Critique Groups - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly


What do people expect when they join a writing group?

The list of anticipated benefits includes friendship, constructive criticism, support, encouragement, help with editing, inspiration, and advice on everything from plotting to possible markets. These expectations may or may not be met.

The members of any group will come from diverse backgrounds, and will have diverse skills, knowledge and personalities. They may not be able to give you the kind of help you're hoping for. You need to leave a meeting feeling that you have benefited from the experience. If you often go home feeling discouraged and seriously thinking about giving up writing, then this is not the group for you.

Certainly not everyone comes away from a group meeting feeling happy with the way things have turned out. It is not necessarily anyone's fault that this is so. Quite simply, different people have different needs.

  • Some writers are very earnest about their writing career, and they want meetings that get down to business. They usually have specific problems or questions they want to work on. They often have a self-imposed deadline to finish a novel - and they feel time spent chatting about anything but writing is time wasted.

  • Others are quite content to work on a series of short exercises to hone their craft, and enjoy getting to know the other people in their group. To these people, the social aspects of the meetings are just as important as the writing.
There's a place for both types of groups, as well as others in between. Conflict arises when you have those that want to get on with the job and those who are happy to potter along and chat, attending the same meetings. What can you do to make sure everyone is satisfied?

You could try splitting the group into two. This can be done in two ways:

  • Begin a meeting with the entire group present for any general business, market news and so on. After the first 15-30 minutes, divide into two or more work groups, depending on the size and needs of the group.

  • Split into two different groups that meet at different venues. Both groups could get together occasionally to swap notes. Some leaders of 'splinter' groups, formed because of different needs within groups, recommend that you make the membership requirements very clear before new members join. If, for example, you decide that you want only members who are (1) actively engaged in writing a novel for a certain age group or category; (2) are prepared to bring along at least 1000 words for critiquing to each meeting and (3) are prepared to bring along enough printed copies for each member, then make this clear from the start. A number of groups have a 'try before you buy' policy: would-be members may attend one or two meetings to observe before they make up their minds.

    In General:

    Beginning writers need a supportive, friendly atmosphere to hone their skills and learn to give and receive constructive criticism. They often need help with the basics: dialogue, plotting, motivation, and show-don't-tell. They blossom in an atmosphere of caring and sharing.

    More experienced writers may have just one or two weak areas on which they need to work. Often, they are well into a novel, or may be editing it ready to send to a publisher. Some may have been published before, perhaps in other genres. they don't want (or can't afford) to spend time constantly going back over the basics. They want to work on their own novels, not short exercises and drills.

    Some DOs and DON'Ts for Critique Groups:

    DO....

    • Critique the work in terms of its intended market. The writer wants an evaluation of the work as it is presented, not criticism about his or her choice of genre or category.

    • Praise what works as well as what doesn't. Be specific. Rather than: 'I thought their encounter at the shopping mall worked well', say "You really heightened the suspense when John spotted Kieran at the mall and realised he'd been followed'. And be diplomatic - not: 'I didn't like the scene in the old castle' but 'I was really enjoying the story until the scene in the old castle - at that point John started to seem a bit of a bully. Is there some way you could lighten it a little?'

    • Bring copies, if possible, of the pages you intend to read to the group. It's a lot easier to pinpoint why something 'doesn't sound quite right' if you see it on the page.

    • Share the time fairly. You may have to nominate a time-keeper - especially if one member of the group consistently takes more time than he or she should.

    • Use the 'sandwich' technique - open with a positive comment, give suggestions for improvement, then finish with encouraging words. Helpful advice wrapped in encouragement and praise! Be honest, but be kind.
    DON'T....
    • Don't argue with those offering advice. Advice is there for you to listen to and act on only if you want to. It's a waste of time to defend your work. Remember, what you hear is an opinion, not a demand to rewrite. As a rule of thumb: if everyone picks on different things, change only what makes sense to you. If everyone criticises the same thing, you probably do need to work on that aspect.

    • Don't present your opinion in terms of 'that's wrong, this is right'. Offer alternatives; evaluate strengths and weaknesses; raise questions.

    • Don't lose patience with those who don't seem to be 'getting the message', when the group has pointed out the same weaknesses several times. Instead, look for different ways to rephrase the same advice. People often take a while to 'click' with some aspect of the craft.
    A Very Important 'DON'T'

    DON'T leave all the work up to one person. Not only is it unfair, it can result in the eventual disintegration of the group.

    Take a close look: is your group coordinator becoming burnt out from doing all the encouraging, all the encouraging, all the preparation and bringing along all the ideas?

