Lessons

Did you say you were going to start writing that book this year? If you’re looking for a way to honor your word(s) and put your writing life in action, starting a writing critique group will catapult your accountability and get you in community with your peers. It will also sit you next to writers who have an intention to publish. At the very least it will help you develop your craft to the point of submission (no, I don’t mean groveling, it just feels that way).

At best, critique groups are supportive, constructive, attuned to the work not personality, and usually peopled by well-read, life-educated, published, or almost-published writers. At worst, well, that’s another post.

Before You Begin, Stop Reading Writers’ Memoirs

Many writers feel writing groups are an admission of weakness or lack of talent. Some think they’re boring wastes of time. If you really want to be in action about your writing, you will need to stop listening to famous authors who write about hating groups. They just want to be able to smoke in public, and since that’s not altogether legal or healthy they decline invitations and make up stories about being tethered to their muse on a pirate ship in high seas with a bottle of scotch.

How to Create a Community of Your Peers

  • If you are unsure about leading the group yourself, consider hand-picking a writer who is experienced with the process to work with you to get the group off the ground, and to keep the structure and guidelines in place over time.
  • If you can’t find what you want, generate it. Meetup.com is a great place to gather like-minded souls in your geographic area.
  • Independent bookstores, calendar listings in newspapers, community message boards and coffee shops are also good places to get the word out, post flyers, etc.

Structure and Guidelines

1. Define the Scope: Do you want a genre-focused group, or a general purpose fiction group? Short stories? Novels? Non-fiction?

2. Create a Starting Intent: Do you want to write and submit stories for publication? Or do you want to simply work on craft? Or both?

3. Gather Your Peeps: When people call to join, take notes and get a sense of their readiness and intent. Look for diversity (age, background, preferred genres, etc.) to create a rich critique experience.

4. Decide on Numbers: Keep the number of members limited. Four or five is a good starting place. If one person leaves the group, replace them with a new writer. Fill empty spots by invitation and agreement by the group. This will build trust, ownership and respect in your group.

5. Establish Meetings: Find a time/day that honors writers’ lives (work, family). One evening every two weeks in the evening, or a weekend day set at an odd-but-doable time is easier to remember (1:23 p.m.). Once a month, or twice monthly is usually better than weekly as it gives writers a chance to write/edit in between meetings. Two hours is generally the right amount of time for a group of five. Any more time than that and energy starts to wane.

6. Determine Locations: Move meetings from house to house, or find a coffee shop or meeting space that can accommodate a group of raucous writers.

7. Submitting Work: Create a deadline for submitting work to each other by email. If you meet every two weeks, try setting the week in between as the submission deadline to allow readers enough time to read and comment.

8. Giving Critique: Critique the writing, not the writer. Find what works, what doesn’t. Speak as objectively as possible, as if the writer is absent. “This passage is confusing…perhaps another word here would work better…I want to know more…There is a POV shift in this section…too much use of progressive tense…passive voice, needs more thrust…your story really starts on page 4…” Upon completion, provide the writer with your edits and notes on hard copy. Give writer a moment to explain unanswered questions. Don’t wad the writer’s work into balls and toss them.

9. Receiving Critique: Be quiet! Sit back and take notes. Let the questions and comments fly. Take it all in. Answer questions at the end, if necessary. Don’t defend or throw heavy objects.

10. Critique Structure: Calculate critique time based on length of meeting and numbers in the group, allowing for hellos and transitions. If your group is larger, you may want to divide up critiques every two weeks.

11. Socializing: 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.

12. Confidentiality: Make an agreement with the whole group that you will not steal ideas, or talk about the work, except in general terms.

13. Commitment:
Discuss and determine as a group how you want to handle breaks, respites and waning commitments. Life happens. Sometimes people don’t show up, or arrive late or unprepared, or travel for extended periods. Ask yourselves how you want to support each other, how tight or loose you want to be with commitment to the group, etc. It’s a choice, not a make-wrong.

14. Ghost Stories: I just put this here because I thought 13 guidelines would set off the superstitious among you.

Get ready for your writing life to change!

If you’d like to add to these guidelines, please jump into the comment box. See you there.

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