Critique Groups - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
by Marg McAlister
What do people expect when they join a writing group?
The list of anticipated benefits includes friendship, constructive criticism, support, encouragement, help with
editing, inspiration, and advice on everything from plotting to possible markets. These expectations may or may not
The members of any group will come from diverse backgrounds, and will have diverse skills, knowledge and
personalities. They may not be able to give you the kind of help you're hoping for. You need to leave a meeting
feeling that you have benefited from the experience. If you often go home feeling discouraged and seriously
thinking about giving up writing, then this is not the group for you.
Certainly not everyone comes away from a group meeting feeling happy with the way things have turned out. It is
not necessarily anyone's fault that this is so. Quite simply, different people have different needs.
- Some writers are very earnest about their writing career, and they want meetings that get down to business.
They usually have specific problems or questions they want to work on. They often have a self-imposed deadline
to finish a novel - and they feel time spent chatting about anything but writing is time wasted.
- Others are quite content to work on a series of short exercises to hone their craft, and enjoy getting to
know the other people in their group. To these people, the social aspects of the meetings are just as important
as the writing.
There's a place for both types of groups, as well as others in between. Conflict arises when you have those that
want to get on with the job and those who are happy to potter along and chat, attending the same meetings. What can
you do to make sure everyone is satisfied?
You could try splitting the group into two. This can be done in two ways:
- Begin a meeting with the entire group present for any general business, market news and so on. After the
first 15-30 minutes, divide into two or more work groups, depending on the size and needs of the group.
- Split into two different groups that meet at different venues. Both groups could get together occasionally
to swap notes.
Some leaders of 'splinter' groups, formed because of different needs within groups, recommend that you make the
membership requirements very clear before new members join. If, for example, you decide that you want only members
who are (1) actively engaged in writing a novel for a certain age group or category; (2) are prepared to bring
along at least 1000 words for critiquing to each meeting and (3) are prepared to bring along enough printed copies
for each member, then make this clear from the start. A number of groups have a 'try before you buy' policy:
would-be members may attend one or two meetings to observe before they make up their minds.
Beginning writers need a supportive, friendly atmosphere to hone their skills and learn to give
and receive constructive criticism. They often need help with the basics: dialogue, plotting, motivation, and
show-don't-tell. They blossom in an atmosphere of caring and sharing.
More experienced writers may have just one or two weak areas on which they need to work. Often,
they are well into a novel, or may be editing it ready to send to a publisher. Some may have been published before,
perhaps in other genres. they don't want (or can't afford) to spend time constantly going back over the basics.
They want to work on their own novels, not short exercises and drills.
Some DOs and DON'Ts for Critique Groups:
- Critique the work in terms of its intended market. The writer wants an evaluation of the work as it is
presented, not criticism about his or her choice of genre or category.
- Praise what works as well as what doesn't. Be specific. Rather than: 'I thought their encounter at the
shopping mall worked well', say "You really heightened the suspense when John spotted Kieran at the mall and
realised he'd been followed'. And be diplomatic - not: 'I didn't like the scene in the old castle' but 'I was
really enjoying the story until the scene in the old castle - at that point John started to seem a bit of a
bully. Is there some way you could lighten it a little?'
- Bring copies, if possible, of the pages you intend to read to the group. It's a lot easier to pinpoint why
something 'doesn't sound quite right' if you see it on the page.
- Share the time fairly. You may have to nominate a time-keeper - especially if one member of the group
consistently takes more time than he or she should.
- Use the 'sandwich' technique - open with a positive comment, give suggestions for improvement, then finish
with encouraging words. Helpful advice wrapped in encouragement and praise! Be honest, but be kind.
- Don't argue with those offering advice. Advice is there for you to listen to and act on only if you want
to. It's a waste of time to defend your work. Remember, what you hear is an opinion, not a demand to rewrite.
As a rule of thumb: if everyone picks on different things, change only what makes sense to you. If everyone
criticises the same thing, you probably do need to work on that aspect.
- Don't present your opinion in terms of 'that's wrong, this is right'. Offer alternatives; evaluate
strengths and weaknesses; raise questions.
- Don't lose patience with those who don't seem to be 'getting the message', when the group has pointed out
the same weaknesses several times. Instead, look for different ways to rephrase the same advice. People often
take a while to 'click' with some aspect of the craft.
A Very Important 'DON'T'
DON'T leave all the work up to one person. Not only is it unfair, it can result in the eventual
disintegration of the group.
Take a close look: is your group coordinator becoming burnt out from doing all the encouraging, all the
encouraging, all the preparation and bringing along all the ideas?
Consider these options:
- Elect a coordinator to be the contact person for mail and new members, but nominate a different chairperson
for each meeting.
- Allot tasks to members (or ask for volunteers, if some members lack confidence) for future meetings. Spend
a meeting brainstorming future workshop topics. Use people's strengths - if someone writes great dialogue, ask
that person to run a workshop or to devise group exercises on that topic.
- Discuss ways in which your meetings can be more fun; more inspiring; more helpful.
- Schedule a short session every three or four meetings to discuss existing meeting procedure, and to air any
concerns about the direction of the group.
- Arrange occasional joint meetings with other writing groups in the area or in a nearby town.
© Marg McAlister