by Jerri Gibson McCloud
Start a writer’s group?
Me? No way!
Two and a half years ago, I entered the foreign world of writing. Foreign
to me because the only creative writing I had ever prepared was design and write
copy for our business catalogs and quarterly newsletters.
I was an artist, sculptor—not a writer.
Today, when asked my occupation, I add ‘writer.’
When I explain to my friends the addition, I see a twinkle in their eyes
and hear a ‘yeah, right’ under their breath before “Great!”
Immediately, they change the subject.
Some famous authors say, Don’t join a critique
group—they’ll only mess you up. Others
say, Join a critique group and you will reap the benefits. Some say that
critiquing from people that have so little knowledge about writing is
detrimental. None of those
statements daunted me. For one and
a half years I have ‘led’ a flourishing writing critique group.
We have all learned together. During
this year and a half, I experienced many different situations.
From these experiences I have developed ten steps for a great critique
1. A strong
leader. The leader is
responsible for the entire meeting. He/she
is responsible for the other nine items.
your membership. Limiting your
group to ten people assures that as members are unable to attend, you still will
have an adequate number to insure a decent meeting.
While our group has nine members we have yet to have all nine members
present at one time. Five or six in
attendance, is a good group with plenty reading time.
meetings. Your meetings should be
held on the same day and week of each month.
This eliminates any guessing of when the meeting will take place.
The leader should remind each member of the group two or more weeks prior
to the meeting. This allows everyone to plan accordingly.
the meeting. It is essential that
the leader control the meeting. Don’t
allow one person to monopolize the conversation or unduly brow beat a fellow
member. This happens more often
than you think.
and stop on time. I once made the
mistake of waiting for an individual that lost their way coming to our meeting.
One hour late! We wasted a solid hour.
A hard lesson learned. Start
on time and stop on time. Do NOT
back up and review everything if a member is late.
You can always fill them in later on what they missed.
Our critique group meets from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. the third Wednesday of
each month. Four o’clock gives
them time to get home before the rush hour traffic.
We meet alternately at a member’s home.
reading time. The members bring their stories in hopes of a good critique
session. Do not allow one
individual to dominate the time. See
that each has the same allotted time. If
someone is writing a novel and has brought a chapter to read and there is not
enough time for critiquing, our members willingly take the chapter home and
critique it before the next meeting. Many
of us after having completed a brief critique at the meeting, prefer to analyze
the stories alone in a quiet setting. Any
unusual amount of reading should be discussed with the leader in advance of the
7. Provide handouts.
This is a great opportunity for the leader to share his research with the
members. Provide copies for each
member. These can be read at home
and not take precious time from our critiquing.
8. Prepare an agenda. The leader should have a prepared agenda and follow it, l, 2, 3. Have it written down, not just in your head, as it is too easy to be sidetracked by comments from members.
9. Critique guidelines. I use a Critique Checklist found in Judith Simpson’s book, Foundations of Fiction. This book provided me with the basics of writing and I cannot begin to praise it enough. The Critique Checklist tells exactly what we are looking for in each story. Yes, grammar and spelling are important, but without the basic writing skills of characterization, settings, plotting, and scenes, there is no story. Does this mean that you ignore grammatical flaws and misspelled words? Absolutely not. Please point those out. However, they are not our main focus. We review this Checklist ever so often to make sure we are properly critiquing.
Praise and constructive criticism.
When critiquing a story, always focus on the good things first.
Constructive criticism is always a winner. Never, never be rude or ugly when suggesting possible
improvements. That has no place in
a critique group. Also, don’t
just state it is wrong. Explain why
it is wrong and if you don’t know why, leave it to the ones that have more
knowledge. Also, remember it is
each member’s prerogative to accept or decline any suggestions offered.
Each critique member has a responsibility to participate. Feelings can be touchy, however, if we are to learn, we must accept ‘constructive criticism.’ I recall having just completed a story and rushing it downstairs for my husband to read. I was ecstatic that I had completed a 16,000 word story. Hanging around to see his reaction to every paragraph, I began to grow suspicious. Perhaps things weren’t going my way. As he placed the manuscript on the coffee table he looked up at me and said, “this is crap.”
My jaws drop to the floor. Slowly, I sat down across
from him—gained my composure and said “So?”
He then went on to explain how it was ‘crap.’
This was a valuable lesson and I learned to grow ‘tough.’
It helped me immeasurably and I set out to rewrite the whole thing.
It is now being published this fall 2002. I don’t recommend this ‘crap’ method of critiquing for
anyone, but perhaps family members can get away with it.
Well, I want you to know that after taking only one
six-week writing class, I organized this writing critique group.
The study book was Recalling Your Memories on Paper, Tape or
Videotape, by Margaret Bigger. It
has been yellow-marked, pages turned down or pressed open, to the point that it
is a disgrace to see a book in this condition.
But, never you mind, you could almost say, I have it memorized if it
weren’t for my advancing age. I
wanted to be prepared to lead this critique group.
Did I fumble through our first writing critique group
I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to proceed.
However, having employed sixty some people at one time in our
manufacturing business, perhaps I had grown into a leader and just hadn’t
noticed it. The first meeting
progressed well according to my knowledge at the moment.
Did I realize I didn’t have the expertise to lead such
a group? You bet!
From day one of my first class, I began reading everything I could put my
hands on about writing. I soon
realized that if I studied hard enough and put into practice those different
lessons, I could be capable of helping others as well.
Occasionally, there were questions I could not answer, but I promised to
have the answer by e-mail or at the next meeting. We have all learned together.
The writing capabilities of our members have significantly improve, and
we share this fact with pride.
Yes, you too can start a critique group, just as I did.
You don’t have to be a professional if you are willing to work
hard. But you must be willing to
lead. I accepted the
‘challenge’ and in turn reaped much more than I ever fathomed.
We invite published guests to come in occasionally for workshops or just
to sit in our meetings and help critique. This
critique group has forced me to study everything available pertaining to
writing. To see our group blossom and grow in their writing is more that I could
have ever envisioned. A task worth
Jerri Gibson McCloud ©2012