(This is a new monthly column on CreateTheater.com – thank you, Melissa!)


When I speak with aspiring playwrights or writers of any genre, the first piece of advice I give is “join a writer’s group.” If you can’t find one, create one. A writing group has been essential to my growth as a playwright, and it will be for yours as well.

Why? Writing groups offer both a dedicated time to write and a dedicated time to present and receive feedback to your project.

The consistency of selecting and presenting a 10-12 minute section or scene of your play helps you focus on your play one scene at a time, deeply and succinctly. You see the way the scene operates in and of itself and the way it functions within the play wholistically. If you present 10-12 pages per week, within 10-12 weeks you will have detailed notes and comments that will help you edit the play, focusing on what is working and eliminating what is not working.

I have been a member of a writing group that meets once per week, for three hours, 10 months per year since 2015. That’s nine years! I’ve developed each of my plays using these methods and all of them have been presented as staged readings or productions once completed. It’s a method with proven results.

HOW: To function well, a writing group needs commitment, consistency, and structure.

Rule One:

  • Set and maintain a schedule and hold each other accountable for attendance whether once per week, once every two weeks or once per month. The group can’t function if no one shows up. Each member should have a project they seek to create or revise using the momentum a working group provides.
  • Set the length of the meeting to allow for a 10-minute check-in, followed by 20 minutes from each writer. So if your group has 4 writers, your meeting should be 1 ½ hours. If you have 8 writers, your meeting should be 3 hours.

Rule Two: Presentation and Feedback.

  • Set rules. Each writer can present up to ten minutes of new or revised work. The writer “casts” the players from the members or bring in actor friends. The group might invite a few actors to participate regularly—it helps them too!
  • After the reading of the selection, the floor is open for comments. This is not the time to rewrite the play, offer “advice” about what you would do, or talk about your own work. This is the time to tell the author what you heard and what you know from the scene. List the events and how you experienced it. What did you like. What didn’t you understand. What confused you. Don’t offer prescriptive advice.
  • Writers: LISTEN. Reserve the right to remain silent. This is your chance to learn about your play! This is not your time to explain the plot or answer comments.
  • Don’t reveal your intention. Take notes. Write down everything that is said. If one member is confused, let other members answer their questions.
  • At the end of the discussion, if you have one or two questions, ask them, but again, don’t explain. If you don’t get the responses you want, it’s time to rewrite and re-present until the scene works.
  • When people ask me a question my favorite answer is “what do you think?” They often have a response, and surprisingly, it often is the response I was hoping for.

In addition to listening to your own work and hearing responses to it, you will grow by listening to other’s work and responding to it as well. It’s all about learning and listening.

A few more things:

Don’t cancel meetings unless ALL the writers are in rehearsals or productions, which is your goal. If no one has work to present, meet ANYWAY! And use the time to write together, starting with a prompt (you can find these on the internet) and write silently for 40 minutes. You do not have to read what you wrote. Just use the time to focus on writing without interruption. Discuss the prompt, how if affected your writing, then move on.

Discuss plays that you’ve seen, plays you admire. Discuss craft. Use the time to talk about theatre. How often do you get time to do that in your life? Value it. Protect it. Use it.

Use your writing group to prepare your script BEFORE you submit or schedule a staged reading. Those steps should follow AFTER presenting and rewriting your draft within the group.

Submissions and Staged Readings will be topics for other columns, so stay tuned!

For now, keep writing!

Melissa Bell’s work has been featured in the New York Times and nominated for Best Adaptation & Modernization by New York Shakespeare, and as a Finalist for the Henley Rose Playwright Competition for LADY CAPULET. She was also awarded Honored Finalist for the Collaboration Award by the Women in Arts & Media Coalition for COURAGE. TheMelissaBell.com