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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Critique Groups 101

In June of 2007, I started a critique group with some writers I met in a fiction class.  This group started out pretty loosey-goosey, but over the years, we've developed a structure, built a rapport and formed lasting friendships.  Eventually we coined a name for our group: Quill&Coffee.

Whether you're looking for (or starting) a critique group or are in a group already, here are some tips I've learned in my three years with Quill&Coffee.



Joining (or starting) a Critique Group 

1)  Follow the rules.  At first.  If you're joining an already established group, it's a good idea to follow the group's rules and standards.  Avoid submitting your work at the last minute and make attendance at the meetings a priority.  At the same time, don't be afraid to voice your thoughts and suggestions about how the group is managed.  Just make sure you build a rapport with your fellow writers before you start trying to change how they run things.

If you're starting your own group, make guidelines and try to stick to them.  Things to consider are: How often will you meet?  How often can each writer submit?  Do you need a schedule?  What does everyone expect in terms of critique (full letters? margin notes? brainstorming?)  And how do you plan to run the actual critique session?  Of course, you can always change the rules as you go, but it's important to start with guidelines in place. 

2)  Find like-minded writers.  This is true both when joining a group or starting one.  Perhaps the most important thing in a critique group is that the writers be more or less in the same phase of writing and publication.  If one writer has several books published while the rest of the group is just dabbling in short stories, there develops an imbalance in the group dynamic and it becomes difficult for the to have a useful dialogue.  When shopping around for a critique group, look for other writers who are in the same boat as you (or, if you're ambitious, writers who are one or two steps ahead) but try to avoid groups where the writers are on a completely different plane. 

3)  Look outside your genre.  Again, both when joining a group or when starting one, it's good to consider writers of genres different from your own.  One of the most valuable things about Quill&Coffee is that each member writes in a different genre.  While we are all more or less in the same place in our writerly development, we also each bring something different to the table with our writing and our critiques.  Of course, some writers can also find very strong and valuable critique groups within their genre.  If a mixed-genre group is not for you, that's OK.  But even in a group with a specific genre focus, it's a definite plus if the members have different perspectives on the genre and different styles of writing and critique. 


Once You're in a Group

4)  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  OK, this one's a no-brainer and it applies whether you're looking for a group or already in one.  Still, I think it bears repeating.  Writers in a critique group should treat each other with respect and have each other's best-interest at heart.  If you're shopping for a group and the writers don't respect each other... RUN, don't walk.  If you're in a group and a writer is being disrespectful, then it's time to have a serious talk with the offending party.  In the land of critique groups, respect is gold. 

5)  Play to each other's strengths.  After working with my writer's group for almost four years, I've learned who to go to when I have specific questions or concerns about my work.  Each member of the group is good at something different and by recognizing and embracing these differences, I've learned to maximize what I get out of my critiques.

One technique I use when I'm submitting a long chunk of writing is I ask each member of the group to focus on a different aspect of craft.  For instance, I'll ask one person to focus on character, another on plot, etc.  Of course, if I'm submitting something short, I won't limit people's critiques in this way, but for long submissions, I've found that it helps to give people a topic to focus on while reading.  Also, because it's a long submission, this technique helps make sure that the areas I'm worried about get covered in our discussion. 

6)  If things aren't going right, talk it out.  Open lines of communication are essential with a critique group.  After a while, this will come naturally because the longer the group stays together, the more you will see each other as friends as well as colleagues.  My critique group recently went through some growing pains and for a while it looked like things would fall apart, but we were able to talk things out openly and work out the situation. 

For more information on running a critique group, read this very helpful post: Writing Group at Waldorf to your Astoria.

In the end, my wish for all of you is that you already have--or are able to find--a group that fits you as well as Quill&Coffee has fit me.

Today's Questions-of-the-Day are: Are you in a critique group?  What's the most important thing you've learned by being in a group?  What advice would you give someone who's looking to join a group?

If you're looking for a critique group or critique partners, tell us a little about your writing and what you're looking for.  Who knows, maybe someone else in DIY MFA is looking for the same thing and you can connect.

18 comments:

toni said...

Ohhh my goodness, I would love to be in a critique group. Just reading your experiences makes me envious, it sounds so wonderful and worthwhile! I've only been writing properly for about a year now, and I've never talked to anyone in RL about writing so a critique group for me is just a dream.

I'm really enjoying reading your blog! :D

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I was in a online crit group, but it broke up at the beginning of the year for various reasons. I've just joined a new one after meeting the writers at the LA SCBWI conference. Right now, I'll be critting their projects since I haven't started my new one yet. And I prefer to finish the first draft and several rounds of editing before I submit it.

A crit group you work well with is worth it. I liked my last group, and learned a lot. Hopefully I can learn even more from my new one. :D

Hello. My name is Elizabeth. said...

I had a really bad experience with a critique partner years ago, which put me off groups for a long time. Now that the scars have healed (for the most part, at least), I'm looking to get back into it, but haven't a clue where to start. It's worse than dating.

