I wouldn’t still be writing without my critique group. Writing simply would have been too lonely and frustrating. My abilities would’ve stagnated. There is only so much theory you can get from books and courses. You need to write and you need feedback. Sometimes you need to be told the same thing a dozen times before it truly sinks in (and maybe twenty when it comes to the difference between being and been – Sorry guys). Manuscript assessors or competitions with feedback can’t consistently deliver that. They also can’t provide friendship and support the way a writers group can.
I’m sure there have been many writers who’ve been successful without peer critiques but there would be few of those that didn’t have the help of a family member or close friend or agent who read and commented on their text before they sent it to publishers. Lucky you, if you have a loved one who has the patience to wade through several drafts and give you honest feedback. Most of us don’t.
I don’t want to sound like it’s easy to find a writing group that you feel comfortable with. It’s hard. This is not a book club get-together. You are baring your unfiltered mind to fellow members. You are sharing unpolished work and crazy ideas. If you were to equate mind to appearance it would be the equivalent of other’s seeing you stagger out of bed in your underwear first thing in the morning.
So how do you even begin to look for a writers group? Most of the groups I’ve been involved in have come about as a result of meeting people at local writing courses. I will be forever in the debt of well- known children’s author and generous networker – Di Bates. I participated in a course she ran on children’s writing and through her I was introduced to Danika. That was over five years ago and we are still meeting regularly having gained and lost some members along the way. Local writer’s centres and societies often run writing groups – even if you don’t like their format it is important to get yourself into situations where you can meet other writers and find those that you click with. Social media tags eg (#amwriting #amediting), attending writing conferences and participating in NaNoWriMo regional groups may lead to finding your perfect writing partner/s. I have no experience of online critique groups but I know they work well for some and maybe the only option for those in remote areas or with limited time.
I certainly didn’t land in my current fabulous writing group on my first attempt. In many former forays into writing get-togethers I worked out what works and what doesn’t for me. I stress for me because it very much depends on what you want to get out of a group. I’ve written down a few things that I found problematic:
– Writing groups that just do exercises/games. This is fun when you are starting out and can be good for idea generation but it often means you are not writing what you want to write and not getting meaningful critiques either. Particularly if the exercises involve writing things on the spot. I am hopeless at on-the-spot writing and never feel entirely comfortable sharing it with anybody. I believe writing impromptu is a different skill than writing and re-writing in a considered and careful manner. Also if you are all writing about the same thing for a particular exercise it can become unnecessarily competitive.
– Writing groups that are just about coaching/accountablity rather than critique. If you are an established writer with editors and publishers or you are held back more by your time management than the quality of your work this type of group or networking is great. If I could only have one, though, I would opt for the critique variety as they can still act as a motivating force but the accountability-type group can’t improve your writing.
-Writing groups that become more about something other than the writing. Do you find yourself baking and preparing lunch for 2 hours before a meeting? Or do you meet in noisy cafés where it is more about chasing down the best latte than getting down to the nitty gritty of your character’s development. Or does the group spend hours talking about the non-writing stuff?
– Members of the group find it difficult to take criticism of their work. That doesn’t mean everybody should accept criticism without comment. I often ask fellow members for clarification or explain why something is difficult to change. But even in that process I’m learning. Honestly, 90% of the time I come around to their viewpoint anyway. It is when members get emotional or overly precious about aspects of their work that it can become very awkward and unproductive.
– Conversely members who are rude or demeaning in giving critiques. Yes, writers do have to have thick skins. But if you find yourself crying or ripping up your work after each session then don’t torture yourself. Leave. No writing group at all is better than one that make you feel worthless.
– Groups with fluctuating membership. It’s important to build a relationship with fellow critiquers to get to know them and their work. It is difficult for someone to critique the middle chapter of your novel if they have no idea how it started. It is not critical if members miss a meeting or two but having new people every second meeting can be disruptive. Also it takes a certain familiarity to feel at ease with somebody both criticizing your work and allowing you to criticize theirs. Our group is lucky enough to have had the same five members for over 2 years now.
Now I’ve talked about how to meet writing partners and possible problems with writing groups. I’ll move on to what works for our group. I would love to hear the variations of how other successful critique groups operate. Our procedures aren’t set in stone – any group should be willing to evolve to better meet the needs of their members.
– We meet fortnightly. We used to meet monthly. This was too long to sustain the motivation between sessions. We all lead busy lives and more often than not one or two members can’t make it on the day. This meant that it was often two months between sessions if somebody missed one. By then they were practically strangers (not really but you know what I mean).
– We have five members. Any more that this and it gets too onerous to edit everyone else’s words. Much less and there may not be enough eyes or viewpoints to make well-rounded criticism. I like five because if one or two are away then three can still have a meaningful meeting. You often find that different members have different strengths (thank goodness the others know more about punctuation and grammar than me).
– We take it in turns to meet at each other’s houses. Five people can easily fit around a dining table and we don’t go to any huge effort for food. A morning tea with nibbles. We joke that an essential requirement of our group is a tolerance for pets. At last count we had eight dogs and four cats between us (Pat has over half those). They invariably provide us with some distraction (my dog is the worst attention-seeker).
– Every meeting we critique up to 1500 words of each other’s work. This can be part of a novel, a picture book text, a poem, or series of poems , or a short story or even pitch letters and synopses.
– We don’t always write in same genre or for the same age group. I have read elsewhere that groups should only be formed who write in the same genre eg all middle-grade or all YA. This maybe be ideal, but having people who you get on with and are good at offering criticism is much more important than sticking to a group that writes your exact genre. Also I would argue that the variety is refreshing and as a writer you don’t feel restricted to presenting the same genre every week. We’ve had adult flash fiction, picture books, children’s and adult poetry, middle grade and YA Novels presented at our meetings. I even got valuable feedback on a nature essay I wrote.
– We send out our work via email attachment 2-5 days before the meeting. I like this method because, as I’ve said before on this blog, I am a slow thinker and writer and I like to give a considered critique rather than a hurried on-the-spot one. Some of you may be excellent at the off-the-cuff critique so this may not be necessary. Or if your group is large (over 6) the emails and pre-work may be too overwhelming. We each choose the method we prefer for editing. Some of us prefer to use Word review in-document comments others just prefer to use a pen on the printed-out text. Either way we bring a print-out of our own work and critiqued work of others to each meeting.
– Each meeting we take it in turns to have our work read out. Mostly, we get someone else to read our piece. This can be enlightening as other readers don’t make the same assumptions about your work. This can be particularly useful with poetry and picture book texts where language and rhythm are all important.
– At the end of the reading we discuss the piece and explain our critique comments. The discussion is often as productive (and definitely more fun) as the comments themselves. At the end of the discussion we pass over the commented piece to the writer to take home.
– We are not all business. We DO chat. We chat about our inspirations, our rejections, our successes, writing opportunities and festivals, our experiences of publishers, self-publishing, manuscript assessments, courses, social media – every topic related to writing and… some not – families – human and furred. This is important. I have learnt so much and reached wider writer’s networks by listening and learning from the others in my group. The support to keep going and being around people who understand your passion and struggle is invaluable.
If you are curious these are the websites of the others in my writing group:
Love to hear about your experiences of writing groups – positive or not. Do you have any other procedures, tips about how a successful critique group operates?