A reader has asked me to post about critique groups. Although I’ve done some posts on the subject, now, as we head into Fall is a great time to refresh our memories.
Writing Tip for Today: A certain amount of magic is involved in a good critique group. That is, certain groups of writers mesh and complement one another better than others. If you are ready for more advanced critiques, have a beef with your existing group or just want to brush up on the qualities of a good critique group, here are some things to think about:
- What Do You Need? Ask yourself what you need from a critique group. Although we all want feedback that will help us improve, some of us are better at both giving and receiving that feedback than others. If you are giving or receiving crits that are emotionally loaded or that don’t encourage, remember that you are judging the writing, not the writer. Practice taking a shot at critique on the “big picture,” even if all you feel comfortable in giving are spelling or usage errors. I want a group capable of alerting me to structural errors, misperception of characters or straying from the theme. I also appreciate my group members pointing out awkward sentences or places that zip by too fast or take too long. I don’t need pointers on spelling, usage or punctuation in the verbal critique, although if there are errors, I definitely want others to correct them in writing.
- Sandwich It! My style of critique, which I teach to my students, is to give a positive comment, a constructive (not negative) one, and end with a positive. Makes the medicine go down much more easily.
- Choose a Moderator. For a peer group, it can help you stay on task and prevent hurt feelings if each time you meet you decide on a moderator for that session. Change moderators frequently. The moderator is the timekeeper, the organizer (who reads first, second etc) and the Sgt.-at-arms, to curb defending, interrupting, small talk or other distractions. The moderator also reminds where necessary, that as critiquers we are not trying to rewrite someone else’s story the way we think it should read, but to offer suggestions and leave the decision to the writer. Conversely, the writer must remain silent after reading, uttering only “Thank you” for the feedback. As the author you will not be able to visit every reader and “explain” what you really meant. If someone in your group doesn’t get it, you need to be sure you are communicating clearly.
- Review the Rules. Every so often, take a few minutes to review the group rules and to discuss individual writing goals. Asking a writer what kind of feedback they are looking for is a helpful way to defuse our natural inclination to boss other writers around.
- Time for the Next Level? Only you can answer this question, but if you’ve outgrown your group, keep your eyes and ears open for possible spots in groups with writers whom you admire. Solicit other similar writers as yourself by posting in writing organization fora or online sites. If you cannot find a suitable group, consider joining a facilitated group, where writers pay an advanced writer/teacher to participate. The money will be well-spent if it helps you get where you’re wanting to go.
- Other Nuts & Bolts: Decide whether your group will read manuscripts ahead of time or read aloud on the spot with copies. I favor the second method. It can be a real discovery for everyone (including the writer) to hear how writing sounds. Also, we all have the best of intentions, but in my experience, reading ahead gets put off until ten minutes before group. Practice this style of critique and you will learn to spot and diagnose problems quickly. Trust me, it works.
Next Post: How much time should each feedback giver take? Should members expect to read every week? What should be done about members who give critiques but rarely have any material themselves? Should a group make a rule about submitting to editors? What about fiction v. nonfiction, or short pieces v. novels or books? How to audition a new member, and how to let a member go.