Ten tips for building a great critique group

Group In Cafe Laughing
photo by Barb Cooper

photo by Barb Cooper

At some stage in your creative writing career, usually after you’ve been writing for a while and have built up a little confidence, you may start to question whether your writing is any good. Friends and family are not a big help in this department, since they tend to be biased (they love you) and they may not have any knowledge about how to evaluate writing. There are a few ways you can go about having your work evaluated, depending on how much time you have, your level of experience, and the budget you have at your disposal:

  • You can sign up for a course in the genre you are working in. Writing courses are widely available and are often offered at libraries, community colleges, universities, online, and privately through local writing teachers. Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge has a wide variety of offerings featuring stellar writing teachers. Check out your local Writer’s Community (e.g. WCYR, WCDR, WSCS) for more information.
  • You can pay for a manuscript review by a qualified writer or editor, or
  • You can create or join a critique group.

Group In Cafe LaughingCritique groups are a very low-cost way to obtain feedback and improve your work. Peer-led groups can help your productivity and open your eyes to both the strengths and weaknesses of your writing, but they can also be a waste of time if the plan and expectations for the group are unclear. Here are ten factors to consider when you are setting up a group:

 

How often will you meet, and where? You will need time in your schedule both to produce your own work and to read and provide feedback on your other members’ work. You will need a setting where you can speak freely, hear well, stay warm and dry, and have access to washrooms and refreshments.

What will be your membership criteria? Do you want to focus on specific types of writing (e.g. poetry) or a wide variety? Are you hoping for a certain level of experience? Do you want to screen (e.g. ask new members to provide a sample of their writing)? Arguments can be made for and against each of these scenarios. In a small community it may not be realistic to insist on a specific genre, unless you want to join an online group.

How many members are going to be in the group? Most writing teachers recommend a maximum of 8. Keep in mind that if you have 8 people submitting 8 pages each month you will need to read and respond to 56 pages (not including your own) of text before each meeting.

How much time are you willing to commit? Are you looking for an in-depth evaluation including copy-editing or just an overall impression? You might want to be pragmatic and discuss how much time commitment is expected per piece submitted.

What mechanism of feedback are you hoping for? Do you want comments written down in a report, completed in “track changes,” scribbled on the MS, or given verbally? Keep in mind that in a large group printing out everyone’s work will equate to a lot of paper and ink.

Two Male Friends Meeting In Busy Coffee Shop

Think about deadlines. Group members will need time to read and evaluate before each meeting. You may want to set up a submission deadline one to two weeks before the scheduled meeting.

How will you communicate with one another outside of meeting times (email? Facebook? Phone?).  If the weather is terrible and you need to cancel, how and when will that decision be made and communicated?

How will the group make decisions? For example, if new members want to join, how will the requests be handled? Will you have an assigned group leader or make the decisions collaboratively.

Will you have a policy about absences? If a member misses meeting after meeting, does she still get to keep her spot in the group?

What will you do if members do not live up to their commitments? How will you deal with it if work is not submitted or the work of critiquing is not done? How will this be addressed and who will be responsible for communicating it?

Once you have your group together it is a great idea to discuss and agree on some basic rules of conduct so that everyone’s expectations are clear about how the actual critique process should unfold. Watch for more information about this in my next blog (March 17th). Until then,

Happy writing!

Elaine

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