How to run a virtual writing group (and why I’m a convert to social writing).

Writing can be great when it’s going well, but often it’s lonely and it’s hard to get started.

After my first son was born, I was struggling to get any writing done for my PhD, what with the lack of sleep and the chaos of being a new parent. 

Then I discovered social writing. 

I’d get together a few times a week with a couple of mum friends I’d met at pregnancy yoga. 

Babies in tow, no matter how little we had slept the night before, we’d be there in our favourite local café at 10 am to write and juggle our (hopefully napping) babies.

Sometimes the writing got done, sometimes it didn’t, but as we wrote (and sometimes cried) together, I realised that for me there was something beautiful  about writing friendships and accountability.

Social writing groups have made me a more productive, more confident and happier writer. I’ve got writing done and out into the world, and I’ve made some lifelong friends along the way.

Read on to find out why social writing groups are so helpful and for some tips on running your own successful virtual writing group.

Writing Coach Dr Lizzy Tanguay standing in a cafe smiling holding notebooks.
Social Writing Groups have made me a happier writer

What is a social writing group?

I use the term ‘social writing groups’ to refer to writers who get together to connect and write, rather than to give feedback on each other’s writing. 

In my groups, we talk about what we are writing (as I find that speaking can give so much clarity to writing), but we don’t  offer feedback on the written work within writing group time.

(I’ve written before about the importance of getting the right kind of feedback on your writing, and writing groups are not always the best place to do this. In her post on Jane Friedman’s blog, Jenny Nash writes about the hidden dangers of writing groups including the fact that often no-one speaks the truth and no-one wants to hear it.)

Since discovering social writing, I’ve delved deeper into the practice to explore what works best, attending and hosting writing retreats and setting up writing groups for postgraduate research students at the university where I teach and later for other business owners.

Of course, since the start of the pandemic, a lot of the writing groups have moved online and this is the writing space I where I mostly find myself (for now, at least). 

Initially, I missed the companionship of sitting in the same physical space as other writers and being able to grab a coffee together during breaks. But there are extra benefits to working online that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.

 These include connecting with a group of diverse writers from across the world and being able to encourage and inspire each other.

At the moment I meet weekly with a 1:1 writing buddy who is part of a larger writing community I  belong to. 

Yes, I’m a writing coach but still I enjoy attending other peoples’ writing groups! I find it easier to get my writing head on if I’m not in facilitator mode.

The benefits of social writing

Writing groups are a lifeline for many writers and there’s a host of research to tell us why.

Belonging to a writing group works because: 

It gives you something to put on the calendar

This is a biggie for anyone with other people in their lives who tend to stop them writing – sometimes even unbeknownst to those people!

 Before I put writing on my calendar, my boss could look at my calendar and any unblocked space could be seen as bookable time. It was the same if someone asked me to meet for a coffee or to run an errand for them. And, now as a business owner and being my own boss, it’s even more important for me to protect my writing time!

Now that I have writing on my calendar, I can say ‘I can’t sorry – I’m busy’, without feeling like I’m making a lame excuse. Seeing other people on your screen can also put off those inconvenient and unimportant interruptions that sometimes happen as others will see you are in a meeting.

It gives you accountability

If I have promised someone that I’m going to show up for something and sit and write for 30 minutes to finish my blog post or write a pitch, there’s less of a chance that I’ll find myself 30 minutes later looking at someone’s holiday snaps on Facebook.

It’s the same as having a gym buddy. If I’ve arranged to meet my buddy at the step machine, there’s more chance that I’ll show up and actually do the steps.

It gives you routine and discipline

It’s easier to do something if it’s a habit. If I know I’m writing every Monday afternoon with my writing group, it takes away the decision-making process.

And James Clear notes in Atomic Habits, every decision is an emotional decision. Making hundreds of decisions every day is tiring and it’s easy to say no to the decisions that feel like they’ll take more effort.

Writing groups have helped me to create the habit of writing

So making writing a habit rather than a decision-to-be-made makes it more likely we’ll do it. Social writing has helped me do this, even on the days that I’m not meeting my writing groups the habit has become more entrenched and since starting social writing I’ve begun to see myself as a person who writes regularly.

It allows you to practice containment

Bums on seats people! Yes, it truly is amazing how much you can get done if you actually just sit in your chair and write for 25 minutes! In my group sessions we usually do 3 short writing bursts with time for chatting. Do that a few times a month and the word count starts to creep up

It helps you look forward to writing

If, like me, you enjoy meeting other writers and talking about the common problems we all have, then this can be highly motivating.

Tips for running a virtual writing group

If you’d like to run your own social writing group, here are some tips.

  1. Set clear expectations for the group and regular meeting times. It’s much easier to stick to the habit if you decide on a time that works for everyone (most times) upfront than switching the times every week.
  2. At the beginning of each session, set intentions and tell everyone how long each writing sprint will be. Check in between sprints to see how everyone is getting on. 
  3. With larger groups, consider breakout rooms to discuss goal setting and writing. While it can be motivating to have some discussion in the large group, this is best kept to a minimum so as not to cut in too much into the actual writing time, while still allowing people to experience real connection.
  4. Encourage people to move and stretch during writing breaks.
  5. Give a five-minute warning for when a sprint is going to finish, but let people know that if they are in the zone then they can put the group on mute and carry on writing.
  6. Consider having some prompts ready as not everyone has their own work to write and some will be looking for inspiration (this point is particularly relevant if you’re running a paid writing group). 

Hopefully this post has inspired you to give social writing a try or even to go back to that writing group you signed up for months ago but have never managed show up for!

What else would you like to know about setting up a writing group? Comment below and let me know!

Published by Dr Lizzy Tanguay

Editor | Writer | Writing Coach | Applied Linguist

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