A reader wrote to say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”
I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:
1. Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.
2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).
3. Personally invite people to participate. Don’t put an announcement in the neiborhood bulletin or the local paper. One of the maxims of organization is that people perform at the level at which they are recruited. If you tell them “this is an open time for everybody,” you’re going to get the bad poets, the unteachable storytellers, and the “I’m-in-pain-let-me-share-my-angst-with-you” types.
4. At one of your first meetings, set some guidelines. These can be simple: You have to come as often as you’re in town. You have to submit your writing to others at least once a month (or every other month). You have to read the work of others before the meeting. You have to offer constructive advice, not just negative criticism. You have to be willing to listen to everyone, even if you disagree with their opinion. (And this is a perfect time to quote Jim Bishop: “A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”)
5. Make sure the group has a leader. Without a ramrod, a critique group turns into a therapy session for the most needy in the bunch.
6. I think creative, artsy writer types need a regular meeting time and place. It offers discipline to the group. Of course, you all disagree with that, being creative, artsy types. So sue me. You probably also like William Faulkner, even though he is boring and pretentious, but your college writing professor insisted he was deep, and since you want to appear deep too, you tell people at parties that you “loved ‘Soldier Pay’ but thought ‘As I Lay Dying’ lacked focus,” or some such rot. Your group will meet at Starbucks once, at your house once, then you’ll skip a couple months, meet for dinner somewhere, and fade away. So put some regularity and discipline into the meeting schedule.
7. Above all, listen to criticism. Scottish people have a saying: “Learn to unpack a rebuke.” There’s no point in joining a critique group if you spend all your time defending your writing. So have a rule that you have to listen to people’s ideas, even if you’re going to ignore their insipid, Neanderthal advice. Jarrell once wrote, “It’s always hard for poets to believe that one says their poems are bad not because one is a friend, but because their poems are bad.”
8. Balancing that is the notion that the membership in the group dictates how much you’ll listen. There’s nothing worse than being in a group with one guy you really don’t like, and you don’t respect his lousy writing, but he always wants to talk for a half hour about that terrible state of writing in publishing today. If you find people who are at your level, both in terms of quality and experience, you’ll find yourself much more open to hear what they have to say.
9. Find a writing partner who really trust. One person, maybe two, that you’ll listen to. When he or she says to you, “Farnsworth, I know you love medical mysteries, but I question your use of including each character’s dental records in your story,” you’ll know that they aren’t criticizing just to build themselves up. This your your friend. He (or she) LOVES you. He’s only saying it because he wants you to improve your story. That one person will make you better, and you’ll find yourself becoming a much better critiquer of others and member of a group. Really.
10. Insist people write. I was once in a critique group where people argued about the merits of “Left Behind” and debated which trends were hot in bookstores, but we never really got around to writing anything or examining each other’s work. Write something each time, insist others do the same, and submit that work ahead of the meeting so that everyone can read it and tell you how awful it is. (Or how wonderful it is, depending on how you’re feeling today.)
In closing, a note from Lillian Hellman: “They’re fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talk about writing. Or themselves.”