Critique Group Cheat Sheet: Create and Manage your Posse

So you’ve met some writers you think might be good for your new critique group. Maybe you found them on Meetup, at a community gathering, or a writers’ conference. Everyone is all smiles and “this will be great.” Then, you get nervous. What do we do now? Are we compatible? Do we have the same ideas of what a critique group should be? Should we have a leader? Can I let myself and my writing be vulnerable to these people? Fade out smile.

Creating and running a critique group may sound like a daunting task but I’ve helped numerous groups form, have participated and led several successful groups, and have done half the work for you by providing this cheat sheet. Use this as a starting point for conversations between group members, helping each of you get what you need from the critique experience, and enable you to give back to your group. Critique group members should add to, remove from, or modify within, anything I’ve provided here that does not resonate with their mission. Your critique group can function any way you want.

To get started, set a date, time, and place for your initial meeting with potential group members for discussing the questions below. Please do not attempt this in email. We all know the ensuing pain of miscommunication via email.

Do we want a genre-focused group? Is there a genre we wish to exclude? My suggestion is a mixed-genre group but not mixing fiction with nonfiction, or either with poetry.

Where is each person in their writing path? Beginner? Advanced? Starting a fist draft? Polishing the fifth? Can we be supportive of one another from differing levels of skill and project progression?

What day and time will we meet? How often? Where? Will this time and location change or is it set? Will there be a time set for ending each meeting? My suggestion is calculating critique time based on the length of meeting and numbers in the group, allowing for greetings and transitions. If your group is larger, you may want to divide up critiques so each member is only reviewed every other meeting as meetings lasting more than two and a half hours tend to fatigue participants.

What will our word count limit be for each submission? How many people will submit for each meeting?

What level of commitment do we expect of one another?

What is the intent of the group and the individual members? Do we want to write and submit stories for publication? Only work on craft? Or both? Is there a specific model we want to follow such as Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid or Larry Brooks’ Story Fix model?

Do we want a group leader? Should leadership of meetings rotate between members? My suggestion is to figure out which one of you does this best and stick with them as the leader as long as they are willing.

Will there be a cap on number of members? I suggest four to five members if each member will submit for each session.

Who can join our group and when? How is that decided? What is the admission process?

How do we want to support each other?

What day and time is our deadline for submissions? How will we provide our work to one another?

How much socializing do we want to do? Will there be a specific time set for this? Here is one of my favorite quotes from Lifehack.com; “Beyond the very reasonable, don’t socialize too much during group time. It will eventually crumble the will of the group. Get to know each other in other ways. Sleep with them if you have to, but just keep the details out of the group.”  Now, I know a lot of writers who disagree with this but, I’m willing to bet, they’re not in critique groups.

Will there be a time limit for critiques? Do we need a time keeper?

What level of confidentiality do we want maintained? Do we need an agreement we will not steal ideas or talk about the work, except in general terms, with others?

How will we handle breaks, respites, waning commitments, no-shows, tardiness, arriving unprepared?

How will we deal with a problem member? Who will do it? Please don’t think you can skip this question because you are all angelic and jovial. There is likely a snake in your bright green grass as we writers tend to be a troubled bunch.

If you and your new group members can come to a consensus on the questions above, you’ll have the best chances of success. Use the answers you’ve obtained to form your group guidelines. Type and circulate them, and don’t forget to give them to every new member.

Here is a copy of the guidelines from my current group as an example:

We will meet on day of week at time at location. Submission deadline is before weekly/monthly/bi-weekly date and time. Submissions will be shared through our group Dropbox.

1. We will be respectful of one another. We will give the quality of critique we wish to receive.

2. We begin feedback with a compliment. Remember, “A spoonful of sugar….” This can mean the difference between our critique being viewed as constructive rather than destructive.

3. We critique the writing, not the writer. This is accomplished in the way we phrase our suggestions for improvement. For example, “You haven’t given your protagonist enough depth,” can be interpreted by the the other writer as a judgement of a writer’s ability in creating characters in general. However, if we say, “The protagonist could use more depth,” we’re referring to the words on the page.

4. We will refrain from defending our writing. This is our time for hearing what our readers get from our work, not for convincing them they’re wrong. If you think your critique partner is wrong, let it go. They are 100% right about what they got from your writing. We’ll waste one another’s time if we turn critique sessions into a debate about our authorial intentions. Remember, our intentions are ultimately irrelevant because we won’t be there to explain to our future readers what we meant.

5. We save our questions for last. We let the other writer finish their critique and keep questions at a minimum. This is not a time for asking about minute details. See #6.

6. Major time waster alert. We’ll refrain from discussing line edits. Some of us are heavy line editors (me) and that’s great unless someone tells us they don’t want them. There’s a place for line edits and it’s in our written critiques.

7. We understand problems will occur. We will have problems similar to those at our day jobs and in our families, but only if we last that long. We should be so lucky. As partners, we have the potential to become close, maybe even lifelong friends, but we also have the potential for arguing, failing in decision making, or dealing with problem members. We seek to address problems as they arise.

8. We will come prepared to meetings. We’ll have our critiques in writing. Whether it’s hand written or on our laptop screen, we will have a clear presentation ready for our peers. This will save us much time. We can then distribute critiques to the author via paper or email.

“But what if I assemble this group and it doesn’t work out?” you ask. The answer is to try again. Be willing to say goodbye to the group that is not helpful for you. You may be afraid you will hurt their feelings but you’re probably only saying what they wish they had the courage to say for themselves.

Create a group announcement on Meetup. Post flyers around town, at independent bookstores, on calendar listings in newspapers, community message boards, and coffee shops. It’s a lot like dating. Your people are out there. Keep looking.

For those of you who are still feeling nervous about a new critique group, please remember there’s nothing wrong with not being any good at writing. Everyone starts out as a shitty writer and none of us does it all well. But it’s a pity wanting to improve, spending time trying, and not getting any better. This is why you are coming together and forming a critique group. Why be afraid of risk? Failure comes when you quit trying to become a better writer, when you stop trying to write the best story you can. So gather your people, ask the right questions of one another, and lay the ground rules. Now is the time for becoming a better writer. And forming a good critique group can supercharge your writing.

If you need more assistance in getting a critique group running or managing a difficulty within a group, please contact me at rachelleramirez@oregonwriterscolony.org and I will do my best to help.

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