Critique Groups: Part One
I realize my Monday posts are titled, “Monday Writing Minute.” However, I feel so strongly about the power of critique groups that I’m expanding this post today. The key is finding the right group for you.
So, what’s so great about belonging to a critique group?
Only writers understand writers. Having someone who gets you in this crazy profession is a huge blessing.
Do you talk to your characters? Write notes on the tile in the shower with erasable marker? Get up in the middle of the night to transcribe a conversation your characters are having without you?
See what I mean?
A critique group can be an amazing resource—if you find the right people. Everyone in the group brings a different life experience and a unique perspective to their edits. Someone may be a great grammatical editor, while someone else may find your content errors, and still someone else may be an expert on a topic you are trying to research. There are vast differences in the way men and women view life and tell a story. Having a mixed gender group can help when you are writing from the point of view of the opposite gender.
It’s easier for someone else to find your mistakes. No matter how much experience you have, it’s hard to see your own errors. We don’t read our own work with objective eyes. Our eyes fill in the typos or missing words automatically. I know what I meant to say. But sometimes I don’t always get what’s in my head on the page.
You learn when you edit. When you take the time and effort to edit for others you learn how to be a tighter, stronger writer yourself. You may not spot the error in your own manuscript, but when you discover it in your editing partner’s manuscript, you realize you need to go back and correct your own work.
Brainstorming. There will be times when you hit a wall—in your plot, with your characters, coming up with ideas for an article or story. Getting a fresh perspective and talking out your issues with the group can help you find direction. In addition, if more than two of three group members agree that you have an issue in your manuscript, you know you may really have a problem.
Meeting regularly gives accountability. Continually pushing forward requires discipline. One of the best ways to find discipline is through accountability. Find others who have similar goals, agree to meet often, and hold each other to that promise. The most productive groups meet weekly. If you’re not ready for that, try every other week until you establish a comfortable routine and then push for those two extra weeks a month.
Set your group size. I’ve heard the magic three. I’ve worked with groups of five. My group consists of seven. Limit the size of your group to the workload you can handle in the time you’ve allotted. If you have a larger group, divide into subgroups when you meet—but stick with the same people. Building a trust relationship is crucial to success.
Send out your pages ahead of time. Sending out your manuscript a few days before you meet allows for a good in-depth critique. Making this commitment to each other also helps accountability, gets you used to meeting deadlines, and strengthens editing skills. You can edit on the computer and use the comment boxes, track changes, or different colored font. You can print out the pages and write directly on them. Do what works for you as an editor.
Things to watch out for once you’ve established your group. Congratulations! You’re helping each other succeed and keeping each other accountable. But hang on. There can be a downside and being aware of these things can head off any problems before they start.
One of the biggest cons to a critique group is that the members can start to sound alike. Each writer has a unique style and voice, even if it takes a while to discover your voice—it’s in there somewhere. The temptation is to edit other’s work in your style and voice until your entire group begins to sound the same.
Peer pressure forces some writers to change their voice, while others just slip into someone else’s style gradually without realizing they have abandoned their own voice.
Make sure every member understands the need to be totally committed. One person shouldn’t be doing all the work. The goal for the group is to learn and share. Go to conferences. Take online classes. Sit in on seminars. Bring back what you know and share it with your group. If each member takes the other members’ work as seriously as they take their own, and pushes themselves to grow as a writer, edits will become better and better.
Be Respectful—Follow the Oreo Cookie Analogy. Everyone in the group will bring a different style, voice, experience, and skill set. That’s the best part. But think before you speak. Think before you redline. Think before you criticize. The purpose for the group is to help each other. You came there for help. So did everyone else.
Use the Oreo cookie analogy. Say something positive first, and then suggest ways to tighten and strengthen writing or conception issues, then end with something positive. People are more apt to listen to your suggestions after you’ve told them something good. Their ears and heart will be open because you took the time to tell them what you liked. Lace your words with grace.
Respect each other’s time. One person shouldn’t be the center of the weekly meeting. Set a timer if you need to monitor and divide time equally. Some weeks, one person may need more help than other weeks. Be fair. Be considerate. Put others first and they will turn around and do the same for you.
You will become a family. Critique group members who stay together and get along well become sort of a family. Your writing family. The more you meet and get to know each other, the easier it will be to help each other. Taking constructive criticism from people you trust and respect is far different than listening to your hard work torn to shreds by someone you don’t know.
1. Establish guidelines upfront such as time allotted per person and per meeting, number of pages allowed, format, etc. Track changes is an easy way to edit. Some people prefer to print out and write on pages directly.
2. Send out your pages by email a few days before you meet. Don’t waste your meeting time reading each other’s work. Have your critiques ready to share.
3. Agree on a place and time that works for everyone. Meet somewhere neutral—a restaurant, coffee shop, church, or library.
4. Start and end on time. Respect other people’s schedules. Set a timer if you need to.
5. Elect a facilitator who will keep you on time and on task.
6. Treat other people with the same respect you crave.
7. Be an encourager, not a discourager.
Interested in attending a writer’s conference this year in Texas?
I’m teaching at the West Texas Writers’ Academy in June. Details HERE.