A critique group can be an invaluable resource for any writer. I was a member of a great one for the past year and a half and recently set up a set of critique groups for the new writers’ group that I am facilitating.
My last group worked so well that I wanted to help the writers in my new group re-create its respectful, collaborative experience. Writers are, by definition, very different people with different experiences, goals, and backgrounds, so it’s important to set out expectations ahead of time to facilitate a smooth and enjoyable environment where writers can give and receive useful critical feedback without being overwhelmed by negativity.
Here are some guidelines (thanks to my group for all of their input!):
Critique Group Guidelines
- Appoint a facilitator: The facilitator’s job is not to lead the critiques but to keep everyone on track so that there is time for each critique. The facilitator may also serve to resolve problems but should take a hands-off approach with the critiques unless a conflict does arise.
- Have writers provide their work in advance: Provide works to be critiqued via email or hard copy to other members at least one week in advance so that everyone has time to read and digest the writing and organize his or her feedback before the meeting.
- Have writers give some background: Each critique group member submitting pieces should give some background, including his or her plans for the work and goals for feedback. For example, does the writer want to improve his or her writing in general or to polish this piece in particular? Does he or she want structural feedback, grammar/spelling/punctuation type feedback, or both?
- Be sensitive when giving a critique: Point out the positives of the piece first. Don’t forget to tell the author what you liked about the piece. When you need to give criticism, be respectful and constructive. Each writer is at a different point on his or her writing journey. There is no need to try to make someone a perfect writer overnight or to try to berate other writers because they are further along or further behind than you. On the flip side, don’t be so nice that you avoid giving constructive criticism. Platitudes will not help your fellow writers improve.
- Do not argue with your fellow critique group members: When others give you feedback on your writing, ask questions, get clarification, but do not argue with them. Remember that you will not be there to justify the whys and hows of your work when it is in the hands of your readers. Your fellow group members are there to provide you with a reader’s viewpoint. Be respectful of that.
- Take what you want and leave the rest: Remember that you choose which feedback you incorporate into your piece. You can take all of it, none of it, or some amount between. That is a private choice for you to make with your manuscript after the meeting. My own personal rule is to sift through feedback that I hear from only one source but to pay special attention when I receive the same feedback from multiple sources.
- Respect your fellow critique group members: Respect the fact that other writers may have backgrounds, styles, values, and moral viewpoints that are different from your own. The goal of a critique group is not to change others or their viewpoints but to help each writer be the best writer that he or she can be while still preserving his or her unique voice.
- Don’t take feedback if you can’t give it: If you cannot make it to a meeting, do not submit a piece for feedback. If you have already submitted a piece and find out that you won’t be able to attend the meeting, let your fellow critique group members know as soon as you can. If they’ve already read your piece and took notes, offer to give feedback on their work outside the meeting, such as through email, if that is allowed.
- Give written notes: If possible, give your written notes to each author after the critique group meeting so that he or she has something to work from at home. Many writers feel that this should be mandatory. You can give handwritten notes on the manuscript or on a separate piece of paper or electronic notes on the manuscript with Track Changes or a similar tool so that edits are obvious and easy to spot.
- Avoid distractions during the discussion: Mute your cell phone and lay it aside during critique sessions. An exception can be made for the facilitator if he or she is using a timer app on his or her phone to keep track of each critique.
- Set and stick to specific guidelines for length: Set a number of words or pages per author for each critique session and abide by your group’s guidelines. Don’t squeeze twice the writing into your 10-page limit by shrinking the font and using single spacing. Like you, the other writers in your critique group are not getting paid. They are using their free time to help you and other writers. Don’t take advantage and make that job harder for them.
What are some rules that you have found work well—or backfire—for critique groups?