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.