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How to Run a Successful Writers Meetup

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Some avid readers of this blog (you do exist, right?) will know that around the beginning of 2018, I got a sudden and strong urge to start writing. Another thing on my to-do list was to meet as many other writers as possible in Berlin. I felt (and still do), that it was essential to my development as a writer – or at the very least, to overcome the solitude that comes from writing alone.

So, I started looking around and came across the Meetups service. Although these are really popular in Berlin, especially among the English speaking expat community, I couldn’t find anything back then that really suited my needs as a fiction writer. Failing to find any groups to join, I decided that I was going to start my own. Now this was, at the time at least, a big step for me. Doubts started to swirl in my mind: would anyone turn up? Why would they turn up? What could I possible offer such a group? Was I even a writer!? But ignoring the fears, I took the plunge and started a group called, Berlin Fiction Writers Unite. And you know what? It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. As of right now (April 2019), the group has about five hundred members, and has been in operation for over a year.

Interested in doing something similar? The following information contains a few pointers that I picked up over the past twelve months. Hopefully you will find it helpful when creating your own group.   

LOCATION: This should be your first priority. Picking the right location to host your sessions is vital. Not only should the venue be convenient, but it should also match the needs you have for your group. In my case, a priority was that the venue needed to be within walking distance of where I lived. Now depending on where you are reading this “within walking distance” may not be possibility, but as I live in the centre of Berlin and surrounded by possible venues, I didn’t feel the need to pick somewhere far out of my comfort zone. I also knew (deep down) that any part on my side to take busses, trams, trains, etc. would result in a short-lived Meetup group as I would quickly tire of going out of my way each time to get there – especially during Berlin’s freezing winter months. So, I picked a great local venue, one that was nearby (five minutes on foot), had plenty of large open spaces inside, free wi-fi, and even a nice Biergarten in the back for those laidback summer months.   

So, convenience is important… but what else should you be aware of? Well, that depends on what you want to do with your group. In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted. I booked a couple of tables and just hoped some people would turn up (more on that later). However, as time went on and it became clearer to me what it was I wanted to do, the venue turned out to be a better match that I’d expected. For someone so clueless like me, I was very lucky as otherwise it could have meant a constant change of venue in order to suit the changing needs of the group. If starting your own group, have a think first about where you would like to host it.

Remember the key points: it needs to be convenient to you as creator; it should match the needs of your group (at least during the initial phase); and have the capacity to meet expansion in terms of size and direction.

Actually, talking about needs of the group…

FLEXIBILITY: In the beginning, my plan was quite simple – create a space to meet other writers and have a chat about ongoing projects. That was my soul aim for the group. However, after a while, I began to notice a certain trend – more and more people were asking if it would be possible to have their work ‘read aloud’ to the group during the meetings. I actually really liked the idea of doing this as not only did it further define the purpose of the group, but would actually help me too with my own work.  So, I introduced it gradually into our sessions, and it seemed to work well… except for one or two slight problems. The first related to the timing of the meetings, and the second to the size of the stories to be read aloud. Running a two hour session is quite limiting regarding the number of people that can both read aloud their work and offer/receive constructive feedback. This took me a long time to get right. During the early stages, I left it open-ended which resulted in people reading very long chapters from their books. Then when I shortened it too much, there was not enough text available for people to give any kind of meaningful feedback. Eventually we found the perfect Goldilocks range of 1,500 words or three-pages. Using this, each writer would have about 30mins to read and ask questions, allowing 3-to-4 writers the possibility of reading their work within our two-hour period. Additionally, I have always insisted on a grace period of about 30 minutes at the start of each session to give new members a chance to ease into the group, and to allow the rest of us to catch-up and share progress updates. Also keep in mind that not everyone will arrive on time! This eats into our read aloud time but it’s worth it.

Of course there have been other changes over the course of the year. Some have stuck, others have not. But the ‘read aloud’ sessions deserve extra mention here as they now form a key function of the group – one that keeps pulling people back.

In summary: You certainly won’t have it all figured out in the beginning. And although it’s fine to have a plan about what it is you want to do, try to remain open to suggestions from the group. This doesn’t mean that you need to take on all suggestions (no way!), but it’s important to keep an open mind. You never know where a new direction will lead – and if that doesn’t work for you, remember that you can always reverse course if needed. It’s your group after all!

SCHEDULING: Originally I had the Meetup running once a month, on a Saturday, between the times of 2-4pm. While this worked out perfectly for a simple meet-and-talk session, it wasn’t suitable for our read aloud sessions. Why? Because the venue was a pub, and Saturdays at this time can be quite busy and loud – detrimental to a read aloud format. What we needed was a better time. So, keeping the second point about flexibility in mind, I changed the time of the meetings to 11am-1pm on Saturdays. This worked perfectly. Using this time, we were able to corner off a large space of the pub and do our thing without been disturbed. Actually, the owners even helped by switching off the music to that section – extra bonus! This is also why it’s essential to pick a great venue from the beginning.

