5 Tips for Starting a New Critique Group

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in several writers’ critique groups over the years. These discussions taught me plenty about what I was naturally good at, what I needed help with, and what it took to improve both areas.

However, being in multiple writers’ groups means that I’ve also seen plenty of ways you can screw up the critique process.

Here are five basic things I’ve learned along the way about running a critique group:

1. Figure Out How You’ll Share Stories

Depending on whether you meet in person or digitally, you have a variety of ways people can share their work at meetings. These different ways may not seem important at first, but they actually affect what kind of feedback you get.

My first critique group would have everyone read aloud their work to the other members. This meant we only had to go through each person’s work once, but since no one was seeing the stories on a screen or piece of paper, we couldn’t point out grammar mistakes, spelling errors and other little issues. We focused on big picture things (did the story flow well? Did you use certain words over and over again and did that help?)

Years later, I entered another critique group where everyone brought their laptops and pasted their work into a shared Google Doc. Now we could point out little problems, but the technology barrier made the meetings feel less personal.

2. Set a Solid Schedule Plan

When you first start a group, it’s easy to be so excited at the prospect of meeting with other writers and finally sharing your work that you don’t dwell much on the logistics.

But at some point though you’ll need to figure out a time everyone can meet regularly, how often everyone will meet, and how meetings will go when they get started.

Otherwise the group will die whenever your initial enthusiasm does.

3. Know People’s Genres

You may or may not get to organize your writing group so everyone writes in the same genre. You can make a critique group work either way, but keep in mind that having people who all write (and are therefore familiar with) the same kinds of stories, it makes it easier to figure out feedback.

When one person writes romance and only half the group reads romance, you can easily spend half the meetings listen to people say things like, “wasn’t that overly sentimental? Would anyone really kiss that soon?”

Try to make sure everyone’s moderately familiar with each other’s genres, and try to limit questions that are really criticizing how the genre itself works. If people are confused, tell them to just roll with it for now until each person gets the end of their story.

4. Make a Feedback Limit

If you’ve been involved in any group where people discuss things with each other, you’ve probably discovered that not everyone talks equally. Some people always have more to say than others, and therefore tend to dominate discussions. Other people aren’t comfortable talking in public, so they take a while to speak up.

This means it’s easy for critique groups to become “Person A talks all the time, we all come to listen” groups. Do what you can to make sure everyone has an equal chance to talk. Meet with the nervous people individually and let them know you really want to hear what they have to say, ask the talkative people to dial it back to 1-2 comments and maybe more only after everyone else has shared.

5. Make Sure Everyone Understands Good Feedback

One of the responsibilities you have when critiquing someone else’s work is to remember they’re writing the story, not you.

You can tell someone when their story doesn’t seem to be working, suggest potential solutions and plot twists, but they always have to be suggestions for making the story better.

You may think of things which you think are fun and worth adding to the story. For example, you may think it would be funny to give the fantasy hero a pet dog because you find dogs cute. However, those kind of suggestions won’t make the story reach its potential. They’re just ideas you specifically want to see.

Focus on helping each person make their story better, and leave everything else behind.  Even if you’re really sure it would be funny to have a Conan-esque warrior with a sheepdog named Skippy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s