A Writers’ Critique Group Manifesto – Five Rules for a Better Group

This is what your notes could look like after a bad critique group.

This is what your notes could look like after a bad critique group.

Hello, Don’tRead faithful.

Well the big push of NANoWriMo is behind us once again, and that means only one thing for most of you–time to edit that rough (or in my case, really REALLY rougher than a dominatrix on a bad day) first draft!

But as anyone will tell you, you can’t go it alone. You’re too close to your work right now to catch all your mistakes, and you can’t critique your own style.

That’s why we have Writing Groups. Writing groups can be a great resource for you to get other people’s opinions on how your work flows, sounds, and works (or doesn’t). But they can also be a huge waste of time.

I’ve participated in a lot of writing groups and I’ve seen firsthand some of the problems plaguing some writing groups: these guys don’t do my genre or medium, let’s all talk about our personal problems, nobody brought anything to share, no constructive criticism. These things take an awesome opportunity to improve craft and turn it into a support group for wannabes.

So here are a few techniques I learned from successful writer’s groups I’ve been in:

  1. Designate a leader. Writers have a lot to say, naturally but getting on a soapbox at a group critique can take valuable time away from your peers. That’s why one person is needed to reign in the conversation and keep everyone focused.
  2. Everyone must bring work in order to participate. So why are we here again? Seriously, this becomes a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ situation. If everyone assumes the others will bring work to critique, but doesn’t bother to bring anything themselves, the whole group is ruined. Literally. You’ll sit around and talk about bullshit for an hour, and your writing will suffer for it.
    So if anyone wants to talk at the meetings, they must bring something to share, and preferrably have a specific issue they’d like to address with it. This way, there’ll always be something useful to learn.
  3. Keep your comments relevant to the work we’re discussing. This isn’t the place to talk about how you beat cancer. Nobody cares that you’re bipolar. We’re not here to discuss your personal journey through life. We’re here to talk about improving our writing. This isn’t a social gathering; we’re professionals. That’s why, when talking about a work of fiction, limit yourself to talking ONLY about the work of fiction.
    The only time it’s appropriate to bring peronsal things up is if you are the author and you’re writing memoir or biography.
  4. You must state at least one thing you liked and disliked about other author’s work. The worst people in any writing group are the ones who come just to show off their own stuff. You’ll know these folks when their turn to give feedback comes and they say, “It was good.” This statement doesn’t help anyone improve in any way; it’s a cop out to hide the fact that they weren’t listening and put no thought into the work being critiqued.
    Also, no repeating what others have said! That’s cheating!
  5. Limit initial comments to two minutes per person, then allow five minutes open discussion for every work. When you’ve got a lot of work to get through, you have to put a cap on it some time to prevent things from getting off-topic. So get an egg timer! or an Oscar-Night band. Allowing the author to get a rapid fire list of things they can work on helps, then the discusion afterward allows everyone to ask questions and get clarification.

So there you go–my dream of a perfect critique group. Anyobdy have any experiences to share? I’m thinking of starting one up–internet or otherwise. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!


4 thoughts on “A Writers’ Critique Group Manifesto – Five Rules for a Better Group

  1. My fiction writing class had similar rules and my prof somehow managed to accurately judge the quality of our work from a very short story at the beginning and had us present in order of talent (least to most). Which I liked, though he never said he did it.

    The best thing was that we weren’t allowed to respond to criticism – you just had to take it. Also, his criticism was the most amazing, positive, just made you want to work harder, constructive thing ever. And his voice was amazing.

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