View Full Version : Critique group blues

01-08-2014, 06:18 AM
I hope I'm posting in the right forum. I'm looking for some word of advice here.
We have a small but enthusiastic critique group of about twelve writers. Representing different genres of fiction, poets and a play writer. We meet every other week for a critique session. These sessions are getting overloaded with the amount of submissions. Last time we stretched ourselves to a 3-hour marathon and all we accomplished... half an hour discussion about the rules and critique for five pieces. That's about 30 minutes per submission, which roughly had been our pace so far.

Time for some changes, but what do we do? Do we implement tougher rules and try to get more organized? Place time limits on everyone, control the word count of the pieces, limit the number of total submissions? We would hate to break the group, but it keeps on growing and something needs to be done.
What's the right course of action in your experience? Thanks.

01-08-2014, 06:28 AM
Stop with the rules and just get on with it.

Groups create their own rules and regulations when left alone, so why establish them and try to make everyone hold fast to them when it's not working?

My local critique group just split up into mini groups, a lot of the time two people critiquing each other's work.

Also, having a mixed bunch can be nice, but I believe it can be harmful when a writer of a certain specialty will be critiquing work that they might not be very familiar with. Their opinions can be taken in the "general" section of readership, but if they are not a practitioner of that specific craft, or genre, their "expert" opinion IMO shouldn't hold more weight than a real expert's.

Karen Junker
01-08-2014, 06:49 AM
I've been in and run several critique groups. One group was mixed genres and large like yours. What we did in that group was each person was allowed to bring and read 3 pages (double spaced). Each person read their piece, then the others had a minute or two to make comments.

Reading the pages aloud allowed the critiquers to focus on the story, characters, dialogue and sound of the sentences. It did not allow us to nitpick punctuation, spelling and grammar.

We had a few people who would simply decline to comment on a piece, if it was not a genre in which they had any expertise. There was one guy, a lawyer, who picked apart wordiness like an axe-wielding picker-aparter.

Another of my critique groups breaks up into groups of 4. We submit up to 20 pages (double spaced) prior to the meeting. Everyone reads the submissions and we take around 3-4 minutes to comment on each one. We also print out written comments in a summary form, or the entire piece (with notes and comments or track changes) if nitpicking is what we want to do for that piece.

I'm sure there are other ways to handle it, but these are just a couple of different ways we handled our critique groups. Best wishes!

01-08-2014, 06:55 AM
You say the group keeps on growing. Perhaps it's time to close the door to new members, for one thing.

And then maybe you might experiment with a few different options and see which helps the group preserve its energy and enthusiasm the best. Maybe Will's idea of breaking into critique partners would work. Maybe limiting the number of pieces the group works with at a meeting could work.

It's been a while since I was in a live crit group, but the two I recall most clearly met once a week, and we did have time limits for how long the group would spend on any one piece.

At the beginning of a meeting you could see how many individual pieces there are to be worked on, and divvy up the available time, or else choose to work on fewer pieces at that meeting and save the others for the following one. (Three hours doesn't sound terribly long to me, if you have a couple of short breaks.)

I know some groups require everyone to submit in advance, and there is a strict limit to number of works, etc. (ETA: Like Karen mentioned; we cross posted. :) )

I think it's really a matter of the personality of the group, which will determine how you can best move forward and not lose the heart of it, and the enjoyment.

01-08-2014, 07:18 AM
I've run two critique groups, one for a lot of years.

There's no right way to fix the issues, but you all should probably have a meeting about critique group rather than what you all are writing. Possibilities to bring up:
Should we close the group to new members?
What is the ideal size for our group? As people leave, should we allow the group to shrink naturally?
Can we divide the group in half based on genre? Should we?
Should we set a time limit per critique?
Should we impose a page limit or word-count limit?
Should we meet more often so we can cover more material?
What else might we do to cover all the material?

If it were my decision, I'd probably split the group. In my experience, seven people actively writing will keep a group very busy, and five is better--but I'm a fan of everyone in the same or similar genres. (What do I know about poetry or TV scripts?)

Maryn, whose group is at three, but open to two more

01-08-2014, 07:42 AM
You could allot limited time to each piece, limit the amount each person can submit, there are lots of options.

IMHO selecting the people most willing to wade through unlimited amounts of material and lose half a day is not always the best choice.

My approach is 3000 word per people and keep to 2 hours or less. But then my group is down below the level it should be so what do I know.

