Crossed Wires

Last week, I made a fool of myself in front of 150 e-mail recipients. I was sending out details of the next meeting of Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers. I normally update the previous e-mail with the latest details, but I’d forgotten to change the subject line. I therefore followed it up with a correction.

The most annoying part of this affair is that I use a Gmail extension to cancel the sending of an e-mail as long as I hit Undo within 30 seconds. However, it has encouraged me to become more vigilant with future updates. Aside from this incident, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned when communicating with writing group members.

E-mail

It’s important to exercise privacy when using e-mail. The addresses of the recipients should be typed in the Bcc box, not To or Cc, so each member will only see their own address on receipt. It’s worthwhile including your own e-mail address on the distribution list to check whether it’s formatted in the same way you intended.

Recipients should also be given the option to unsubscribe from updates. Whenever a Hotchpotch e-mail is sent, there is a signature at the bottom telling people to let us know if they want to unsubscribe.

The other mailing list I maintain is for the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This is done differently, as e-mails are composed using their website and the Unsubscribe function is added automatically before the message enters members’ inboxes.

This is my NaNoWriMo phone
This is my NaNoWriMo phone

Facebook

Whenever Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo e-mails are sent, their respective Facebook pages are updated at the same time with the same information to reach as many people as possible. The Hotchpotch page is open to the public since anyone can come along, whereas the NaNoWriMo page has its access restricted to members only.

One great advantage of the Facebook page for Hotchpotch is that we can tag and promote other events, which notifies that page owner, who can then share our event with their audience. I also share our updates on two other arts pages.

Other methods

Hotchpotch has an active Twitter account. Whenever an e-mail is sent, the date and time are given, followed by a link to the Facebook post. Our updates are occasionally shared by others, while prospective attendees can ask us questions.

Although NaNoWriMo itself has a Twitter presence, our region does not; again, this is because our bulletins are open only to members. However, I do carry a cheap phone with a budget SIM card if our members need to speak to us urgently. In practice, the only time I’ve needed it so far is when the battery on my own phone ran flat.

Frequency of updates

It’s a good idea not to fill people’s inboxes with the same message every day. In my experience, people who are overloaded will permanently unsubscribe or unfollow. It’s different, of course, if the recipient has signed up a daily writing prompt or suchlike.

For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. The next monthly Hotchpotch meeting is usually announced a few days after the previous one, with a reminder around two weeks later. And next time I send one, I’ll be double-checking that subject line.

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How to manage a writing group.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been organising literary events, and I’ve gathered some experience during this time. Remember that every group is different, and what worked or didn’t work for me might prove the opposite for you.

The two groups I currently run are: Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers; and the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to pen a novel in a month. The two groups are rather different beasts, and there is little crossover between their memberships, but there are common factors in the way they’re run.

Planning

Ensure your group has a defined purpose

Hotchpotch has a definite purpose: you can take along your own work and read it for up to 10 minutes, or simply come along to listen to others. It’s a format that works for us and has done for some years.

NaNoWriMo is a franchise of sorts with a not-for-profit organisation, so you must follow their instructions and ethos. As such, we started off with purely November meetings where we would encourage each other to finish our novels. But there was such enthusiasm that we continue to meet up weekly and work on other individual projects.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, of course, but don’t stray too far from your original intention. There is a risk that your members will be put off going as it’s not what they expected.

Be early

Think months or weeks in advance, not days, to save rushing around at the last minute. The main NaNoWriMo event happens in November, so I’ll start planning in August as I need to receive promotional material and work out where and when our meetings should be. The next Hotchpotch is usually booked on the same day as the last meeting. Always be super-early to set up for meetings.

Coordinate and cross-promote

Hotchpotch must ‘compete’ with a monthly Silent Reading Party and a monthly Literary Lock-In as these also happen on Mondays. Through having conversations with the organisers of the latter two events, we now coordinate these events so they hardly ever clash. When one of them announces a new date, I also promote it to Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo participants.

Communication

Use suitable methods

This depends largely on the IT skills of your members. Our NaNoWriMo region has a Facebook group where most people engage with us, although NaNoWriMo HQ require us to use their own mailing system. Conversely, many Hotchpotch members don’t use Facebook and prefer to be on our mailing list.

Hotchpotch has business cards with contact details to give to new members. During NaNoWriMo months, I also have a mobile number with a budget SIM card so people can contact me with urgent enquiries. In practice, however, we’ve rarely needed to use it.

Not too little; not too often

By all means send out a message early, but remember to issue regular reminders. People forget, or accidentally delete the e-mail. Also make sure your latest message reflects any changes that have happened since the last one. For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. Hotchpotch reminders are usually two or three weeks apart as the meetings are monthly.

But once a day is far too often, unless you happen to be sending out daily writing prompts.

Exercise privacy with e-mail

Whenever you send out a group e-mail, use the Bcc box, not To or Cc. This means each member will only see his or her own address when it’s received. Always give people the option to unsubscribe from updates; the last thing you want is to be reported for spam. It can be as simple as typing Let us know if you want to unsubscribe at the bottom of each message.

People

Be welcoming

This is a big one for me. Unless your group is really only for you and your mates, everyone who comes along needs to feel welcome. I’ve been put off going to groups in the past when it became clear the existing members were only interested in their own company. Whenever new folk turn up to NaNoWriMo or Hotchpotch, I make a point of introducing myself and chatting to them.

Consult, don’t dictate

Keep a list of a few trusted regulars you can talk to when the going gets tough. In the case of Hotchpotch, we had to make a difficult decision about a venue. We made a collective decision that I now agree with, but if I’d dictated, I would have gone the opposite way and might have lost their cooperation. NaNoWriMo is largely stable now, but I know the core membership are there should any problems arise.

Deal with troublemakers appropriately

Literary meetings are generally safe spaces. I can think of only one serious incident. I was a member of a group where we felt the standard of leadership fell far below what was expected. The incident was resolved, but not before pages of online words had been exchanged. If you need to keep someone in line, it’s rarely appropriate to do it over the Internet or in front of other members.

Most often, someone will say he or she didn’t like the group. I find it’s best to fix the problem, where possible, or to acknowledge his or her point of view and accept you’ll be one member down next time. It’s not worth turning a complaint into an argument, but to learn from it and concentrate on attracting new members.

 

If you have any tips you’d like to add, leave them below. I’ve no doubt I’ll think of one or two more myself when this has posted.