Writing critique groups truly can be wonderful, and yet workshop is a dreaded word by writers the world over. What could be more fun than participating in writing workshops? You slave away on a draft, endlessly tweaking it before submitting it to THE GROUP. Then you sit silently while THE GROUP tears all that effort to shreds, pointing out inconsistencies and weaknesses. You squirm in your chair and feel your face turning red. Your pulse quickens because THE GROUP just doesn’t get it and you aren’t allowed to talk. Occasionally, someone makes a positive comment. Your heart soars.
The Value of Writing Critique Groups
If you call yourself a writer, get thee to a writer’s group ASAP!
No matter how diligently you work on a draft, the input of other readers will prove invaluable when it comes to revision. While family and friends can offer feedback, chances are their input will dwell in generalities. Various online groups now exist to facilitate the sharing of works in progress. However, nothing can truly replace the tried-and-true format of the traditional writer’s workshop or critique group. Sharing your work with one or two dedicated writing critique groups can also be a good way to save some money on the developmental editing process.
How to get started? I’ve found a couple of great writing critique groups via the website Meetup.com. Groups could also be found by checking with your local library or other writing organizations in town. Even though there never seems to be enough time these days, if you have never participated in a workshop, nothing will replace the intensity of signing-up for a college-level workshop, whether during the regular school year or at a writer’s conference.
The Most Successful Writing Critique Groups Will Follow The Traditional Format
Drafts (preferably electronically) should be made available to group members a week or two in advance in order to allow time for a careful reading. Some members will choose to mark-up the draft by hand or by making electronic comments, and generally, their written feedback is given to you after the workshop. Many members tend to offer verbal, rather than written, suggestions. This is fine, though if the group agrees to require written feedback, this may turn some potential members off.
The group moderator will get things going. It’s typical to start off with brief introductions that revolve around current writing projects and previous publications.
The author reads a section from their draft (a page or less) so the group can get a feel for the tone of the piece. If the writer prefers not to read aloud, it’s always okay to ask another member to read the selection for them, but not as effective as hearing the writer’s authentic voice.
The group then discusses the selection while the writer is silent. During that time, the writer can take notes or have someone take notes for them so they can better concentrate on the discussion. Making an audio recording on your phone is also a possibility, but going back and listening to such a session is usually rather time consuming.
The criticism offered should be constructive and not mean-spirited. The best energy results when discussion bounces back and forth between members rather than going in order around the table. Some groups focus on positives first before tackling negatives. A good moderator will decide what works best for the group.
After discussion, the writer can ask questions of the group members to help clarify comments. The writer should not defend their paper, but rather try to understand the readers’ perceptions of their draft as it currently stands. Also, a good moderator will keep the ensuing discussion related to the story as it can be easy to digress into other topics.
The session should end with thanking the author for sharing as well as deciding what writers will share at the next meeting.
Further Suggestions for Writing Critique Groups
A critique group should consist of at least three committed writers who will always come to workshops. A small group ensures more sharing and feedback can take place. However, a decent group size can range from ten to fifteen writers. This allows more leeway when a member can’t make it or might not have any pressing material to fit. I’ve also been in a group where attendance hit twenty-five for a while, and that was too many for fruitful discussion in my opinion.
Set aside 45-60 minutes for selections of approximately 5,000 words. A full 30 minutes should be devoted to discussion while the author is silent. A U-Shaped seating arrangement or large conference table usually works best for sharing and discussion, but many seating arrangements can be utilized if needed. During the author’s “silent” period, the participants should not directly address the writer or look at them while making comments. The goal is to discuss the writer as if they are not in the room.
Professionalism and courtesy should be maintained at all times. Having a draft is nerve-racking enough without having to experience an onslaught by an overly critical member. This extends to break times between drafts as well.
Meeting on a monthly basis is important for continuity, but meeting twice a month may be viable for the right group. Weekly meetings generally don’t work out given the turnaround time needed to digest a member’s piece of writing. A conference room at a library is often a good bet for a meeting place. Coffee shops and the like can work as well, but background noise can sometimes be an issue.
What groups have you benefited from where the goal was to receive constructive criticism?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013. Post updated July 2019.