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Writers' Critique Groups:
Not Just for the Inexperienced

by
Tom Heald

 

Writers' critique groups are not just for the fledgling and journeyman writer. Experienced writers and editors have much to gain also. The obvious satisfaction of helping less experienced colleagues is not the only reward. Everyone gets rusty, or at least comfortable if not complacent.

A good honest critique is hard to come by. Your friends can't help. They love everything you do; and if they don't, they will at least be kind. Though kindness may stroke your ego, it won't help publish your work. What you need most is an honest critique, even if it is painfully honest.

Writers have a hard time evaluating their own work. They are simply too close to it, and even experienced writers can fall into bad habits. It is easier to see mistakes in other people's work. It draws your eye in -- the dead spots, worn metaphors, confusing phrases, and bad transitions. We see our weaknesses best through the eyes of others. That is where a critique group comes in.

Writers' groups may be categorized by the expectation of its members. Whether their primary goal is social contact, motivation to write, or to improve their writing skills in the commercial marketplace.

  • Social critique groups are typified by food, drink, and chit-chat. Some call themselves coffee clubs; others, that serve brie and white-wine, are known as literary groups. They can be fun and even helpful; but they are more likely to fatten your waist than your wallet.

  • Motivational critique groups concentrate on individual goals and objectives. Better organized, they separate social activities from meetings. The members tend to be kind to each other, and rarely give hard probing critiques. Often they are mixed genre support groups for fledgling writers and hobbyists who want to improve their work by sharing it with others.

  • Professional critique groups are more interested in hard honest feedback than an authors' ego. Its members consider it their responsibility to stress truth over kindness. Hopefully, to reveal flaws before an editor rejects the work. The intent is to improve each piece, not to placate the author.

If you can't find a critique group in your area that meets your needs, organize your own. Begin by define the scope of the group. Will it be open to all genres, or limited to a specific genre? Will it concentrate on fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose?

Set up a schedule, and if possible, pick a neutral spot for the meeting. It may be a function room in a restaurant, church, library, city hall, or a business office. If you meet in private homes, set up rules for refreshments. Unless you are forming a social group, refreshments should be banned or limited to beverages. Otherwise, each host feels obligated to out-do the other. If a social get-together is desired, it is best to separate it from the normal business meeting.

A rotating chairperson should be chosen every two or three months. The duties are:

  • To keep the meeting on track.
  • To make sure the discussion and critiques are germane, constrictive, and within the allowed time.
  • To enforce the meeting format and introduce new business.
  • To make sure a new chairperson takes over at the end of their term.

    James Frey, in How To Write A Damn Good Novel, describes writers' groups as either puff, literary, or destructive. "The destructive groups are the only kind that are truly worthwhile," he said. "On your first visit to a destructive group, you'll think you've fallen into a new kind of psychotherapy where the idea is to destroy the writer's ego." I know from experience, that Frey's critiques are hard and probing, but he directed his attacks at my writing, not me personally.

    "This story opening," said Julias Archer at UC Santa Cruz, when he critiqued my very first work, "lacks total reader interest as well as any story development." His line-by-line critique convinced me he was correct. My rewrite earned some praise, along with pages of red ink. Both instructors managed to maintain a balance between harsh criticism and encouragement while completely destroying my work.

    Strong guidelines can help keep critique sessions constructive. An author should describe the market and intended publication before the critique begins. If a segment of a piece is being presented, the author will need to put it into the proper context. However, authors should not be allowed to offer disclaimers, explanations, motivations or otherwise defend their work. Written work needs to stand on its own; hence, verbal defense or explanation is counterproductive. If the work can't stand on its own, it needs work.

    Restrict the critique to the content of the piece, not personal opinions on the subject covered. Comments should be specific and constrictive not mean-spirited and abusive. Sarcasm is to be avoided at all cost. Restrict general comments to the overall effectiveness and presentation of the subject. Judge the content and appropriateness by the intended market, not the critiquer's preferences.

    For example: When reviewing an abortion piece it is the author's coverage of the subject that is germane, not the critiquer's opinion on abortion. Comments like, "People will never read it, it's just too gross," are too general. Be specific: "You should visit an abortion clinic to see how that procedure is performed." Do not put your comments in the form of a question. When you ask, "Why did you concentrate on the rally?" it begs a philosophical response; however, the statement, "By concentrating on the rally you distract the reader from your main argument," gives the author something to work with. Sarcasm, like, "You write as if you have spent your whole life dancing around, picking petals from flowers," is likely to evoke an emotional if not a physical response. "You should visit a clinic before you write about it," is more constructive and a lot safer.

    Written critiques are much more beneficial than oral ones; though, they take more time and effort. Participants should spend time "mark-up" each piece before the meeting so it can be returned to its author after the critique session.

    Oral critiques are generally less effective and provide week feedback. To make them hard hitting and specific, everyone should take notes or mark-up copies during the reading; otherwise, the critique become very general.