However, everything was far from perfect. This new earlier time led to moans/complaints from some of the regulars, to the effect that some just stopped coming altogether. There was also the fact that another bigger and more established writers group had their session on during this time too. This also led to a bit of a conflict which definitely impacted numbers. However, the new format worked and soon the numbers began to climb back up to where they had been – and beyond too!

So the time of the day is a really important consideration for the type of meeting you want to have – but so is frequency. At the beginning, I would have sessions once a month (actually if I had a choice, I would have meetings every three weeks but Meetup.com does not offer that). The issue with this was that some stories needed to be carried over to the next session, and meeting just once a month just didn’t cut it. As my own private schedule would not allow a once a week meeting, I decided to instead make the meetings bi-weekly. This worked.

To summarise: Once you have an idea of the format, have a good think about timing and frequency – preferably before you begin! Although getting it right in the beginning is not essential, try your best to work it out beforehand as it makes everything easier in the long-run.

MANAGING A MEETUP: There is something you need to understand as creator of a group – try as you might, you will never escape the leadership role… unless of course you start the group  in partnership with others, or assign a few organisers from the get go. In my case, I wanted to develop an informal group where people could come and go without any fuss, form little mini-discussion groups if desired, and really just have fun. Basically, I wanted the whole thing to be the opposite of my day job! (By the way, just want to point out that I really like my day job, but I think you know where I am going with this ;).

And while I got some of what I wanted, the truth about running a group is that you as the group creator will always be looked upon to develop the agenda and guide the meetings. So what does management look like for my group? Well in the backend this involves things like answering questions, responding to comments, and developing the agenda for the next session. Then when the day comes, I welcome newcomers, open the session, ask if anyone has anything to read to the group, and then keep an eye on the clock so everyone gets a fair share of the time. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And it really isn’t. Like everything else, once you do it a few times, it doesn’t feel like work at all. Looking at other Meetups in the UK and the US, there seems to be a lot more emphasis on developing workshops, booking venues, organising food and drink… if that’s your thing, be prepared for a lot of admin! I found an article the other day that looks into what it takes to develop one of those types of meetings.  

I also think that it’s important that I am there at each session. While this may seem like a no-brainer to many, you won’t believe the amount of groups where the organisers can’t be bothered to show up – for their own meetings! I think this can have a negative impact on a group… just imagine yourself going to a meeting where the organiser is missing, and hasn’t turned up for a few sessions? I know how I would feel about it.  

Preparation is also key to holding a successful event. During the end of each meeting, dedicate a couple of minutes towards getting feedback on how the session went, and if anyone has ideas on how it could be further developed. It’s important to involve people in the development of the group, even if it’s just their first session. Actually this is how we came up with the read aloud format. The idea was first mentioned by a member, discussed in the group, and then implemented at the next session. In addition to ideas, it will be your responsibility to communicate your plans to your members so as to prepare them for what they can expect at the next meeting. This can done in the “Details” segment of the group page and/or by sending an email out to everyone that has signed up. I would advise though not to use the email option too regularly as too many emails can become annoying. Again, put yourself in your members place.

Notes: If you are uncomfortable with managing a group by yourself, make sure you start it with somebody else, or at least pick a few individuals from the group to act as co-organisers. Remember, as the sole organiser, people will be looking to you to lead the group. Also make sure that you turn up for each session, be open to new ideas, and be responsive online in case of any questions. Of course you don’t need to do any of this, but it will help with the success of your group in the long-run.

QUICK NOTE ABOUT ATTENDANCE: Don’t be fooled by the numbers of people signing up for each session! For my group, I usually cap the numbers at 20, knowing that only about 50-60% will show up. This is fine – it’s normal actually. You can also ask people to RSVP so as to get a handle on the numbers that will attend, but I never really bothered with this as it’s more for paid events or workshops. Up to you though!

One other tip: leave a message for people asking them to let you know the day beforehand if they can’t come. Hardly anyone will actually do this, but some do, and even this little information can be helpful. Also, as far as I know, it is not common for Meetup organisers to ask for money from members in Germany. Not sure what the situation is like in other countries, but in Germany (or in Berlin at least), it is not common practice and will be frowned upon. You, as the only organiser, will be paying Meetup.com about 100 USD a year for their service. Of course this is depends on whether or not you will be holding workshops or events, but for a regular Meetup group session, all costs will land on your shoulders.

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Creating a Meetup group can, and is, a lot of fun. You get to explore the topic that you are interested in with like-minded people, and even make new friends in the process. I don’t regret starting mine and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes. I hope you have found this info helpful. If you happen to be sitting on the fence about this – don’t! Get started. You’ll never know unless you try!

One last thing: I was going to post an overview on the actual nuts-and-bolts of starting a group but the process is quite straight forward and there is a lot of information available on the Meetup website about this. Here is one of the better ones to help you get started.

Remember, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions. Happy to help if I can!

Article written by Shane O’Halloran. Follow him on Twitter @SomeOddHat.

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