All writers get butterflies when they submit works-in-progress to a critique group. No matter how experienced or professional we might pretend to be, we writers have thin skins.
A critique group can do a lot of good. It can help a writer identify one-dimensional characters and boring plots. But, writing groups can also do a lot of harm. If a group sounds unanimous in its disapproval, we authors would sooner throw away a piece of work than invest the time it takes to make it better.
The main goal of a critique group is to give the writer hope.
Here are five rules that help critique groups succeed. If you’re thinking about putting together a group, having ground rules will help members know what’s expected.
Rule #1 Show Up For the Group
Create a structure that builds trust. A critique group functions best when people show up regularly. My groups have had a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Nothing is more annoying that the writer who only deigns to drop in when it’s their night to present.
If a member can’t attend in person, then by all means send written comments. A paragraph or two makes a difference to the presenter, and group discussions improve if everyone stays current.
Rule #2 Don’t Defend Your Manuscript
Presenting writers must sit quietly while the critique group discusses the manuscript. Provide a chapter-by-chapter synopsis (if you have one), and e-mail the manuscript a week before the discussion.
It’s a good idea for the author to send questions along with the manuscript, such as, “I feel like these scenes are working pretty well, but I’m wondering what you’re picking up about about the characters when they speak? Am I leaving too much unsaid, or putting too much on the page?”
Another kind of peremptory author-comment can head off nitpicking. “Hey, gang, this is brand new work, and I’m feeling a little vulnerable and uncertain. If you could tell me which sections seem most interesting and alive, I’ll take it from there. Only positive comments, please.”
Wouldn’t this defeat the purpose of a critique group?
Not at all. When we begin new work, we are all groping in the dark.
I’ve known some writers whose biggest roadblock to finishing their book is the voice of a loud and intrusive Internal Editor. I’m not talking about an editor who goes nuts about grammar problems. I’m talking about the soul-killing, creativity-draining Internal Editor who says, “This work is so fundamentally flawed, you’ll never make it right.” Or, “This work sucks. I don’t even understand why you bothered to submit such an unfinished chapter.”
I never want to hear comments like that in a group. I would rather the author leave a critique feeling uplifted by the voices around the table.
That doesn’t mean doling out phony praise. It just means respecting the vulnerability of an author embarking on a new project.
Comments group members can make include these:
- “I was confused by…”
- “I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at when…”
- “I got a little lost at…”
- “I really loved the section where…”
- “Gosh, I loved xyz. That section really held my attention, and what I liked about it was xyz.”
Phrases that can make a writer feel she’s had dust thrown in her eyes include these:
- If I were you, I’d…
- I think the story would be a lot better if you’d only…
- This is how you ought to fix…
It’s a lot easier for an author to sit quietly and take notes if the group is focused on what’s working well.
Rule #3 Provide Written Comments
A critique group often identifies issues that individual writers didn’t notice when they were reading the story at home. Even so, it’s a good idea for everyone in the group to write two or three paragraphs of single-spaced commentary.
Resist the urge to repeat all your brilliant comments to the group. Think about which one or two points you’d like to offer for the group’s consideration. Then, sit back and listen. There’s often a greater wisdom that arises from a discussion where everyone adds their two cents.
Rule #4 Active Writers Only, Please
A critique group is not a book group or a place for non-writers to come and take potshots at those who are earnestly trying to figure out the nuts-and-bolts of writing fiction. When members aren’t actively writing for a year or two, I strongly suggest they drop out.
Does that sound harsh? Probably, but if you insist on a group composed of fully committed authors, you won’t have trouble filling critique slots.
(As an aside, let me just mention that SignUpGenius.com makes it easy to set up a submission calendar. My group meets 2x a month, and considers two or three 20- to 30-page manuscripts per time.)
Rule #5 Birds Of A Feather
It helps if people in the group write the same kind of book–cozy mysteries, let’s say, or historical novels set in the Roman Empire. However, the realities of geography often make it difficult to find writers who share a common aesthetic.
To that end, each member of a group must commit to being a cheerleader for the work presented, even if that work is not their favorite kind of literature. If a group can agree to support the writer’s vision, rather than any specific piece of work, the critique group will benefit all its members.
The goal of a critique group is not to provide a forum for critiquers to prove how smart they are or to make points at someone else’s expense.
The goal is to provide a safe place to present works-in-progress and to help the author know where and how to “re-envision” the work.
A critique group that can inspire a writer to finish and publish their book is one that deserves its members’ loyalty.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.