    Consider these options:

    • Elect a coordinator to be the contact person for mail and new members, but nominate a different chairperson for each meeting.

    • Allot tasks to members (or ask for volunteers, if some members lack confidence) for future meetings. Spend a meeting brainstorming future workshop topics. Use people's strengths - if someone writes great dialogue, ask that person to run a workshop or to devise group exercises on that topic.

    • Discuss ways in which your meetings can be more fun; more inspiring; more helpful.

    • Schedule a short session every three or four meetings to discuss existing meeting procedure, and to air any concerns about the direction of the group.
    • Arrange occasional joint meetings with other writing groups in the area or in a nearby town.
    (c) Copyright Marg McAlister

    Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/


    MORE RESOURCES:
    RELATED ARTICLES
    Five EASY Ways to Improve Your Business Writing
    Have you ever wondered why some people can make millions writing books, and others (maybe you) can't even complete a simple business letter worth reading? Sure, natural talent probably accounts for some of their writing success. But really the best-selling authors achieved that level of success by devoting serious time and effort to perfecting their craft.
    10 Ways to Shatter Writers Block
    1. Use Logic: Check for External PressuresAre you under physical or emotional stress? Is your diet lacking? Do you need more sleep, or more restful sleep? Would a visit to the doctor be in order before you start beating yourself up about your inability to concentrate?2.
    How to Build Your Site with Other Peoples Content -- Part 1
    Building a new website can be extremely exciting. Seeing your words in "print"--maybe for the first time.
    Critique Groups - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
    What do people expect when they join a writing group?The list of anticipated benefits includes friendship, constructive criticism, support, encouragement, help with editing, inspiration, and advice on everything from plotting to possible markets. These expectations may or may not be met.
    Six Tips for Creating More Lifelike Story Characters
    Working on my first humorous novel, I started with a single character. I followed suggestions in writers' reference books for developing story characters.
    Money Trails for Writers
    I'm willing to bet that quite a number of you once had to debate (or discuss) the saying: "The pen is mightier than the sword." If you were arguing 'for', you would have been able to come up with many examples of how words triumphed over muscles.
    How to Build A Success Freelance Career (Part 2)
    Part 1 of this article discussed the experience you need to successfully build a freelance career. Here, I will outline other necessities.
    Applying KISS Principle in Writing
    I have added a new word to my vocabulary. Logorrhea.
    7 Devastating Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
    Writing engaging articles and energizing ad copy takes more than just typing out what you want to say. By correcting these major mistakes, your copy will soar to newfound heights.
    Writers Block - Melting the Ice
    What does one do as a writer who loves writing and feels empty of creativity?When the writing process stops, there is the experience of fear. There is a sense that something precious has been lost.
    Common Writing Mistakes - Are These Holding You Back From Writing Success?
    During the years that I've been teaching writing and participating in writers' critique sessions, I've seen some real talent. There are writers who produce such sparkling prose that you know publication is only a matter of time.
    Which Comes First - Short Story Or Novel?
    A writer writes. Bet you've heard that one before.
    Vital Verbs
    Remember back in the dark days of your school years when you had to learn the parts of speech? A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. When asked what a verb was, you smugly answered, A verb is a word that indicates action, or some such definition.
    Write Possibilities
    We writers are a powerful lot. We control time.
    Water to Swim In
    Not long ago, I took stock of my unrealized desire to be a published writer, or maybe I should I say ‚??Writer‚?? with a capital ‚??W.‚?? For some reason it always seemed a lofty goal, to want to see my byline in print.
    Autobiography: Installment No.3
    ESSAY 3Writing an autobiography involves a matching up of a specific plot-structure with a set of historical events. The autobiographer wishes to endow these events with a particular meaning.
    Hey Cient, this is Me! Find Your Writing Voice and Sell Yourself
    In a crowded market, clients will be seeking personality as they read what you've written -- they'll click right past pages that feel "been there, read that." They're looking for a voice that says, "Hey, client, this is me!"They want to know not just what you deliver -- but how.
    Think Market!
    Griselda spent hours polishing up her resume. No detail was too small: type face, layout and spacing.
    Memoir Writing Help, Memoir Writing Ideas
    You might not need any memoir writing help, per se, as you know your past and you know quite well how to write, thank you. You might instead just need someone to inspire you, motivate you, give you a nudge--with some memoir writing ideas.
    Use These 3 Editing Tips to Ensure Your Writing Hits the Bull's-Eye
    The first step in the writing process is to put your ideas down on paper. Once you have text to work with, the second step is to revise what you have written to make it as clear, accurate and powerful as you can.

    Home | Articles Site Map