How to Form a Critique Group

You have reached the level of competency where you need another pair of eyes to look at your writing and honestly tell you what works and what doesn’t. 

You need a critique group.

Critique groups for writers are one of the best things you can use to improve your own writing. 

A good critique group should:

1. Be a safe place for all levels of writers.

2. Give constructive feedback.

3. Have a stated process for critiquing.

4. Meet regularly and encourage regular attendance from participants.

When feedback  is vague and opinion-based, the poor writer receiving the feedback is clueless as to how to incorporate the feedback. When questions arise from readers who have read the critique piece in a rush and haven’t bothered to read a second time often waste time with unnecessary questions. 

There are many ways groups can go wrong.  Those listed above are just some of them.

It wasn’t until I discovered a format, given to me in my final year at the University of Washington, that I had framework for a literary critique.  This framework forms the critical core of my own critique group and has helped all of our members immensely.

State the Meaning-

Open every critique session with affirmations.  Readers tell the writer what they read and liked, what worked, what was especially strong or profound.  Readers note any themes they saw in the story, anything that reached out and grabbed them.  No matter how rough a draft, there is always something to affirm the writer, who is currently baring his/her artistic soul by allowing this group critique.  Gentleness is always important and key here.

The Writer Asks-

Before any opinions or questions get lobbed into the air, the writer gets to ask the readers questions.  This is where the writer might say, “Regarding character X’s motives, were they clear enough in this scene?” or “I’m trying to communicate Idea Y.  Did it come through at the end of the story?”  This lets the readers know more about what the writer was trying to get at, and the group can zero in on weak spots that the writer has already identified as a place he/she would like to work.

The Readers Ask Neutral Questions-

I’ve heard negative opinions offered under the very thin veil of a question, but always implying that there is something wrong in the writing itself.  This usually puts the writer on the defensive and will jeopardize the fruitfulness of the session.

The way to ask about something that didn’t work is NOT: “This scene was way too long.  I’d suggest editing out all the unnecessary dialogue.” 

When asking a neutral question about this same twenty-page scene, you might say, “Why did you choose to have your two characters discussing the weather and their breakfast here?  Are these things going to come up later in the story?” 

Neutral phrasing allows the writer to explain something that has perhaps not been fully developed, giving readers and writer an opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm ideas for a better piece of writing.  When a writer understands why something isn’t working, this is far better than just being told it doesn’t work.

Opinions-

This is when the readers ask permission to share an opinion, no longer phrased neutrally.  Incidentally, an opinion offered at this stage in the critique is often well-received by the writer, in contrast to one offered near the beginning. 

Opinions can be anything from “I didn’t get a strong sense of setting in this story.  Adding more details on the rooms in the house would be good” to “I have an idea for how to bring this character’s inner monologue to the surface.  Would you like to hear it?” 

It’s best to have the readers ask if they can offer an opinion about a topic that the writer gets to then decide if he/she wants to talk about.  The writer always has a choice to say “no.” This keeps the writer in control (rather than at the mercy) of the critique. 

If the writer has plenty to work with, he/she can choose to thank the readers and decline hearing the opinion.  I’ve yet to see anyone reject hearing an opinion, but I like to keep it out there as an option.

Do you have questions about forming your own group?  Are you in a group with questions about how to incorporate some of these details?  Do you have something your group has done that you’d like to share? 

Let’s hear ’em!

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I always get inspired after I read your posts. I guess I need to find a group where I live!

  2. Rebekah,

    Glad to hear it! The way I went about it was I started asking my writer friends if they were interested in forming a group.

    If you don’t have many friends who are the writerly sort, you might check this out http://www.meetup.com/ and see if there are any writer’s groups already assembled in your area. 🙂

    Elise

  3. Thanks for this encouragement to join a group. I have been nervous to do so, and have been paying for classes with critiques instead. I’d love to hear more about good questions to ask in general as you go over someone’s piece.

    Thanks!
    Dawn

    1. Hi Dawn,
      Thanks for stopping by! Some good questions that get right to the root of a story are: “What was your goal with this story/scene?” “What is your main character’s quest?” “What is the underlying message of your story?” The more serious writers get, the more they have answers to these questions. If they don’t have answers, your questions will help them to look. A critique group should be a group of friends who can trust each other. This makes the critiques way better than most things you would get in a class, because you have much more time to get to the both the author and the writing. Hope this helps! Let me know if you’re curious about any other specifics!

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