Starting A Critique Group For Writers

Learn how to start a critique group for writers Here's how to jumstart an effective writing group that will prepare you--and maybe launch you--for the bigtime!

Freelance writers often find that being part of a critique group serves them well. It offers them professional support in a business that lacks respect for the struggling artist, proffers fellowship in a sometimes lonely field, and it even provides opportunities to hone their craft, as well as to bounce their work off other eyes and ears, before it gets to potential editors or even agents. In a peer critique group each member has their work read or heard and read by the others, and each makes suggestions, comments or asks questions that might be helpful in rewriting or polishing. There are some key considerations to becoming part of a critique group that any writer would do well to heed.

First, join a group which is roughly at your level, but with at least one or two members at a more accomplished level, and who can share wisdom and experience to assist the beginning or intermediate level writer. For example, if you're not published at all, having a couple of members who have at least begun to publish, even for non-paying markets, means you will have the possibility of hearing about potential markets for yourself. It also means that someone in the group has actually got from point A to point B, unpublished to published, and has some sense of the route to go in the process, such as composing query or cover letters, proposals or just plain finding out where to submit.

This is not to say that a group of fledgling writers with no publishing experience among them cannot support one another and help hone each another's work, but the way is likely to be smoother with a few more experienced souls in the group.

Second, if your goal is improving your work and getting published, and not just having an interesting hobby to talk about with others of like minds, be sure that those already in the group have the same goals and ideals. Although a groups' members may attest to being serious writers, their sincerity is sometimes difficult to ascertain.

One way to ensure you will be among serious would-be published writers is to form your own group with people you know from experience will be at least moderately intent on furthering their careers. The most successful group I have been part of is one I started myself, after taking a writing class at a local evening college. From their work in that eight-week class, it was clear which writers were serious, intent on publishing or had already published. When the class was coming to an end, I invited four or five of the more promising folks to gather with me in a group that would continue to meet at the same time on the same evening in which our class had met, and to try it for another eight weeks.

Having a proposed trial period of time with limits gave everyone a sense of freedom and security. If it wasn't working out after eight more weeks or if something in our structure really needed to be changed, we could easily do so. I took the responsibility of contacting our local library and asking for the use of a meeting room for the ascribed time. Eight years later that initial group is still meeting, although many of the original members are no longer with us, and many new members have come and gone as well, but the core group has lasted and most have grown tremendously in their publishing credits. One member has written a monthly column for five years, has completed five novels and been published in non-fiction over 100 times. Another writes for a local newspaper, and has had several children's stories and essays published while completing a three-part novel series. The third writes and publishes occasional opinion-editorial pieces in local newspapers. Even members no longer with the group continue to advance, winning short story contests, and completing three novels, with one being serialized in an ethnic magazine.

Since we believe our group does not function well without a quorum of three, meaning we have to keep membership up to around six to ensure a weekly quorum, we often invite new, promising writers we learn about through the library itself or meet at other writing functions, such as poetry readings and other classes. When new members have been invited to come to our group, we find it important to describe what we are about with some specific comments: to be part of the group you must be serious about your writing and becoming published, write every week and bring something to share with the group, and offer constructive comments regarding others' work.

Try us for three weeks, we suggest, and we'll talk about how it's going. The time limit gives us both a chance to back out if things aren't working well. Most people can tell if they're not a good match for the group and graciously bow out, although twice it fell upon me to call the person who wasn't living up to our goals""one of whom was plagiarizing material and tossing it off as his own work!""and they understood our rationale that they might want to work on their own for a while and contact us in the future if they were seriously interested. It works.

Other considerations when forming your own critique group: using a civic or commercial space for your meetings prevents a too personal or social atmosphere to prevail. One of the difficult guidelines to maintain despite the best intentions of our group's formers has been to keep meetings on a professional level, avoiding social chit chat or at least reserving that for pre and post meetings. Also keeping the day and time of the meeting fairly inflexible helps, too.

One question new critique groups often have is, how should we share our own work with the others? Should we read it aloud, or pass out copies to be read during the meeting, or possibly before the meeting? Here is how most groups handle this question. Hearing alone is not the best choice. In our group we read a portion (rarely more than eight pages (double-spaced) while others follow along on xeroxed copies, making notes in the margins or text as they desire. After the piece is read, we discuss it for theme, clarity and so on, trying hard not to get too picky about punctuation or other proofreading nit-pickings, but the writer can also go home and read each person's comments right on he paper for he lp in making potential changes.

Incidentally, although other people may have strong feelings about the need to change your work, be sure you don't jump to employ every change, or your work soon loses its unique voice""yours. If there's some debate over whether to change something, pay extra attention to the majority voice when in doubt, consider the minority voices but trust your instinct, and remember that not all criticisms are objective. Sometimes a person's aversion to your main character, or the language of a particular passage, relates more to his or her own past or situation in life than to your writing.

What about genre? Should a critique group be made up of those all of whom write novels, or all of whom write essays, or poetry, or should it be made up of those who write various kinds of pieces? Our critique group works successfully with folks writing a variety of things, though admittedly, those working on novels have difficulty submitting small enough segments to work well within the time limits. Most novelists I know share in small groups, two, three o four members, all working on novels. For the most part, the novelists exchange several chapters at a time, read when apart, then discuss possible changes when together. Rarely do these groups read their material aloud.

In our own group, with most writing essays, journalism pieces, poetry or short stories, we both read our work along and have others follow on copies. A critique group should be a valued part of your publishing team, as much so as an agent, editor, publicist or potential reader. Use it to advantage, and your work will benefit greatly.

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