How should we structure our critique group?

Posted on October 26, 2007

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A group of us children’s writers got together at a recent conference and decided to form a critique group. We agreed to meet once a month since some of us will have to drive quite a distance, but other than that we don’t really have any structure and don’t really know what to do next or how to set up our meetings. Could you please give us some suggestions?

Your question reminds me of the first-ever critique group I joined. There were five members. It was before the internet so we met once a month at the local college, hardly often enough to get to know and trust one another. The woman who started the group appointed herself as Madam President and charged 50 cents dues each meeting. She also pounded a gavel liberally, much to my amusement. Every month we read and critiqued Madam President’s work and if there was time, someone else got a turn. She also made up her own rules, which meant we were expected to praise her work while she belittled everyone else’s efforts.

Therefore Lesson #1 in how NOT to conduct a critique group is: Avoid choosing a leader, or appointing yourself as the leader. It’s important for every member to be involved in making decisions about the structure and guidelines so you can address individual concerns and needs. The structure of your sessions will depend on how many members you have, their experience, and whether they write novels or picture books.

Look at how other critique groups are structured and borrow from them. At the Children Come First (CCF) website you can find their Writers’ Group Guidelines and the guidelines from another critique group in Colorado Springs. I like these structures because both groups stress the importance of “no homework”, meaning it’s not advisable to spend your time reading and editing other writers’ work between meetings. Writers should spend their time writing. 

The CCF Writers’ Group also has a private listserv. Since you will be meeting only once a month and some of your members are driving quite a distance, I suggest that you set up a private Yahoo group for your members. That way you can keep in touch as a group and begin planning your structure without anyone having to drive to a meeting. Once you establish your group online, you can begin exchanging manuscripts by email and mail.

Online critique groups are an efficient addition to in-person meetings. You can still meet once a month to discuss the writing process, contests, and markets. Incorporating an online connection will give your members more options and a quicker response. For example, let’s say an editor asks you to make some changes in your picture book manuscript and invites you to re-submit. You wouldn’t want to wait a month to run the suggestions by your members and get their advice. You would want to have their input as soon as possible. If you establish an online critique group, you can get almost instant feedback to help you through the revision process.

Your members will probably bring many different levels of experience to the group. So it’s a good idea for them to read and understand how to offer a critique and how to receive it. At the Short Story Group web site you will find detailed guidelines for making the most of your critiquing sessions, including how to consider character, pacing, and dialogue, among others. The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Group web site also publishes Critique Guidelines with suggestions for good critique etiquette. Your group can avoid a lot of hassles and misunderstandings by adhering to firm guidelines when it comes to discussing each other’s work.

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