    Meetings tend to fall into a natural rhythm of greetings, critiques and commentary. However, a schedule, with specific times reserved for each segment, will help keep meetings from digressing. This format works well for most groups:

    Part 1: The meeting opens with ten to fifteen minutes of general discussion. Starting with the moderator, each person tells what they have done -- accomplishments, new markets, interesting articles or books, classes, workshops or seminars.

    Part 2: The author introduces or reads the piece to be critiqued. Each person then provides feedback on a rotating bases from the author. The moderator is responsible to keep track of the time to insure each person is heard and all pieces are reviewed.

    Part 3: For social groups, it's party time when everybody engages in light conversation and heavy food -- or vice-versa. The challenge is to make this an adjunct to the meeting and not its focus. Unfortunately, many people spend more time cooking than writing. Which is ok, if you're researching a cook book. Otherwise, this lack of attention makes for week "praisie" prater, that does more harm than good. Some authors become mesmerized. When their "wonderful" work is rejected, they are convinced that all editors are fools, incapable of seeing the pearls in their prose. They start to refer to their work as experimental, new-wave, or avant-garde. They form literary groups, where their work can finally be appreciated.

    Motivational groups use this time to go around the circle again with each member commenting on what they plan to do before the next meeting. Additional motivation is provided if the moderator writes down one's plans, to be reviewed at the opening of the next meeting.

    Other groups discuss a subject of general interest, chosen at the previous meeting. Subjects can include anything related to the business of writing: query letters, local writing classes, sources, markets, and so on. Optionally, invite a guest author, editor, publisher, educator, or otherwise interesting person to participate in the meeting and share their insight with the members.

    Gone forever are the days of free critiques. Editors no longer have time to comment on submitted work. Form letters have replaced personal responses, and it is not uncommon for large-volume houses to reject queries out-of-hand, without regard for its content. This leaves critique groups and workshops as the last best resources for improving one's writing, and one's fortune in the marketplace.

     

    Side Bar: How to Keep a Writers' Group Active and Interesting

    Writers' groups are like the seasons. They start out with the exuberance of spring, wilt in the heat of summer, go to seed in the fall, and get snowed under in the winter. How do you keep a group from going stale? How do you keep the meetings exciting and interesting? You can organize extra activities separate from the meeting, or add a little zest to the end of each meeting with selections from this baker's dozen:

    • Write a newsletter and share the duties so everybody can have the experience of publishing and editing. Make it a forum for members to contribute short articles on writing. Distribute it through the local library, colleges, and bookstores. Exchange newsletters with other groups. It's a great way to drum up new members.

    • Ask a local print shop, bookstore, and office supply house to provide discounts for your members. Offer to advertise their services in your newsletter as an incentive.

    • Have a magazine swap night where everybody brings extra copies of publications and exchanges them. It's a great way to investigate new markets without spending money.

    • Publish an anthology of the members best published works. Pay for it by soliciting ads from local businesses. Distribute it with your newsletter, and by providing complimentary copies to the advertisers. Make it something they can give to their customers as an incentive or bonus.

    • Bring in guest speakers. Local and regional publishers, editors, columnists, educators, bookstore owners, and authors make excellent choices. Less obvious choices are: Accountants and tax advisors; business leader with tips on running a small business; an advertising or public relations person to speak on writing ad-copy or press-releases; software producers and distributors to demo their latest wares; and your own members.

    • Organize a social-night or open-house with other groups. Invite a guest speaker or make it a joint membership drive. It's a great way to keep in touch while developing new contacts.

    • Pan for gold within your own membership by interviewing each other. There may be an article embodied in each one's experiences and talents. Ask fellow members for tips on sources for your next article. They may be an expert, or know where you can find one.

    • Put together a clipping notebook of articles published by the group. Include the cover letter, any pertinent correspondence with the editor, the writer's guidelines for the publication, and the published article.

    • Compile a file of writer's guidelines, clippings, and markets collected by the group. Collect newsletters, contest announcement, workshop flyers, and everything else you squirrel away. If it can help you, it can help others.

    • Challenge each other with a writing assignment. Then compare styles, content, approach, etc. One good way to come up with a theme, is to look at contests. Then, after critiquing and rewriting the piece, enter it in the contest.

    • Critique a piece clipped from a magazine. Lay it out in a single column, like a galley-proof, so each member has plenty of room for comments. How is it organized? What would you expand or cut? Are there any dead spots, worn metaphors, confusing phrases, or bad transitions? What is the best phrase or point made by the author; what is the weakest? Have each member take a copy home and mark it up so you can compare notes at the next meeting.

    • Maintain a list of your member's areas of interest and special talents. This is a good way to share skills and possibly collaborate on assignments. You never know when something will come up and you need help to make a deadline.

    • Survey your groups technical knowledge, and expertise. Who knows about WordPerfect, Ami Pro, and other software? Who knows about printers, modems, computers, and backing up data? Oops, too late! I knew I should have backed-up that article. 

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