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Guideline for Writers: Critique Groups

Participants - It's important to limit the group to people who have a similar amount of writing experience. It's also beneficial if they have the same goals. In my group, we all want to improve our writing and to submit our work for publication.

Size of Group - No more than six or seven is best, so that everyone can get feedback. Usually someone is on vacation, sick, at a doctor's appointment, etc., but when just four or five show up, you will still have plenty to do.

Focus on One Genre - Don't try to mix poetry and prose, unless every member writes both. I belong to a poetry critique group and a separate prose group (fiction, creative nonfiction, personal essays).

Where to Meet - If you meet in a public place, such as a library or bookstore, you may be required to open the group to the public, which rarely works. Writers need to feel safe when they receive critique, and someone wandering in from the street may not be diplomatic in delivering criticism. Fire departments in some small towns have community rooms you can sign up for. Janisse Ray, a prize-winning author and sought-after speaker, met for years with several like-minded writers in the back room of a hardware store! Avoid restaurants. They're messy, noisy, and don't feel safe. My group meets in our homes. We rotate and provide tea, coffee, etc., and sometimes a plate of cookies to munch while critiquing. (If you have six members and meet monthly, you will have to host only twice a year.)

How Often to Meet - If everyone is retired and has plenty of time to write, twice monthly may work. Most groups meet once a month, which allows members plenty of time between meetings to write.

Length of Sessions - One hour is not long enough for everyone to get feedback. Two hours seems just right for many groups.

Format - For poets, a couple of short poems each is about all you can cover. For prose writers, limit your piece to no more than 2500 words (10 pages, 250 words per page, double-spaced copy). At least 24 hours in advance email your work to all members. They can print out and read the piece and make notes on the pages. In this way, everyone will be ready to discuss the work at the meeting. It takes far too long to read the work out loud at the meeting; it's also hard for people to deliver thoughtful critique on a piece they've just heard.

  • Go around the circle. Members should make comments one at a time. Tell the writer what you liked about the piece (praise first!). Then tell her/him if there was something you weren't clear on, a character that didn't seem believable, dialog that sounded stilted, etc. Be honest but kind; this is valuable feedback for the writer. (If someone has joined the group just to receive praise, he/she will drop out quickly.)
  • Don't use valuable time telling the person about misspellings or punctuation errors. Simply mark those corrections on the copy and give the person the pages at the end of the session.
  • Set aside a time at the beginning or end of the session to share leads about places to publish, or about journals or magazines that are hard to deal with. Recently one of our members heard about an editor who was calling for stories for an anthology. Six of us submitted and four had their work accepted and published in the book.
  • If you have not written something to be critiqued, don't skip the meeting. Attend in order to give others the benefit of your input. (In my group, if someone can't come, she emails her comments to the others on their work for that month.)

Spirit of the Group - The group should provide a safe container in which to share their work, learn from others, grow as writers. Competition should not be a factor. Don't compare yourself to others. Celebrate each other's successes. Offer praise when you really like a piece; don't praise it simply to stroke someone's ego. In my group members listen openly to comments; we revise our work in response to suggestions that resonate with us. We almost always acknowledge that the final product (sometimes revised numerous times) is better, more powerful, clearer, funnier, whatever!

Comments, suggestions, criticism should be offered in a kind, gentle manner. Harsh, mean-spirited criticism should not be tolerated. When you receive critique, don't argue or defend your work. Receive the criticism with an open mind. You don't have to accept suggestions. On the other hand, if no one in the group gets what you were trying to convey, you may want to go back to the drawing board!


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