Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writer's Wednesday: Forming a Critique Group

Some people think they can write something, never revise it, and others should still want to read it.

That's about the same thing as pooping on a platter and calling it art.

A critique group is extremely valuable to writers who want to improve their skills. However, a bad critique group can be devastating. If you're not a part of one that meets your needs, create your own.
Consider your ideal group.  In your utopia, how does it flow? Go ahead. Close your eyes and allow yourself to look around in your imagination. Experience the perfection.

Consider how you learn best.
  • Do you prefer anonymity or one-on-one?
    • Are you someone who needs to peel the layers of a critique to fully understand it? If so, then you probably need to be able to chat with your group.  On the other hand, if you can take written critiques and they make perfect sense to you, then an email arrangement might be more to your liking.  I've heard of critique buddies who've never met in person.  
  • Do you want to know your writing companions well? 
    • Membership will determine where you meet. If members are strangers, meet in a public place for safety's sake.  My favorite way to compile a group is to carefully select the members from among my friends and acquaintances--people I've carefully identified as having similar goals and energy of the group.  In that case, I prefer meeting in homes on a rotating basis.  It's cozier. Chairs are comfier. There's no time restraints. There's no eavesdroppers. Food and beverages flow.
Consider time.
  • How much time can you dedicate to writing and critiquing?
    • I believe that the most productive critique groups are those in which every member contributes each time.  I've participated in both kinds, and the feedback is different if someone isn't actively a part of the creating process of writing. It's a different zone.  If one isn't in that zone, then the criticism can be a bit detached.  However, since you're creating the group, make up your own rules. Maybe all the time you have to dedicate is once every three months.  That's still something.
  • How often would you like to meet? 
    • Once a month? Once a week?  Quarterly?   My favorite time is once a month.  If you and your potential critique buddies have loads of time and a deadline, then once a week can be exciting and productive, but most people exert a lot of energy just to meet once a month.
  • How long would the meetings last? 
    • Have an outline in mind.  If food is included, allow time for eating and socializing. Will you have guest speakers? Assign speaking/critique time. Will you have an information sharing time where members share contest information, agent updates, writing articles, etc.? Post the times so that everyone knows the agenda. Also, consider limiting the number of pages members can bring to be critiqued so that everyone gets equal time.  Sometimes, storytellers get easily off task and have the entire group laughing about situations that have nothing to do with the submissions.  In that case, set a timer for each entry. Bad blood can occur if someone gets the short end of the time stick because someone talked too much or brought an inordinate number of pages.
  • How are the pieces submitted? 
    • Should they be emailed ahead of time to allow readers to thoughtfully peruse the material at leisure?  Should copies be brought to the meeting and the piece read cold? Should the author read it aloud, should another member read it, or should everyone read it silently? All of these methods have been used successfully. Think about what works for you with time constraints and membership goals.
Consider feelings.
  • What are the rules? 
    • Even creative people need structure to thrive. At your first meeting or in the preliminary discussions, present some ground rules.  Criticism is not meant to rip apart a piece. It is meant to improve.  Knowing what one does right is as important as knowing what one does wrong. Try to first say what you like about the piece, what works, etc.  Follow up with the comments on what needs to be tweaked. Consider the different aspects of writing: plot, character, point of view, theme, setting, conflict, figurative language, pacing, etc. Allow the author to ask for specific feedback.  Sometimes that helps the critics gauge what the writer is striving for and whether or not it's attained.
  • What will make people feel comfortable?  
    • "Breaking bread" is a traditional way for people to connect. I've met in public places like Panera, Books A Million, Barnes and Noble, and Oklahoma City's Full Circle Bookstore. I've participated in potluck dinners and lunches at homes. I also meet with a group that has morning coffee/tea and sweets. The dessert is provided on a rotating basis. By no means am I a cook, but I enjoy food. And, for me, there's something about sharing my writing with people who are also willing to share sustenance. It's like an extra bond of trust is formed. Nourishing the body as well as the writing spirit works for me.
Congratulations on embarking on this endeavor. Ten years into the group I helped start, I realize that the benefits have been more than just writing. My critique partners have not only improved my work, but they've also improved my life--one meeting, one email, one phone call at a time. 
Good luck! 

What are your thoughts on critique groups? Do you have other suggestions?


  1. Nice post, Brandi. I've been with my current critique group for nearly 11 years, and the members have been invaluable to me, both in improving my writing and in the beautiful friendships we've developed.

  2. Thank you. Aren't writing groups great?!