I happen to be 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. My ten laws for critique groups:
1. Ask yourself why you want a group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got some way to evaluate the benefits to your writing later. Some people basically want to hang out with writers — more or less the same reason they attend writing conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that meets your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after (and, being a reader of this blog, which is aimed more or less at writers, I figure that’s the majority of people reading this little missive), 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. People need 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 a meeting), and what the benefit is to them ("You will hear advice for improving your writing").
3. Invite people to participate. Don’t put an announcement in the local newspaper or an invitation in the church bulletin. You’ll get the hangers-on, the wannabes, and, very possibly, members of my family. One of the maxims of organization is that people perform at the level to which they are recruited. If you tell people, "This is an open time for anyone to attend," you’re going to get bad poets, unteachable storytellers, and the "I’m-in-pain-so-let-me-share-my-angst" types. If you go directly to people you know have some talent for writing and invite them to particpate, you’ll attract a much better quality of participant.
4. At one of your first meetings, set some guidelines. These can be fairly simple: We expect you to come if you’re in town. You need to submit your writing to others at least every other month. You commit to read the words of the others in the group before the meeting. You will 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 the 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 can turn into nothing more than a sharing time, since nobody wants to jump into the job of telling the poet how awful his work is. Or it can turn into a theraphy session for the most needy in the bunch. Get a leader, and let him or her push the agenda.
6. Creative, artsy writers need a regular meeting time and place. A schedule offers discipline to the group. (And yes, you all disagree with me, since you’re all 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 tripe. Your group will meet at Starbucks once, at your house a few weeks later, then you’ll skip six months, gather for dinner somewhere, and forget all about it.) Just set a time and place and skip the nonsense.
7. Insist participants 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 must listen to people’s ideas and criticisms of your work, even if you’re going to ignore all 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.") In looking back at these rules, you may just want to simply them to something more practical, like "All poets will be shot."
8. Everybody gets a turn. Membership in a critique group dictates that you’ll listen to other’s perspectives on your writing. It’s good for you — even if you often don’t agree. Writing is an art, and art is open to interpretation. Hearing another’s opinions can cause growth in your own life. Of course, there’s nothing worse than being in a group with one guy you really don’t like, or don’t respect his lousy writing, and listen to him drone on for a half hour about "what’s wrong with writing these days." But sometimes listening to people who have very different politics, theology, or life experiences can be extremely enlightening. If you find people who are at your level, both in terms of quality and experience in writing, you’ll find yourself much more interested in the comments and criticisms.
9. Find a person in the group who you trust. Identify one person, maybe two, who you will listen to. That way, you’ve always got a trusted advisor. So when she says to you, "I know you love medical mysteries, but I question your use of including each character’s dental records in your story," you’ll know she isn’t criticizing your work just to build herself up. This is your friend. She loves you. She’s only saying it because she 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 the group. Really.
10. Insist people write. I was once in a critque group where people argued about the merits of Left Behind and debated which trends were hot in independent bookstores, but never really got around to writing anything. So write something. Each time you meet. Insist others do the same. Submit that work ahead of the meeting so that everyone can read it and tell you how awful it is. (Or tell you how wonderful it is, depending on how they’re feeling that day.)
"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." — Lilian Hellman
I’m off to ICRS in Atlanta. Try to stay cool…