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An Interview with Writers' HQ: on community, being the weirdest weirdos, and stories as radical acts

As most writers know, writing can be the most wonderful thing in the world. But it can feel inaccessible and isolating. That's why writing communities are so important, whether you find them online or in-person, go to writing groups or build them yourself.

If you don't already know about them, Writers' HQ are one such rather brilliant community. They run writing courses and retreat days, online and in person, with plenty of free opportunities to get involved.

I first discovered Writers' HQ during the pandemic, and filled notebooks with responses to their writing prompts and exercises. I signed up to every course I could, and joined the online writing retreats which gave a shape to the days spent at my desk.

Writers' HQ also send emails full of swear words, where they offer advice and talk about the best days of being a writer and the worst. Even if all you do is open their emails, you'll already feel a sense of community, of a place where you get to fit. They talk about writing like real people and it's a relief and fuel.

We interviewed one of the founders of Writers' HQ, Sarah Lewis, about how it all got started, why stories are so important, and her favourite writing exercises!

Writers' HQ does everything from encouraging emails to invaluable resources to writing courses and retreats. Can you tell us a bit about your wonderful offering, and how writers can get involved?

Writers’ HQ runs affordable creative writing courses, retreats and workshops for kickass writers who just want to get the fuck on with it. I won't go into a lot of detail about each event because there are A LOT of them but generally speaking we have two rules to putting things out in the world: does it help people to stop talking about doing the thing and actually do the thing? And/or does it make us either laugh or cry? If we can answer yes to either of those, then we generally do it. I pretty much laugh or cry at everything, which is how we've ended up doing so much. The easiest way to start is to sign up to our weekly newsletter - the sign up form is at the bottom of every page at - or write a story for Flash Face Off, or come to one of our free online writing retreats!

So how did all this start? And what's the ethos that has driven and shaped Writers' HQ into what it is today?

This is very relevant as we're going through something of a transitional phase right now so it's something I think about a lot. Like, what is Writers' HQ for? It's always been important to me that WHQ stands for something other than just middle class white people wafting around in scarves talking about Virgina Woolf, because Lord knows there's enough of that. I also never wanted to just do another writing school or a rehash of what already exists because I never fit in any of those spaces and I wanted a place for me too. I wanted to make a niche within a niche.

Writers are a weird bunch as it is, but what do you do if you're the weirdos in the weird crowd? That's really what we're about.

It started in 2012 when my eldest child was a few months old. I'd just finished my creative writing MA and was under the delusion that I'd finish my novel during maternity leave. That obviously didn't happen, so I booked a room in Brighton so I could spend the day writing and put a call out on Twitter to see if anyone wanted to join me and split the cost. My BFF was like 'you know in 15 years time this is going to be huge?' and I was like 'nah shut up'. Twenty people turned up so I did it again, and again and etc. At the same time, my peers were starting to have incredible writing successes and I was still stuck home with a baby and on benefits, so I wanted to make something accessible to people who didn't have time or space or money. I kind of gathered a whole bunch of incredible people along the way - a bit like a classic quest (I am the hero, right?!) - and 12 years later Writers' HQ exists. 

The original ethos was always 'is the outcome of this event that people will write? Can people with very little time or money access this?'. Over time I began to realise how political stories are and how important it is that politics is a part of storytelling, and that began to emerge across everything we put out.

My fundamental belief is that the grassroots has immense power and we can begin to realise that through art and creativity, and so writing a story is one of the single most important and radical acts we can perform. (Hi, proud utopian idealist here, what of it?)

Your community of writers is such a friendly space. How have you built this community and why is it so important for writers to be part of a community?

It's incredible seeing this community that has evolved and grown around WHQ. Genuinely mind blowing. A while ago my therapist asked how I felt about having created this enormous thing and I just sort of shrugged like I genuinely cannot comprehend it because I'm just a tiny idiot who likes to write ranty screeds about why stories are important and capitalism is bad. I need to give a shout out at this point to Team WHQ, past and present, because WHQ is very much a team sport and none of it would be what it is without all the people who have been involved in shaping it over the years. I think we built the community through lazy authenticity and stubborn inclusivity. When I say lazy authenticity I mean actual authenticity as opposed to the LinkedInified meaning of it. There's no brand voice - it's just us messing around and having fun. The things we say we genuinely mean.

Everyone who runs courses and events feels stories deeply in their bones. I think that's very attractive to people because there's so much crap in the world and all anyone really wants is genuine connection. And stubborn inclusivity is exactly what it sounds like. We have zero tolerance for bullshit, basically! We try to make a space that's safe for everyone and because we're all the weird kids we all know to be nice because the alternative sucks.

What makes a great story? Are there any key ingredients to connecting with your reader?

We teach a lot of technical stuff and anyone can learn that but the real thing is about telling the truth, whatever that means for you at this moment in time. About accessing it inside you. And for that you have to understand a few things about yourself. Readers instinctively know when a writer is bluffing. 

What's one of the pieces of advice you give to writers most often, to encourage them not just to start writing, but to keep writing?

That it is all, until the very final draft, so much shitter than you would ever imagine. You think you understand how shit a first draft is but lower your expectations all the way to the Mariana Trench because wow it will be so so so so so shit. And that's fine, because no one has to read it until you're ready, and even if you do share it, we all know just how shit those early drafts are so we get it.  

One of the first short stories I have ever had published came out of your 'Make a Book Cover' writing exercise. Can you share one of your favourite writing exercises on the site?

Ohhh that's so exciting! I love that exercise. It's so much fun. My faves are Write A Novel In 60 Minutes, which is actually a kids' workshop I used to run at festivals when my kiddos were small. It's absolute anarchy, and kids have the best stories. The adult version is the short course Write A Tiny Novel (not as fun as the kids one!), and also I love the exercise The Many Arcs of Charlie Baxter in the Characterisation Masterclass, because it's so simple and so powerful. So often I see people stuck with their story and I tell them to go do that exercise and it unlocks these never ending seams of story. I also really love Increments of a Story because it's so easy to come up with so much. You can check that our here:

Get involved with the Writers' HQ community here.

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