Critique Groups: Tips on starting your own writing group

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— Photo by Kennedy Library
Originally posted at: www.timothyafenner.com

As a follow-up to a prior post on writing groups (are evil… or are they?), here’s a quick rundown of the key factors I feel are necessary when forming a successful writer’s group.

Before we begin, please note that every writer’s group varies — in personality, needs, format, expectations, etc. — and I doubt there is a magic standard to fit all scenarios. That said, look for TIMMY TIPs for examples of how my group does things.  (and no, I don’t like being called “Timmy”)  🙂

 

PHYSICAL AND VIRTUAL PRESENCE: While it’s not absolutely necessary to do both, I highly recommend that you establish an online (virtual) and physical (in-person) presence for your writers group:

  • Online tools (virtual) will help you to manage the group and coordinate events, as well as getting discovered by other writers seeking to join a group.
  • Meeting in person (physical) helps to build rapport and understanding between writers. Just be sure the venue supports the number of people in your group and provides at least a semi-private area, one free from notable distractions. Best to call ahead to make sure the venue is open to hosting your group, as you may be sitting there for a few hours!

TIMMY TIP: My group utilizes Meetup.com to build up our group and organize  events, and Google Drive for sharing our work and other writing-related content. Note — I am in no way affiliated with these services and there are MANY other options to choose from. These are simply the two my group uses and it works for our needs. 

Oh, and we meet consistently at a local coffee shop!  🙂

 

GROUP SIZE:  You will likely have to gauge the appropriate number as you go along, but make sure to monitor the number of participants as it can dilute the feedback and author relationships.

TIMMY TIP: We like eight, as it allows for attendance to ebb and flow, yet maintain close relationships between the authors.

 

GROUP EXPECTATIONS: The key to any productive group is to establish expectations upfront. This includes but may not be limited to:

  • The theme or goals of this group: The theme of your group will dictate what everyone is supposed to do and what they are not supposed to do.

TIMMY TIP: The sole purpose of our group is to help one another improve and to get published. We do this by sharing feedback, resources and ideas. We are not a socializing group.  In fairness, we do socialize, but everyone is well aware that socializing will be cut off if it interfere’s with the group’s primary goals.

  • Membership requirements: If you’re open to everyone, you may not get the level or type of feedback you or your group needs. If you restrict membership to only those with certain qualifications, you may limit the level of perspectives looking over your work and/or have difficulty in locating members.

TIMMY TIP: Our group is open to all. We like the broad range of perspectives each individual brings, whether they are a newbie or published. 

  • Genre and type of writing restrictions: I recommend limiting the scope to ensure that the feedback is targeted and to ensure enthusiasm from all participant. Example: SciFi nerds are not likely to read a bodice-ripping romance novel on their own, so it’s probably safe to say they won’t be thrilled with the prospect of critiquing someone’s attempt at writing it.

TIMMY TIP: While our group is open to all levels of author, we do limit the genres to just SciFi, Horror, Fantasy (swords and sorcery, not fifty shades of perversion), and we focus solely on short stories and novels, not screenplays, poetry, or other forms.

  • Participation commitment: Every writer has their own level of commitment to writing, let alone availability to write and/or take part in a writer’s group. This question is critical for the group’s success as it will set the bar for how much is expected of each individual. How often are members expected to attend a meeting? How many times can someone not attend or participate before they are booted from the group?

TIMMY TIP: Our group has weekly meetings and it helps to keep our membership engaged and focused on writing. This may be too aggressive for most, so every other week or monthly meetings may help keep members engaged. 

  • Acceptable tools: You may wish to limit how work is shared (for instance, not allow print-outs, digital only), or restrict the group to using a specific set of tools or programs to ensure consistency.

TIMMY TIP: As mentioned earlier, my group utilizes Google Drive and Meetup.com, but we also standardized on MS Word (or any application that can produce DOC or DOCX files and maintain markups and comments). Again, not affiliated with Micro$oft in any way, just mentioning what works for our group.

 

FEEDBACK GUIDELINES: This is a major factor in the success of a writer’s group. From the beginning, everyone needs to understand what constitutes an acceptable form of feedback. This helps to also establish how much time and effort is expected when critiquing a fellow author’s piece. Without guidelines, your group will not be able to maintain any consistency in the level and type of feedback given. Common factors within feedback guidelines include:

  • Number expectations on the giving and receiving of feedback. For example, does your group allow people to just submit without ever providing a critique?  Or should there be some level of tit-for-tat at play, in which a member only gets what they are willing to give (ie you give a critique, you get a critique). You may even wish to implement a tracking system to know who owes who a critique to keep things fair and avoid the potential for resentment.
  • A reminder that providing a good critique helps the critiquer as much as it helps the author.
  • Reading a piece all the way through one time without entering any critiques in order to experience the piece as an “ordinary reader” before putting on author or editor glasses.
  • Be specific in feedback and provide relevant examples.
  • Start with the strengths, then offer thoughts on weaknesses and problem areas using positive language.

 

LEADERSHIP TIPS:

Whether you want it or not, you will likely be looked upon as a leader in this group (you did create it after all). This should not scare you off, but instead, reinforce the idea that you are committed to improving your writing that you are willing to brave the barbs and arrows that will fly in your direction. If you haven’t ran for the hills yet, here’s some final points to take with you:

Establish a co-leader: Someone in your group should be designated as your backup, at minimum, for emergency situations where you are not available — such as you winning the lottery and running away to Tahiti (not that you wouldn’t invite your group to come visit later).

Regularly attend meetings: If you don’t, others will question your engagement or worse, start to emulate you!

Be aware of lulls in attendance: The members of your group have lives, which will often kick them where it hurts and prevent them from attending every meeting or stop them from critiquing everyone’s work. In the first year, you’ll likely see a lot of members come and go before the membership stabilizes. It took four months for the core of my group to form.

Accept quitters happen: Not everyone will be able to commit to the group’s requirements. Could be a change in their life, attitude, or otherwise pulls them away. Just wish them well and move on. Don’t spiral into depression, even if they were your favorite member.

Don’t hesitate to drop the ax: Your group will not be a good fit for everyone. If someone is not meeting with the expectations of the group, give them a warning, then cut them if they don’t change their ways. It’s better for EVERYONE involved, even if the one being cut doesn’t see it.

Finally, take a gut check before starting anything:

  • TIME & EFFORT: Can you devote yourself to starting and maintaining this group? If you barely find time to write, let alone attend a meeting with other writers, you probably should just join another group versus start one yourself. The time commitment at first is notable (e.g. to setup virtual workspaces/tools, market the group, build out the requirements, etc.), but once things get going, there’s not much to do besides maintain a few areas.
  • CONTROL: Do you have the chops to reign in people if they go off track? Are you able to coordinate events.
  • PRIDE: Check your pride at the door and allow your group to vote on what works best for the majority — even if you feel it’s not the best course for you. You will hopefully find the proposed change does work and the group will benefit from it later.

 

I hope this information leads you to forming the best group possible. If you have any other thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment. IN A FUTURE POST, I will upload copies of the guidelines, rules, and other content used by my group as possible templates you can use for your own needs!

If you stuck with the article this long and still have some life left in you, please take a moment to swing by my author’s website or Facebook page and leave a comment. I’d appreciate the visit!

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