I’m excited because this weekend my MFA alumni critique group is meeting. We’ve been getting together for five years now, with slightly different configurations of people. The one thing we have in common is that we’ve been through Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing. We didn’t all graduate at the same time, or in the same genre, and some of us have branched out to other genres over the years. We meet about three times per year, in someone’s house, for a day-long workshopping extravaganza.
Writers write in isolation, and often work for years before gaining any audience for their work. Writing is a craft, and it takes time to develop. A good critique group can offer wonderful support and a sense of community, which can keep you going when self-doubt sets in and you start thinking you’d rather binge watch say, every episode of every series of (your favorite guilty pleasure) ever written.
I clarify a good critique group because there are many bad ones. And some aren’t necessarily bad, just not right for you. It’s important to try out groups until you get the right fit. There are many ways to organize a critique group, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that I think contribute to a successful experience:
1. Keep it small – I think 4-6 people is ideal, but it may also depend on how often the group meets. Does everyone present work at every meeting? Or do people rotate?
2. Try to have writers in the group who are at similar levels, and have similar goals. Are they beginners? Have some experience? Are they serious writers who aim to publish? If you are a beginner in a group of very experienced writers, you may get discouraged. Or, if you are more advanced than the other writers, you may not get as much out of it.
3. Decide on a schedule – Monthly? A few times per year? Simply having a schedule, and knowing that you’re expected to produce work at those times, can do wonders for your productivity.
4. Rotate leadership – a group may be started by one person, but groups that stay together often have members take turns hosting, or managing the meetings. That way people are invested in it, and no one feels like they’re doing all the work to keep the group going.
5. Read in advance, if possible – some groups read at the meeting, but I think it’s better to circulate the work in advance, so that people have a chance to read and think about the comments they want to make. Ideally the discussion sparks more comments, but being familiar with the work helps deepen the discussion and makes it more helpful for the author.
6. Say what works as well as what doesn’t. Authors are sometimes the least able to see their work clearly. They may have the urge to fix something that really is working, or be blind to something that confuses everyone in the group. Both kinds of comments are helpful, as long as they are specific.
7. The author is quiet during the discussion – this can be hard, but think of it this way: you won’t be there to stand over the shoulder of your readers, explaining what you really meant. Listen to what the members of the group are saying. They may disagree, but if the majority makes a particular point, it’s probably worth looking at. You can ask clarifying questions at the end of the discussion.
8. Keep the tone respectful and supportive – anyone who doesn’t do this needs to be asked to leave. Yes, writers need a thick skin, but a critique group should be a place of support, not vicious criticism.
9. Be generous – share resources and information. If you find a great craft book, or an exercise that will be helpful, or know of an agent that is looking for something similar to what someone in the group has written – share it!
10. Have fun! – The focus should be on the work, but leave time at the beginning and/or the end for chat, for food, for trying out a new writing exercise, etc. You’re building relationships. Anyone who seems to only be there for what they get out of it, and is not serious about giving critique as well as receiving, is a bad fit.
Do you have other ideas for what makes a good critique group? If so, let me know!
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