How welcoming is your literary group?

If you’re involved in running a writing group, poetry night or similar, do you ever stop and ask yourself what impression you give to new people who come along, or may be thinking about it? And if you do manage to attract new faces, do they ever come back? Some recent experiences of mine and others suggest that way newcomers are treated is something organisers can have a tendency to overlook.

I spotted an advert on Write Out Loud for an open-mic poetry event in a local market town that looked interesting. There was a contact name, so I emailed them to ask for more details. When it came, the reply completely lacked warmth and simply re-iterated the sparse information already on the website. There were no pleasantries – no ‘hope you can make it’ or ‘look forward to seeing you’ or similar. In fact the impression given was that I could take it or leave it, and I was left wondering why they’d bothered advertising the event in the first place; clearly they have enough members already.

Two friends who’ve moved into the area visited a long-established writing group in the city-centre to find that the organisers were quite willing to take their money, yet there was no acknowledgement during the course of the evening that they were first-timers, and no-one came over to introduce themselves or say hello. My friends now describe the group as ‘cliquey’, have not returned and make a point of advising others not to bother as well.

I’ve had a similar experience at a locally well-known live literature event; I’ve been along about four times now, each occasion on my own, and never once has the organiser or any of the obvious regulars attempted to make contact. I don’t expect effusive welcomes; a simple acknowledgement of my presence would be fine (by way of contrast, I’ve ventured to a couple of open-mic evenings over in Greater Manchester and received a very warm welcome on each occasion, so fortunately I do know that it’s not the literary world in general. Thank you Once More With Meaning and Lead Poets Society!).

Walking into a public place and not knowing anyone can feel daunting for many people, especially if they go alone, and can put some off going altogether. By not thinking about the welcome offered to newcomers, literary groups may be losing out on valuable support without even realising it. It doesn’t take much. For example, having someone look out for new faces, and simply offering a greeting or a quick chat can help break the ice.  Some people may prefer to be left alone, but perhaps they might like to be introduced to some of the regulars; if you don’t ask you’ll never know. If you offer a contact for enquiries, make sure the response is welcoming and friendly in a way that will encourage people to come along, perhaps offering to ‘meet and greet’ anyone nervous about walking into a room full of strangers for the first time. It really can make all the difference.

If literary groups advertise events, it’s not unreasonable to assume they actually want people to come along, and I find it hard to believe that any organiser would want newcomers to feel like they’ve intruded on some kind of established elite, never to return. Surely it’s better to make an effort to think about making people feel wanted and welcome; that way not only are they more likely to come back, but they’ll probably recommend your group to all their writerly friends, too.

The choice is yours.

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