Forming a Critique Group
August 6, 2019
What is a critique group? Simply put, it’s a group of writers who meet regularly, in person or remotely, to give feedback on one another’s work. What are the benefits? In fact there are several, foremost of which is to get feedback on your writing. Other writers will see errors and weak spots that an author might miss. Equally important, if not more so, is to develop a critical eye for writing. Seeing the good and bad in the writing of others is of inestimable value in one’s writing journey. A third major benefit is the support one gets from the group, not only in the work itself, but also sharing information on conferences, workshops, help in marketing, promotions—even emotionally. Critique group members often become good friends.
How do you form a critique group? First you need a leader or organizer, somebody or bodies to spearhead putting the thing together. (Probably YOU.) Will your group be genre-specific, restricted (by sex, level of experience, ethnicity, etc.) or more broadly based? Obviously you have to find other writers who want to participate. Where do you find them? Writing friends, word of mouth, conferences, workshops, groups like the Tulsa Nightwriters (and our Genre Focus Groups), libraries (stick a notice on the bulletin board or talk to a librarian), or online are great places to start. A Google search will produce websites that link writers for that purpose, and there are Facebook pages set up to do so, as well. The members need to make a conscious commitment to the group, because it will demand time and effort which will vary depending on the group dynamics.
Once a core group of writers makes a commitment, there are decisions to be made. How many members make a good mix? Where will you meet? Remote groups have to decide how to communicate, whether to use Skype, Facebook, e-mail, conference call, instant messaging, or even an occasional face-to-face meeting.
You’ll have to agree on ground rules for the group (and it doesn’t hurt to put those rules in writing). How often do you meet? How long will meetings last? How large a sample do members submit? How far in advance? Does each member submit regularly, on a rotating basis, or as needed? Are full draft read-throughs allowed? Can an author ask for a particular type of critique? Does each member critique all submissions, or is that on a rotating basis? For remote groups especially, when schedules conflict, what is the minimum number necessary for a meeting?
A meeting agenda might be a good idea. Often there may be related writing topics the group might want to discuss, or to reserve time to catch up on one another’s lives and writing, publication, and/or marketing progress. You could even set aside time to address problems or discuss the guidelines. Going over the ground rules once a year or so is not a bad move. Whether a leader is permanent or rotates among the group, someone will likely need to facilitate the agenda. Someone will also need to reserve a meeting place or set up for a remote group.
Every critic has the responsibility of giving helpful, respectful, substantial comments, addressing specific and sometimes general issues using the best of his/her knowledge. Point out an issue, explain why it is an issue, and, if possible, make suggestions how to fix it. The critic needs to bear in mind it’s the author’s writing. Do not rewrite it for them and do not expect them to write it the way you would.
Usually critiques are done both orally and in written comments. If the critic cannot attend a meeting, the comments should be sent anyway. Try to begin feedback, orally in particular, with two positive statements. Focus your critique on the work, not the writer. Couch criticism in “I” terms, not “you.” (“I see a problem,” not, “you made a mistake.”) Describe issues sufficiently and clearly enough for the author to understand. Make your point and get off of it, don’t pound the author. That goes for repeating others’ points, too, though it is helpful to say you spotted the same issue.
In receiving feedback the author needs to listen with an open mind and interrupt only to ask questions for clarification, not to explain, not to argue. The end of an oral critique is the time to explore issues or ask for additional input. A “thank you” is most welcome, too.
Nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly, and critique groups are no exception. Once yours is established, you may run into problems. Your group may be too large or too small. You may seek new members, which requires vetting and possibly recruiting. You may have a member who won’t follow the guidelines, participate regularly, is impolite, disruptive, or has to “win” every discussion. All these problems, and more besides, should be discussed and addressed by the group using the guidelines. (This is where it helps to have them in writing.)
Finally, celebrate each member's growth and successes. Support each other publicly and privately. Use personal platforms—Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.—to promote each other's work.