A friend and I are organizing a critique group for queer writers. It’s one of the reasons my blog output has been woefully sporadic. We’re off to an exciting start with twenty-five members and max capacity of twelve for our first meeting, March 1st.
In preparation, I’ve been soaking up all the wisdom I can. There are a number of how-to books on running critique groups. Luckily for cheapos like me, there are lots of articles on-line for free.
So I gathered the general points below based on a few guidelines I found and liked on on-line forums, as well as my personal experience as a member of a critique group and as a beta reader. I also threw in some general ideas about leading groups of any kind based on my practice and training as a social worker.
1. Orient members to the group by setting forth the purpose of the group and the format, rules and expectations.
That sounds particularly social work-y, and maybe dull and unnecessary. But I’ll give an example of how things can go awry.
I participated in a crit group that was looking for new members. We all agreed on having a laid-back screening process, something like posing a question beforehand: “tell us a little about your writing.” We decided to give the first guy who responded to our on-line posting a try.
He was excited to get feedback on the first section of his novel, and the group leader invited him to do so. We all read the piece and gave him thoughtful criticism when he showed up for his first meeting. Then, he sent an e-mail around, after the group, saying he really wouldn’t have time to participate in meetings because he needed to focus on his writing. Ugh. So why did we all waste time reading and trying to help him with his novel?
I’m sure this dumb stuff can happen in the best of circumstances, but I use it as an example of the importance of orienting members. If it had been clear to him from the start: joining the group is a commitment of X, Y, Z, he might have opted out, since really all he wanted was a quick focus group on part of his novel.
This brings up a sub-guideline: help potential members evaluate how the group fits into their lives. Is it realistic for them to read and critique 10, 20, or 50 pages in a one-week or two-week period? Do they have enough time to write so that they can submit their own work regularly?
2. Get agreement on etiquette for critiquing.
I briefly participated in the SF/F writers community Critters, and I love their guidelines (they call them “Diplomacy Requirements”) because they get into the nuances of delivering critique effectively. I’ll highlight/paraphrase just a few:
Say it’s your opinion. Use “I” statements: I’m finding this character’s actions hard to follow, vs.: This character makes no sense and will confuse readers.
Don’t try to persuade. A peer critique group is about peers giving each other advice. While it’s important to give your opinion when asked, it’s also important to be mindful of the fact you really don’t know better than any other writer. What you have to offer is a different perspective.
Another thing to consider is the balance of positive and negative feedback.
I once received a typed critique of a novel excerpt that had two short paragraphs about things the reader liked, and three pages of forceful criticism. Rationally or not, the only thing that stuck with me was the reader really, really didn’t like the story, leading me to another conclusion (rationally or not): she thinks I’m a crappy writer, leading me to shut down to anything she had to say (rationally or not).
Another point comes up from this example: taking in criticism non-defensively, which I could tackle in a separate article. For now, I feel it demonstrates the dangers of focusing too much on the negative. If you read a piece and have thirty-three problems to point out, try prioritizing them and share your top four or five. Less is more.
When I give critique, I try to keep the positive/negative ratio to 1:1. Some guidelines suggest 3:1. I have a hard time doing that because it takes me more words to describe why I think something isn’t working vs. why I think something is working.
Those positives are really essential though. In order for a group to be successful, there has to be a sense of hope, and commonality. Members should feel that their peers believe in their skill and promise as a writer and that they genuinely like reading their work. One article I found on “Daily Writing Tips” suggests that you open and close your critique with positive feedback.
3. Use the group to generate productivity.
Despite the admonitions of our childhood, peer pressure can be a very positive thing. In a writers group, it encourages members to make time for their writing, push themselves, and stick to commitments. You don’t have to be a Nazi about it, but a good upfront goal is for people to write more through their participation in the group.
I’m sure there are a whole lot more great tips, but that’s all I’ve got for now. What else has helped critique groups be successful for you?