiming to meet every couple of weeks, the suggestion is that only 2 or 3 writers go up per session; therefore, if 2 writers go up per session and there are 6 writers in the group, each writer should be able to present new material, or new drafts of material in progress, every 6 weeks.
Groups that meet less frequently, say, once a month, may allow all of its writers to submit material for notes for any given session, as having 4-5 weeks between sessions would allow all the members of the group to read and prepare notes ahead of the groups’ next meeting.
Session dates, length and location.
The meeting day, time and location has to be acceptable for all group members. Therefore, if the group meets in person and its members are coming in from far and wide, try to find a meeting location that would be more or less central for everyone. I have seen writers alternate between meeting locations. For example, I do have one writer’s group that takes turns meeting on L.A.’s east and west side.
In the days of COVID-19 and social distancing, this presents less of a challenge, as we are all getting better versed at communicating with the world through Zoom. The ability to meet online allows members of a group not only to eliminate travel time, but also to include writers in their group who may be in a different city, state or time zone. It’s entirely up to you whether to construct a group that will conduct itself entirely via Zoom moving forward, or if you are hoping to have opportunity for your group to meet in person once Social Distancing guidelines are relaxed.
The day of the week on which your group opts to meet is also key to its success, as it does have to, for the most part, work for everyone. If your group is made of writers who are either working writers or have day jobs, it’s likely that members of the group will need to meet on weeknights and weekends; if some of your group members are married and/or have kids, they may prefer to meet on weeknights, and reserve their weekends for their significant other or their family.
If you are an online group, with each writer logging in from his own computer or work station, decide which platform you want use for your sessions. Is it going to be Google Hangouts or Zoom? FaceTime or Skype? And are sessions to be recorded and distributed to the group afterwards? All of this is to be determined as you set plans and guidelines for your group.
And then there are the notes.
Are group members going to receive written notes? Verbal notes? Both? Be sure that each writer getting notes knows what they’re signing up to receive, and that each member giving notes knows what they are expected to deliver.
It is to be expected that a writer will have to miss group every once in a while, whether it’s something last minute or that they know about in advance. Even in the days of quarantine everyone has busy lives, which makes this par for the course. However, it’s important that each group member understands if something is still expected from him in his absence. Therefore, decide in advance whether writers missing sessions would then be obligated to provide written notes (usually to be delivered on the day of group, or within a couple of days), or if they are off scot free.
The one scenario you want to avoid (which rarely happens but is still a possibility to be aware of) is a particular writer starting to miss those sessions in which he is not putting material up for notes with some regularity, only to show up again when it’s time to get notes on his own work. In most groups, made of dedicated scribes who understand the importance of their noting contributions, this would never be a problem, but as I’ve seen the “give notes/get notes” contract get broken every once in a blue moon, I thought it worth mentioning.
It’s never too early to start thinking about a writer’s group, and taking steps to put together, find or join the right one, especially in times like this, when a writers’ group can become the writer’s lifeline. Whether you’re in Los Angeles and surrounded by other writers, or remote and able to put together a community online, the important thing is surrounding yourself with other good writers who can provide you with support, challenge your writing, and help you improve and perfect your craft. This is always a winning formula, aimed at helping you develop both community and craft in a safe and nurturing environment.