Thursday, June 2, 2011

Critique Groups: How? (pt. 1 overall structure)

I decided that the "How" will need two posts because there's the overall structure, and then there's the little details on how to make strong writing. So, here's Pt.1 the over all structure.

There are a lot of ways to go about critiquing. I know I haven't done the "where" section yet, so for this blog I will focus mainly on the hows of critiquing in person. Since I just met with my own new critique group this week, I'll share how we decided to do things.
Once we got together we laid out some ground rules.
  • Cell phones off (or at least on vibrate, so it's not distracting)
  • Meet on time
  • Talk about anything that's bothersome so we can make things work

We decided that we can always change or add to the basic rules as needed. I especially liked that we established an atmosphere of open communication.

The next step is to decide the process.
Establish an amount of writing to bring to each group. It could be 5 pages. Or, if you write like I do sometimes (in verse with a lot of white space) then it might make more sense to go by word count and say 2500 words. Make sure it's doable and that whatever amount you choose will work with whatever time constraints you have. Which leads me to the next issue of time. Maybe you have a lot of time, or you have a short amount of time. There are a few ways to work with either option.

If it's possible to send out manuscripts before meeting in person so everyone has a chance to read them then it will save time on reading it out-loud to the group. It will also allow for group members to jot down notes and come prepared to critique, making the process faster.

Something that helps keep things on time is to set a specific amount of time for each person. Say you're critiquing 5 pages (or 1250 words) then you might want to give each person 15 minutes. At that rate 4 writers would have the chance to be critiqued within an hour.
Designate a time-keeper, someone to set a timer or to watch and make sure that the exchanges are all on time.

Once that's all decided then you have to jump into the actual process.
Even if you send out manuscripts before hand so everyone can read them and be ready to comment, I suggest at least reading the first page or so when beginning. And of course it's an option to read the entire 5 pages (or whatever you decide) when you're all together.
I like to have someone else read my writing so I can see how someone else takes my writing. I know what I mean and I know what words to emphasize when I read aloud, but that doesn't always help my writing.

After reading the manuscript (or a segment) then I like to use this format:
  1. Compliments/good things/what works, etc.
  2. Constructive Criticism/Helps/what doesn't work/what's confusing, etc.
  3. Encourage writer to keep working/remind them of the good things

Just one last bit that I find absolutely critical to the process is that the person being critiqued must remain SILENT during the critique. This session is about listening to what others think and learning from them. It is not a time to get defensive or to explain what your intentions were--if you have to explain it then your writing isn't doing its job, and there's room for improvement.


  1. I like this post a lot. Rule #2 could really be used in my writing groups!

    In Sanderson's class we were always told to start with the positive things, but so frequently people would jump straight to the bad, and it drove me nuts, even when I wasn't the one being critiqued. Or, on the reviews givne back to me, every single comment was a "you need to fix this" one. I pointed it out once, and a friend told me "If I didn't comment on it, you did it right." But it's nice to know you did something right...

    I can handle criticism, but following rules like these would help a lot!

  2. It really does help to start with positive things. Because we work so hard on our manuscripts and we want to know that people appreciate it. I admit that even when people tell me that my piece has a great voice after I've heard fifteen others tell me the same thing, it still feels really good.

    It's definitely important to comment on the really good things in each others manuscripts because we need validation and it helps to know which things work.