Tips for starting a critique group

A critique group can be fun, inspiring and even emotional. It can bring camaraderie in the lonely world of you-your laptop-your imagination. It can provide valuable eyes to look at the work in a new way.

I’ll never forget what an author running a writing workshop said to our group before we launched into a day-long critique session: There are three facets of writing: what we want to write, what we think we’ve written, what we’ve actually written. Those three pieces are often very different things.

But I believe critique partners help us to draw those three things closer in line.

Critique group basics

First, what is a critique group? It’s a gathering where people discuss each other’s work. That’s pretty much it.

From there, critique groups can vary in size, procedure, result. I’ve participated in a few different types of groups — the small critique group that I launched in my town, a large group run by another writer and a handful of workshops and retreats.

Each type of group has its own benefits, but I love my small group. It provides a deadline for work, something a lot of us need to get our butts in the chair, as they say. It gets us out of our writing cave, talking to other people with similar goals.

The nuts and bolts

Submissions: We established a word limit. This will depend on your group size. My small group of four writers exchanges 2,000-5,000 words each. And every writer is critiqued at every meeting.

Review period: We submit our work a week before our meeting to give ample time to read and critique each piece.

Meeting: We meet monthly and spend about two hours together. We chat for a few minutes and then get down to business.

Rules: It may feel odd to create rules for a small group, but they do help. We’re handling each other’s babies, right?

  1. In my group, each person must submit work. If someone is stuck and can’t submit on occasion, that’s okay, but on a regular basis everyone should put their heart on the line, too.
  2. The person whose work is being discussed remains quiet. No defending the critique. Every reader has an impression of the work and even if that is not what the writer meant, it’s good to hear what the words actually feel like to readers.
  3. Readers take turns making comments.
  4. Once the readers are through commenting, the writer can answer or ask questions.

Comments:¬†Each reader will bring their own strengths to the comments. Some may be adept at characterization, others may be able to spot weak verbs and awkward dialogue like nobody’s business. But the goal of critique is to help the author.

But this is sensitive stuff. Sometimes readers see things in our work we may not have seen or intended. Critiques along these lines may not be welcome news for the writer. After all, our job as storytellers is to dig deep, pour our heart and soul into each word. But once the words are on the page, critique becomes about the work. Expect that writers and readers won’t agree sometimes. That’s absolutely fine. With open communication, try your best to make sure critique of someone else’s work doesn’t become a bashing session. You know the old critique sandwich? Compliment-critique-compliment. It works here, as well.

For more thoughts on this, check out my post on handling criticism and rejection. I need to read it once a week! But seriously,¬†once our words are on the page, we need to find a way to separate ourselves from the words and take critique as it’s meant, to help us move forward.

One trick is to head to Amazon or Goodreads. Look up your favorite book. Then read the one- and two- and three- star reviews. Our work isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Even people in our writing group.

After the fact: So, you’ve heard the comments, gotten a pile of notes. Now what? Depending on how you and your critique members work, you may want to look at the notes right away. You may pick up on tips to help you move forward in your work-in-progress. However, a lot of writers also tuck these notes away in a folder until it’s time for the next draft.

So, why bother having critique notes if you’re not going to use them right away. Some writers get stuck trying to adapt their work to critique notes rather than getting the story down. Leaving these notes until a later date could be one less procrastination temptation.

Communication: We are loosely in touch throughout the month. We send each other interesting reading, encourage participation in competitions and celebrate our successes and rejections. Yes, celebrate rejections, because that means we’re putting ourselves out there. Rejection is part of the game.

Alternatives

Some groups read their pieces out loud, so the readers have a fresh reaction to the work.

Larger groups rotate submissions so readers may only have their work read every couple of months. And may also limit the word count to about 1,000 words.

You may be able to tap your critique partners to read your entire manuscript when you’re at that stage. Be ready to return the favor.

You may be interested in creating forms for readers to complete or use as a guideline.

What tips do you have for running critique group? Have you found any interesting forms or guidelines that have worked for your group?