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.
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 money on the developmental editing process.
How to get started? I found my recent writer’s group via the website Meetup.com. Groups could also be found by checking with your local library or other writer’s 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 Groups Will Follow The Traditional Format
Drafts should be made available to group members a week 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. Most members will offer verbal, rather than written, suggestions.
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 paper 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.
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.
The most effective size for a critique group ranges from 10-15 writers.
Set aside 45-60 minutes for papers 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-wracking enough without having to experience an onslaught by an overly critical member. This extends to break times between drafts as well.
My current group meets twice a month in the conference room of one of the public libraries in town. The number attending has been around 25 lately, which I feel is too many. I’ve been on the chopping block twice and have received valuable feedback each time.
My former co-worker group got me back into writing on a regular basis, but by strident standards, we were naughty girls indeed. Our monthly or bi-monthly meetings spanned 3-4 hours and much wine, laughter, and good food was involved!
What groups have you benefited from where the goal was to receive constructive criticism?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013.