A few months ago, I started a writing group. I did what I was supposed to. I researched how to start it, run it, and what the basic rules should be. Should’ve been easy. In some ways it was, but it wasn’t in others. After some trial and error, here are a few things everyone needs to know to have a fantastically functioning writing group.
Starting a critique group is easy enough if you have other writers who are looking for one. But how many is too little and how many is too big? This may vary to individual taste, but remember that you will have to read X number of manuscript excerpts from your group members. And you’ll be spending at least five minutes listening to X amount of critiques for every X amount of excerpts at each meeting. Writing groups are better in smaller numbers, 3 to 6 is good for meetings held in person. Online groups can increase this number if they wish because no one has to sit through meetings that constantly run over.
Always, always, always (and one more for good measure) ALWAYS read manuscripts before meetings. Not only is reading excerpts at the meetings excessively, and unnecessarily time consuming, no one can get an effective critique out of it. No matter how slowly it may be read, if someone sees an edit or wants to make a note, by the time they’re done, they’ve missed a whole sentence…maybe more. They may be confused because of the small amount of text they missed while they were jotting in the margins. Also, it’s hard to come up with critiques and praise right on the spot. Even if they happen to catch every little thing you read to them, they haven’t had time to contemplate your passage fully. You’re probably only getting half the critique you could get.
If you’re group members read it beforehand, they will be able to give you better feedback, which is what this is about. We’re not there to stroke each other’s egos, though that’s nice, we are there to improve. You don’t have to agree with everyone. You’re the writer. Use your judgement. Just read them before meetings, so you can get the best feedback and dish it out as well.
The rules will be different for every group, but there are some things that should not be negotiable.
- The person in the “hot seat” is not allowed to speak unless asked a specific question. Period. The last thing you want is to turn this into a high school debate tournament, you versus the naysayers.
- No one is allowed to defend their work. Your work shouldn’t need defending. Your work isn’t a damsel in distress, and if it is, you gotta fix it. You manuscript should speak for itself, otherwise, it needs work.
- When critiquing, always begin with a compliment. We’re there to help each other out, not tear down hopes of publication. Be honest. Again, no ego strokes or sugar-coating, just genuine praise. Everyone wants to know what, in fact, works and what doesn’t. Remember the good things and speak up.
- Have an exit strategy in place. Best way to do this is…anyone can leave at anytime. No questions asked. People use the group when they need it, but if it’s not helping them, if they’re taking a break, or just don’t have time to spare, it’s up to them…or you.
This step is the most crucial. Out of everything, this is the one where you have to be brutal. Only people who fit in can be in the group. But you’ve known each other since college, he’s your neighbor, she’s in your carpool – I don’t care – writing groups need to have compatible personalities. And just because you like them as people doesn’t mean that you jive as writers. You may hate someone personally, but as critiquers you may suddenly get along. If this means that you make your group a Middle-Grade Space Opera Writing Group or a Suspense Thriller Erotica Writing Group, then do it. If you like the versatility, great, but make sure everyone works well together.
This is where trial periods for new members is needed. Ease them in. You want it to be good fit for both the newcomer and the seasoned. If both parties are happy with the addition, congrats. But if one side isn’t willing, it’s no skin off anyone’s nose. Never discount the importance of group compatibility, because it’s one mistake you would never make again.
So, go start a group. Don’t make it fussy. Just set up a time that people can meet, and do it. Enjoy!