Running Successful Critique Groups


Recently a friend mentioned that they were interested in a writing critique group, and I was inspired to share my experience with them. I'm in two writing critique groups, both focused on novel length work.

Formulation

One group is small (three people, including me), and we meet every two weeks, and everyone is expected to bring a chapter. We haven't missed a day yet in the three month's we've been meeting, although we did drop from five members to three. The three that are left are very committed and all very much oriented on getting published.

The other group is larger (five people), and we've been meeting a year. We review two chapters every time we meet, and our intention is to meet twice a month, although we probably average 1.5 times per month. About half the group seems very serious about being published.

I think it's great to have people at or slightly above your own writing level (this is paradoxal, as it's clear not possible to achieve this for all members). But clearly you can benefit from strong writers who can offer the most accurate and constructive feedback. I also think it's beneficial to have people who have a similar level of commitment to publishing. If there's too much of a mismatch, it can be discouraging to people who aren't producing as much, and not constructive enough to the people who are producing a lot.

I think critique groups benefit from writers of different genre, because you learn more about different ways to do stuff, from revealing character to handling dialogue, etc.

Approach

I think it's good to be able to share something at least every two weeks. Less often than that, and you can't really get an appreciable amount of feedback from the group.

That being said, one thing that makes critique groups work well is trying to learn as much as possible from critiquing itself, so that you improve as a writer by the act of critiquing. For whatever reason, I find that I'm more likely to research things like grammer, dialogue, and structure when I'm reading someone else's work. (I suspect it's because if I am going to say something critical, I want to be sure that what I'm saying is correct.)

My writer teacher says that it's easier for the new writer or non-writer to know when something is wrong than to know what is wrong, let alone how to fix it. It can be tempting to suggest how to fix things to others, but as a beginning writer, I'd hate to think I'm giving bad advice. So I try to stick first and foremost to identifying where there are problems, especially in my written comments. ("I got lost here." "This sentence confuses me." "I'm surprised the character is acting this way." "Something is not right.") Then I might verbally expand upon that during the actual meeting.

We have a rule in my smaller group that you must send material to be critiqued at least three days ahead of time. I think this works well to ensure that everything is given it's proper amount of time and attention.

I critique either on paper or electronically. Then we discuss. In one group we allot half an hour, and the other group, forty-five minutes. I suspect it could be done in twenty, if you pay close attention to the clock. After thirty minutes, it's usually diminishing returns.

Process

We use this process during the actual meeting (this is somewhat hypothetical, as my two groups use slightly different processes):

  • Author can provide an intro, specific what feedback specifically they are looking for.
  • Author is then silent, doesn't contribute anything, but can ask clarifying questions.
  • Someone summarizes the action of the chapter. We check to see if everyone agrees.
  • Someone (or all) identify what they see as the "center" of the chapter.
  • Go around the circle twice, each time a person talks about something they liked about the chapter, usually reading a line or two aloud.
  • Go through issues, from large to progressively smaller.
    • When people are nit-picking grammer, you know the structure and plot is essentially fine.
  • As we near end of time, author is allowed back in to comment on what they heard, ask other questions.
Meeting

Finding a place to meet can be tricky. In one group we've been using a teahouse that's open until 10pm. In the other group, we use a coffeehouse. We've tried meeting at people's houses, and I think this is fine, as long as the process of meeting doesn't distract from the business of critiquing.

We usually use the first twenty minutes or so for settling in, comparing what we've been up to, or sharing things we've learned about writing or publishing.

We've discussed meeting in bars, but they are frequently noisier than coffee/tea houses, and may lack wireless. A hipflask poured into a teacup works just fine. :)

Critique Gone Bad

I've heard people discuss nightmare scenarios where their critique group is highly negative and/or some of the people who attend don't contribute anything but simply criticize everyone else's writing. I feel very fortunate to have never encountered these types of scenarios. If this is your experience, I strongly suggest finding a new critique group.

If you are starting a new critique group or looking for one, I hope this is helpful.

Will

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