Since last week’s post on critique groups I’ve heard from writers who are frustrated in trying to find a good working group.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss a few more ideas surrounding finding and joining a critique group.
How the meeting is run has to be one of the important components of a good working critique group (or any group). Whether your group reads work aloud or distributes the material ahead of time, you won’t get much out of it if members interrupt, talk over or cross talk or if a writer tries to defend the work. Speaking out of turn is a problem I tend to wrestle with. OK, I’m awful! I know sometimes it’s very hard to hold your opinion until it’s your turn—especially if you disagree with whomever is talking. In one of my groups, we don’t use a moderator, but if you decide to use one, why not let the position rotate with every meeting? That way, no one member is in charge or tempted to misuse a moderator’s power. Another way to stem the tendency to blurt out is to agree ahead of time on a word or catch phrase to alert the runner-off-at-the-mouth to zip it. In our group that word is “Paperclip” (I probably need to hear it more). It’s a non-confrontational way to rein in cross talk or even a critique gone on too long. Set a length limit on oral critiques (say five minutes), adopt a general rule on what constitutes good critique (will you allow “nits” to be spoken of?) and if rambling is a problem, set a time limit.
Another thing that pro writers look for in a critique group is commitment. Are members committed to meeting most of the time or are there frequent absences? Are members regularly producing new work? Does the group leave you feeling excited about revising your work or do you feel like they just tore you to pieces? Better critique groups members pledge to attend meetings even when they aren’t workshopping their own work. They write and submit on a regular basis and give constructive critiques that leave writers encouraged, not defeated. The biggest part of commitment should be a writer’s understanding that in any critique, take what you can use and lose the rest.
A final idea concerning groups: If all members are at about same level of skill and all are “new” writers, it might be beneficial to join a paid group—where the moderator is an experienced writer/teacher. Ask at local colleges or writing teachers. Advanced writers who know how to deliver an instructive critique often desire writers of about the same skill level as themselves, and a new writer might feel lost. It’s common for writers to need different kinds of groups as they gain writing experience and/or start to publish their work. The ideal group balances feedback about the Big Picture (that is, structure, story, theme) with good sentence craftsmanship or some light editing. A word about Big Picture feedback: critiques which try to change a story to what the critique giver thinks should or shouldn’t happen should be taken as suggestions and not as hard and fast rules. Remember, as a writer you must learn to take what feedback you can use and lose the rest.