Having read about my panel at Ad Astra that covered critiquing groups and my group The East Block Irregulars, a friend asked me to share my thoughts about critiquing groups. So, here goes.

Why Do You Want to Join a Group?

If you are going to join a group or form your own, ask yourself: Why? What do you want to get out of the group? An answer of “So someone can tell me if my story is any good” is too general. Are you looking:

  • For honest feedback, criticism and advice on your story to improve it and your skills as a writer?
  • To learn how to critique the work of others and apply those skills to your own writing?
  • To share intelligence about markets and events?
  • To share lessons learned about how to submit to markets, write queries and other tools a writer needs beyond a good story?
  • For a forum to talk about the challenges of being a writer since your partner, family and friends don’t understand why you write?
  • For peer pressure and motivation to stay on target with your writing?

All of these are legitimate goals, but they speak to different kinds of groups.

  • The first two bullets are “critiquing groups,” the goal of which is to sharpen a story and your skills as a writer. These groups are focused on the craft of writing.
  • The middle two bullets are for “writers group” where writers come together to network discuss the business aspect of writing.
  • The last bullets are “writing groups” where you talk about writing (even if you don’t actually write, but think of yourself as a writer, as opposed to the group above who actually write). Generally, these kinds of groups are social support circles.

There is nothing wrong with any of these types of groups, just be aware of what you are looking for.
And want to avoid.

How to Find or Form a Group

Sites like Facebook and Meetup make it easy to find or form a writing group.
But before you jump online, consider the make-up of your group—size, who can join, and how they join.
If you are forming a social circle, a large group is fine. A critiquing group should stay small because they suffer if they’re too large. Consider how long it would take twenty people to give oral critiques of a single story.
Who’s in the Group
Regardless of the type of group, members should be at the same level with similar interests. The aspiring horror writer working on her first short story probably can’t help the seasoned, full-time romance writer with 20 published novels.
Some rules of thumb:

  • Similar Interests: Some variance is OK, but an eclectic mix of poetry and prose, SpecFic and literature, and adult stories and children’s books can lead to a group with little in common. If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear or someone to dissect your story, you need someone who understands the type of writing you do.
  • Experience Level: If you’ve published 50 short stories, the writer working on his first story can do little to polish dialogue, sharpen prose or improve characterization. On the other hand, if you are the one working on your first short story, that writer with 50 published stories can certainly help you, but might also try to transform your work into what he would like it to be rather than help you find your own way. People at the same level can learn from and relate to each other.
  • Enthusiasm and Dedication: Any kind of group helps an individual maintain momentum in his/her writing. A weak and unmotivated member, though, can slow that momentum. Keep an eye out for people who don’t contribute, show up randomly, and seem interested in only taking from the group but not adding to it (e.g., submitting stories but not doing critiques; talking about how tough they have it but not listening to others; eager for news on a certain market but not sharing what they’ve learned).

How to Join
With the size of a group worked out and an idea of its membership, how do you add (new) members?
(Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of open membership. Without some process to vet new members, a group can become full of people only looking to take and not add anything (and were turned away from other groups with more stringent membership rules).)
If you’re in a writing group, have the new member come to a trial meeting. If they work out, great. If not, tell them honestly you don’t think they’ll fit in. And if you’re worried about hurting their feelings, remember that person is a writer—they will have their feelings hurt on a regular basis by rejection letters.
If you’re in a writers group, also invite the new member to come to a meeting and see what she/he has to share. Again, if they don’t work out, tell them.
For a critiquing group, have the prospective member submit a story (preferably an unpublished one that has not had an editor’s touch) to make sure the type of work fits in with the group. If so, then have the prospective member do a critique of the story the group is looking at. If the critique is solid, let them in. If the critique consists of “I liked it, but thought the main character was jerk,” you might want to hold out for someone with stronger critiquing skills.

How to Run a Critiquing Group Meeting

Writer and writing group meetings are generally pretty informal, but a critiquing group requires some structure to be run effectively.
Sending Out the Story to be Critiqued
Before the meeting (I recommend at least five days) distribute the story to the critiquing group for them to prepare a critique.
Manuscript Comments
On the manuscript, add edits you feel are proper. This can be anything from a missing comma to crossing out entire paragraphs. The author will decide what to accept and reject, but you owe it to the author to be as honest and critical as you can be to make the story better. Even if you spot a weakness and are unsure how to fix it, point it out.
Written Critique
In addition to editing the manuscript, I recommend doing an overall written critique of the story. This can take the form of notes written on the back of the last page to something more structured and formal.
I like to write something over the course of a day or two, treating my critique like a story—first draft, revise, gives it some thought, etc. I usually break it up into four parts.

  1. Overall impressions
  2. What I liked about the story and think worked well
  3. What I did not like about the story and thought did not work well
  4. Suggestions, questions and specific comments

Oral Critique
This happens at the meeting where each member of the group provides spoken feedback on the story. (Having a written critique helps in this stage.) During the oral critique, the person who wrote the story should remain silent since the goal is not a discussion or justification, but for each member to have their say.
Once everyone in the group has spoken, the author can reply to specific questions or ask for clarification. At this point, some discussion is normal as the other members of the group may change their opinions or modify their critiques based on what other members have said.

Closing Thoughts

I consider myself lucky to be in The East Block Irregulars, and my membership in that group has formed all of the above advice.
But your mileage may vary. What works for me may not work for you. So, know what you want to get out of a group before you join or form one. If you consider joining an existing group, ask about what the group does and what you can expect. If you form your own, be very clear to prospective members what your expectations are and how the group will run.
Hopefully, you will improve as a writer and find the help and support you want, need and deserve.