The best advice I could give someone in or looking for a critique group is...don't take it personally. You're essentially asking if your manuscript looks fat in those jeans, and sometimes the answer will be "yes." But if your critique partner is one of "those" friends who saves you the embarrassment of everything you try on, only to go in and buy it herself a week later, maybe it's time to find someone new. There's a happy middle between prickly cactus and doormat. Find that middle, and you'll be set.

Erin MacPherson said...

Hi Gabi! This is so great. I've been thinking of starting a critique group for awhile now but I didn't even know where to start. But now I do. Thanks for the great tips and I'm so glad to have found your blog!

Jonene Ficklin said...

Hi Gabi, I really enjoyed your post! We've had a critique group going for almost twelve years now. I love the dynamics and the way it's evolved. They are my dear friends and fellow obsessive writers. Thanks for sharing your wisdom so others can enjoy the support, help and camaraderie a critique group can offer.

Cinette said...

Excellent and timely post, as far as I'm concerned. I'm in a newly formed writers group, and while we're still at the 'loosey goosey' stage, but we seem to fit together quite nicely. Can't wait to see how far we can go!

http://cinettesmusings.blogspot.com

Jolene Perry said...

I like the idea of working with people from different genres. I think it would give an additional insight. Thanks for sharing.

Jessica Hill said...

I'm not currently part of a critique group, but these are definitely great tips to keep in mind when I do start looking for one! Thanks for sharing. :)

gabi said...

Just found this online an thought some of you might be interested.

Critique Group Member Wanted

Wannabe Writer said...

Hi, Gabi! Thanks for this post. These are great guidelines to follow- not just in a critique group, but in life too.

I'm a new writer and not part of a critique group, but I would like to be. Someday. Maybe soon. I have to agree with Elizabeth's post- definitely scarier than dating. Not only do you have to trust someone, but you have to give them something that you've poured your blood, sweat, and tears into! They'll probably point out that I occassionally end sentences in a preposition!

gabi said...

Some professional organizations (like SCBWI) have a system where you can find online critique partners and such. I've never tried this out because I've had a live group but it might be a good place to start if you're looking.

In terms of finding critique partners for face-to-face critiques, I found that the best way to do it was to take a class (check continuing education writing classes at your local college). By the end of the term, you know who's a good fit for you and who's not. A class is a great way to test-drive potential critique partners without the commitment or awkward ending.

Dave Symonds said...

I'm in a pretty rad critique group if I say so myself and I think Looking Outside Your Genre is definitely beneficial. I originally thought that I'd only like critiquing my genre (children's or YA lit), but reading other genres has helped me realize what else is out there and also get a wider range of feedback on my own submissions.

I've also used SCBWI to find a critique group. They have a great message board where people routinely post about looking for/starting groups.

Jolene Perry said...

This is me being lazy and not opening my email.
You need an iggy who has one eyebrow raised in total skepticism.
That would be mine ;)

debiwrites said...

I've been through various critique groups over the years, and there are definitely benefits to be had in reading outside of your genre. The important thing is to find a group of people whose opinions and writing you respect.

As for finding the right group . . . that's the problem for me. I live in a country where English is not the official language (and my Dutch stinks!), so taking local classes is a bit of a problem. There is a "local" SCBWI chapter, but the critique group that has formed isn't the right fit for me (only PB's, and I write YA).

Other than the SCBWI boards, have any of you had success forming an online group? Where did you find each other?

kathanink said...

I would love to be part of a formal critique group. I work with some other writers online, but so far we haven't done anything really formal (though two of us are trying to get started on it through the DIY MFA!).

I did join an already established group and dropped out right away. I don't think they respected the other writers, especially the new ones.I could handle it (I've been a writer professionally so I can hack tough critique), but it bothered me what they might be doing to the other new writers. Not to mention, it just wasn't helpful.

darksculptures said...

I'm also without a critique group at the moment. However, I'm looking forward to getting started. At the beggining of the year I joined one of the large online communities, but backed down when I realized how many people had open access to my unpublished work. I realized I would be more comfortable with a handful of writers built a community of trust.

gabi said...

Debiwrites - Another way to meet fellow writers is if you take an online writing class. Those classes you can take no matter where you are in the world. Check out Gotham Writers' Workshop. I've never taken an online class with them, but every class I've taken live has been fantastic.

QUESTION:
Would there be any interest in forming a DIY MFA critique group? If so, send me an email at:
iggingabi (at) gmail (dot) com

Let me know if it's OK for me to share your email with other people who respond. I'll send out an email to everyone who's interested and then you guys can take it from there. Oooh yay! I get to play matchmaker!

graywave said...

I live in a fairly remote country area. The nearest crit group I know if is 300km away and I don't get there very often. I've tried online groups - even Authonomy - but I find them unsatisfying. So I thought I'd form my own group locally. I worked with the local library, who were very keen to help, we put up posters, and got a bunch of names of people who expressed an interest. Then we held our inaugural meeting, and I was the only person to show up.

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