Start a Critique Group

Take the Challenge

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 group. 

1.  A strong leader.   The leader is responsible for the entire meeting.  He/she is responsible for the other nine items.  

2.  Limit 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. 

3.  Scheduled 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. 

4.  Control 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.  

5.  Start 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. 

6.  Equal 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 meeting. 

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. 

    1. Prepare a specific writing subject and spend time going over it.  This is a good study tool for your group.  Ask for input from other members on what they wish to study or if they are having a particular problem that all can benefit from studying.
    2. Perhaps assign work to be completed at home and reviewed at the next meeting.  This is an excellent learning opportunity and takes less time in the class with the exception of the review.  If there is an assignment, each member should be given adequate notification.

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.

10.  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 meeting?  Absolutely.  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 the challenge. 

Jerri Gibson McCloud ©2012                                                                 

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