Starting a Critique Group – Critique Series Part 3
March 11, 2019
I’m so excited to share this third segment in my series on critiquing because it’s the topic I’m most passionate about. I’m passionate about anything where the main goal is forming mutually beneficial relationships to create fabulous art. In a critique group, the relationships rely on honesty, kindness, reciprocity, and support. Once you understand what you want from a critique relationship and where to find potential partners, the next step is working together to create the best art you can. To do that, you’ll need to have some details worked out. The first of which is group structure.
Establishing the Group’s Structure
What’s Your Availability?
It’s a good idea to start with an objective look at how much time you can dedicate to starting and managing a critique group. Providing valuable feedback consumes resources and eats into your own writing time. You also have to manage the group in terms of facilitating meetings and guidelines. This requires dedicated commitment. In my opinion, the benefits you get from the group far outweigh the work involved. Still, be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to commit to in terms of time and consistency. You don’t want to be a few months in and realize you’re feeling overwhelmed. Co-leading is an option if you find someone willing to pitch in.
Establish the Structure
Once you have a good handle on how much you can commit to, it’s easier to decide the structure of the group. Structure includes things like meeting time and frequency, how many members to have based on your time availability, word count and submission deadlines, and so on. The list below will help you establish group guidelines. This is the basic structure of the critique group I manage, the Tall Pines Fiction Writers.
What genre(s) your group will accept?
Decide if you want to limit the genres your group will review. Stick to genre(s) you’re confident you can provide solid, comprehensive feedback for. Plus, if there is a genre that you simply detest, you can decide not to allow that in the group. Hard passes are welcome here.
How many members will the group have maximum?
Keep in mind that the more members submitting the maximum word count means more reading time is required of everyone. Setting limits in the beginning helps keep things manageable for all members.
When Will You Meet?
Whether you intend to meet online or in person, choosing a consistent meeting schedule is crucial. My group meets every other Wednesday from 5-7 pm at the same quiet location. We are flexible and will move meeting dates as needed, but there are only five of us. The more people in the group, the harder it is to accommodate everyone all of the time.
Set a Deadline for Submissions
In my group, we must e-mail our work for critique by midnight one week prior to the next meeting. For us that means by midnight the Wednesday before we meet. This makes sure everyone has one week to read all the work submitted and make their notes and comments.
A Word Count Limit
We instituted a four-thousand word limit in order to be respectful of everyone’s time and other commitments. If four members are submitting 4k works that means you have one week to read and critique 16k words. We found more than that was burdensome for folks.
Not everyone has to submit work for every meeting
I’ve heard of other groups that require you submit something for critique, even if it’s only a paragraph. I see the reason for that but we decided to forgo that rule. Life is so busy for everyone that we know it’s hard to find time to write. Instead, we ask that members do their best to participate fully even if they aren’t submitting their won’t work. That means still coming to meetings and critiquing the other submissions.
Adhere to the group Guidelines
Whatever the group guidelines are, it’s important that they be followed. As the facilitator, it’s up to you to set a good example. I’ll share the Tall Pines Fiction Writers Guidelines below to give you an idea.
Once you have these basics nailed down, you can either start looking for and selecting members then decide the group’s guidelines together, or decide the guidelines yourself and then open for membership. Personally, I prefer the former. I feel like folks are more invested if they get a say in the rules, and who wants to be in uber control anyway?
Selecting & Screening Members
Submitting for Membership
In part two of this series, I laid out some ways to find compatible critique partners so I won’t re-hash that here. Once those considerations are covered, it’s time to go a level deeper by asking prospective members to submit a writing sample and synopsis of their WIP for consideration. The sample can be anything that fits your genre criteria and any length you stipulate. The big question to ask yourself while reviewing submissions is “can I bring value to this writer and their work?” Give this serious thought. Be honest and remember it’s not personal if the answer to that question is no.
Invite Them To Observe a Meeting
From there, you can decide what to do next. I recommend inviting them to a meeting to observe and get a feel for if the group is right for them. This gives the group a chance to see whether or not the new member’s personality will mesh with the group. Next, ask them to agree to a trial period.
Establishing a Trial Period
A trial period is exactly what it sounds like. Think of it like the probation period when you start a new job. Make the time period any length you want, but doing this will serve a few purposes. First, it gives everyone a graceful “out” if things go south in terms of personality. Secondly, it provides a mechanism for the group to reject a new member for not meeting expectations. Make it clear that the group will meet at the end of the trial period to vote on a final acceptance.
Turning Someone Down
The insurance in having all of these steps is that if at any point in the process you or the group don’t feel like someone is the right fit, you can’t reject their application. Writers should be used to getting rejected. Having a process like this gives you graceful outs just in case. Always be classy, respectful, and try not to make it personal.
Setting Guidelines & Expectations
It took my group a few years to put together the guidelines below and they work well for us. See what works for your group and the personalities in it. No mater what you decide, guidelines are important because they provide a basic framework to set expectations. Make them as free-spirited or specific as you like, but try to make sure everyone agrees on them.
My hope is that this series has helped you meet some kindred spirits that encourage you to grow as a writer. I offer only my own experience and what works for my group, but I hope it provides a good starting point for you. In the next and last post in the series, I’ll talk about how to be a good critique partner and cover things like providing constructive feedback and how not to take criticism personally. Until then, happy writing!