I’m a member of various Facebook groups (God knows what information they are collecting about me) and I notice lots of writers asking about joining critique groups and how they work.
Keren David and I ran a Writing for Teens course at City Lit a while ago and developed some critiquing rules together for the workshop section of our first class. They must have worked because, two years down the line, that first group is still meeting. It helps that they are talented and dedicated of course.
Anyway, I use the rules with all the writing workshops and mentor groups I run, including the Writing For Children workshop at City Uni. These are for people meeting face to face. I’m interested to know what rules have worked for groups that communicate mostly online.
‘Rules’ seems a strong word – but that’s what they are. It helps if everyone knows what’s expected of them. But if one of them wasn’t working with a particular group, I would change it. The group dynamic is what matters.
Here are the 12. Let me know if you have different critique group rules of your own.
- Two, or max three, people get to share each time. Any more and the session is too long. Someone (me!) manages the rota to make sure everyone has a go.
- The word limit for a piece is 1500, but often it’s a bit less. If someone wants to share a longer scene or chapter in its entirety for a particular reason, they ask first and we see how the time goes. But 1500 words is a lot when you’re critiquing!
- We each have a printed copy in front of us. It varies as to who’s responsible for printing. Sometimes they’ve been circulated first and sometimes that’s not possible.
- Someone other than the writer reads out the piece. This was Keren’s idea and it’s my favourite one. The writer picks whoever they would like to do it, or someone volunteers. I think if you do nothing else, do this. As the writer, you learn as much from hearing your work read out by someone else as you do from all the comments. You can see what’s unintentionally confusing, and hear whether the rhythm and the structure works. You are forced to listen to it in one go (it’s not that bad, don’t worry!) without being able to tweak as you go – as you can with editing, so you get the chance to hear your writing voice properly. It’s a great discipline.
- There is a pause afterwards while everyone makes notes.
- We go round the group and everyone who wants to gets the chance to critique. If you don’t have anything to add, you can just say as much. Believe me that speeds things up and is so much better than simply repeating what’s already been said.
- Start with the positive, then move on to the bits you think can be improved. Really try to find that positive. We’re all sensitive artists, desperate for approval. We tried hard. We need it. Equally, there’s no point in just patting each other on the back. We’re there to get better, so insightful criticisms are useful. But try to limit it to three or four max. Nobody will remember a long list. Be brief, and make it count.
- Express your critique as your personal opinion and immediate reaction – which is what it is. Not ‘this is what is right and wrong and I’m giving you the benefit of my vast knowledge’. That just makes you seem patronising and lots of the group might be privately disagreeing with you. Unless you’re Stephen King or Neil Gaiman – in which case, fair enough. Probably.
- The tutor or mentor, if there is one, goes last. Which gives the opportunity to add things or if (as is often the case) the group has done a really good job of self-critiquing, we can merely highlight what we most agree with.
- Everyone, including the tutor, as an equal opinion. This is important too. There is no hierarchy of contributions. What matters is what inspires the writer to see what needs changing, and possibly how to do it. That could come from anyone.
- Equally, the writer does not have to take any of the opinions on board. He or she must listen, but that doesn’t mean he or she must act. You can quietly decide the group is mad and you hate all their ideas. But it’s funny what hits you later as more perceptive than it first appeared. For this reason, writers might comment on what really appealed to them if they like, but they can politely ignore what they don’t. There is no need to get defensive or argue. Just ignore and move on.
- The writer cannot say anything at all until everyone else (who wants to) has commented. This can feel extremely frustrating but it’s good discipline! It forces you to listen and not get into defensive mode. It helps you to see when someone didn’t understand your intentions, for example, and rather than simply explaining them then and there you can make a mental note to make them clearer in your writing. However, you can say whatever you need to at the end.
Happy writing! The best advice of all is just to keep doing it. Get a ‘dirty draft’ out there and then you can work on it. Don’t let perfectionism stop you. Writing is damn difficult, but just write …