Join or Start a Critique Group

Every critique group I have been in has taught me something, not only about my writing, but about myself.  Some critique groups I’ve been in have worked well, some worked okay, and some didn’t work at all.

My current critique group has been active for nearly a year, and it all started with my response to a request for a critique partner on one of the groups I belong to. It’s one of the most productive and interesting critique groups I’ve belonged to – thanks to my critique partners Lane and Carolyn.

Based on my experiences, here are some questions to consider when starting your own critique group or joining someone elses:

  1. Why.
    1. Why do you want to start or join a critique group? This is the most important question, and the answer becomes the goal of the critique group. Critique group members should have similar goals, for e.g. they all want to publish traditionally, self publish, or find an agent. This shared objective builds cohesiveness within the group.
  2. What.
    1. What type(s) of writing? Is it poetry, literary fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction, memoir, historical, essays, short stories, novels, query letters, etc.? It is essential that all group members read, understand, and appreciate the type(s) of writing that will be swapped for critique and, while it is not critical that they all write the same types, it does help build group cohesiveness.
    2. What will be swapped for critique? Will it be pages, chapters, full manuscripts, poems, query letters, etc. The group doesn’t need to always swap the same things, but they should decide upfront what the acceptable forms of critique submissions are.
    3. What are the parameters, or rules, for critiquing? When everyone in the group knows what is expected of them, the group tends to be more productive. This may be on a submission basis, for example if a member submits a First Draft and would like a general opinion, or if a member submits a Final Draft and would like a line edit. The best type of critique is one that is objective and focused on the writing, and this is perhaps the most difficult part of a critique group to get correct. At the bottom of this article are a handful of resources on how to critique.
  3. When.
    1. When will the group submit their work? The greater the number of words/pages, the longer lead-time needs to be allowed for a thoughtful and thorough critique. Set expectations for when writing should be submitted, but realize that stuff happens and be prepared to adapt.
    2. When will the group meet? If weekly, which day and at what time? If month, which day of which week, and at what time? You get the idea. A set schedule always works best because it provides a framework on which to hang goals and accountability. Just remember, things happen, and schedules will need minor tweaks or major adjustments at one point or another.
  4. How.
    1. How will you exchange your writing? Will you use email, Google Docs, Dropbox, or something else?
    2. How will you conduct critique meetings? Will you meet online, in person, over the phone?  It’s quite feasible to use all three options for the same critique group.  In fact, being more flexible about the how of the meeting can strengthen the group.
    3. How will you provide feedback? I’ve found that sending a document for review before the meeting and discussing the reviewed document at the meeting works the best.  Using track changes in the document is a great way to add your comments, and these and additional comments can be discussed during your meeting.
  5. How many?
    1. How many people will be in the critique group? I’ve found that critique groups with more than five (5) members tend to be unwieldy to manage and not enough time is spent with each critique. A critique group of three (3) that meets weekly is very effective.
    2. How many pages will you swap? Decide on the maximum number of pages that will be swapped, based on the number of members in the group, and how often the critique group meets.  For example, our group has three (3) people, swaps a maximum of ten (10) pages, and meets weekly.
  6. How often?
    1. How often will the critique group meet? The more often you meet, the more momentum the group has, and the less pages should be swapped to keep the critiques manageable. It is also quite feasible to have a critique group that swaps entire manuscripts and meets once every six months, or longer.
  7. Where?
    1. If you meet in person, where will you meet? The environment has to be conducive to a discussion and while writers and coffee shops seem to go together well, it’s not always quiet or private enough for a critique group meeting. Another option are libraries which almost always have rooms you can reserve free of charge. The location can be centralized and the same every month, or it can vary depending on members locations.  If your group is geographically spread out then the next option may be the best –
    2. If you meet virtually will you use Skype, Google Hangouts or some other videoconferencing software? Skype is free for one-to-one conversations and the paid version allows up to ten people on a videoconference, Google Hangouts is free for up to ten people, and there are new software options popping up all the time. My suggestion is to try a free trial before you buy any new software. Another consideration is that videoconferencing requires a bit of technical knowledge, and all group members need a computer or laptop with camera and microphone.
    3. If you meet over the telephone, will you use a free conference number, will one person initiate all the calls, or will group members take turns in initiating the calls?
    4. Variety and flexibility are things to consider when choosing meeting locations.  You may decide to meet in person for some meetings and have them conducted remotely at other times.  Whatever works for the members of the group and maintains momentum.
  8. Who.
    1. Who will be in the group? Will you stay within your geographic area or genre? Will you prefer only people you know to be in the group or open the group to strangers? Will you welcome both genders? The definition of who will be in your group can be as narrow and broad as you want it to be. I will say, however, that critique groups are a wonderful way to meet new people and make new friends.
    2. Who will co-ordinate the group? A critique group should be a peer-to-peer group but someone has to take the initiative to keep the group on track. This coordinator role could be swapped between group members on a scheduled basis, or it could happen organically. Just remember that no one likes to be the one making all the decisions all the time (but if they do, perhaps they should not be in your group!)

What are some tips you can offer about critique groups?  Do you have any critique or critique group resources to share?

Some Resources

http://coffeeandcritique.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-to-critique-fiction-for-fellow.html – how to critique fiction

https://thewritingplace.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/guidelines-for-nonfiction-critiques/ – how to critique non-fiction

http://www.writingroom.com/viewwriting/wr_how_to/How-To-Critique-A-Poem – how to critique a poem

http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/crit.shtml – critiquing poetry

http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html – how to critique fiction

http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-a-critique.html – how to critique creative fiction

http://www.writingforward.com/writing-tips/tips-for-critiquing-other-writers-work – tips for critiquing others work

 

 

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