01-08-2014, 07:49 AM
I have no idea how people manage a group of 12. We have six and that's pushing it for us. (We had it capped at 5, but had an inquiry that we couldn't pass up.) But we have a max page count of 30 and we try to keep it to 4 stories per session, 5 max. People are working on novels, so they have a lot to push through the group. If we add more people and down the page count, then everyone gets shafted.

*Note: We give pages ahead of time and everyone comes with physical printouts marked up.

I'd say we spend 30 min. settling in (chatting, ordering food, etc)
30 minutes per person
15 minutes wind-down time

3 hours is our average, but we've gone up to 4 at times.

A group of 12 is the average size of an MFA workshop. If that's your goal, then consider that in those 3 hours of workshop, 2 people would submit and we'd spend an hour on each (detailed critique), discuss craft, and then with any time left over, discuss any required readings we read for the day.

It really just depends on what you want. Like Maryn, it sounds like you need to have a meeting about the sessions (or a group email at the very least). Chances are, some might weed themselves out, but if you want to keep twelve, you'll continue to have time issues and submission issues unless you work with a queue and take half the group one week and half the other. It will slow some people down, though, who are trying to get longer works in.

Splitting the group might work. Or, for those wanting to get novels through (and have higher page counts), do some beta-reading on the side. Really depends on group dynamics.

01-08-2014, 07:07 PM
Our group tends to run about 12 people, but we don't do readings in group. Instead we submit ahead of time to a secure website and read all submissions before the meeting. People are supposed to make their "best effort" to prepare a written critique for each submission, but at the very least everyone is required to have read the pieces and be prepared for discussion.

We meet weekly for two hours on Sunday afternoons.

We also limit the word count per person per week. We have had occasional weeks where there were too many submissions for us to get through in our 2-hour meetings, but on average we have four submissions per week, which gives up plenty of time for discussion.

My brother's group runs differently. It's smaller, and they each read their submission and then verbally critique each other. They assign slots each meeting, and use a timer on the discussion. They generally have two submissions per meeting to review, and they go much more in depth in their discussion than we do.

We ran into a problem with our group a while back because we got too big, and people were not all contributing equally. Our original requirement was that each member had to submit 1000 words of writing each week - either as a submission or in critique - so the writers who were submitting a 3000 word chapter each week who didn't have any requirement to write critiques for others. We addressed it by asking what did each member need as a writer - not as a reader. That's how we came up with the "everyone must read every submission" rule, but became more lax on written critique requirements.

You need to ask the same thing. What do you need as writers? Then decide how the group can structure its priorities to address those needs.

Rhoda Nightingale
01-08-2014, 07:18 PM
Yeah, twelve sounds like a *lot* to gather each session for a critique. Also, submitting pieces beforehand and making sure people read them beforehand, so the meeting itself can be devoted to discussion, works pretty well for the groups I've been with.

We also take names at each meeting to decide who's submitting next time, when they should get their emails out to people, and how long the pieces are allowed to be. (Our cap is 15 pages per person, total of four submissions, for each session.) (Alternately, if someone simply must bring more than 15 pages, we ask them to bring print-outs for everyone at the preceding meeting so as not to break everyone else's printers.)

We've broken things up by genre before as well. That worked okay, but we had a much small sub-group when that happened.

01-08-2014, 07:38 PM
I want to thank everybody for sharing their experiences. Very informative.

We do submit beforehand to a shared folder on Google Drive. We capped the submissions to six for the next meeting. That created a waiting list.
We're currently trying to implement some rules to stay productive.
I suspect that at the end we still won't be able to accommodate all the submissions regardless of the draconian rules we put in place.

01-08-2014, 07:46 PM
it will be better to come up with a managed solution now then just see who leaves in annoyance. My group got up to those numbers and then underwent a spontaneous and not entirely peaceful split.

Rhoda Nightingale
01-08-2014, 08:03 PM
Honestly, I kind of surprised/impressed that you guys manage to all produce so much output on a regular basis! Our group sometimes struggles with "writer's block" or lack of confidence.

01-08-2014, 08:22 PM
I've participated in a group that allowed itself to explode. It's regularly at or near 20 members with pieces to read. They limit to two pages of 1.5 or double spacing. A couple of months ago, the group hit 30 people attending.

It just doesn't work at that size. The group does not submit ahead of time.. Most of them don't trust online. So we wind up reading, then going "around the table" and doing quick critiques. We've had to finagle the process pretty heavily to make it fit into three hours, and I won't defend the quality of the crits like that.

The group does not want to exclude people, but at some point, I think they'll be forced into it.

01-08-2014, 09:05 PM
There's a lot of great advice in this thread already, but I'll offer a few observations from my experience.

12 seems like an unwieldy number, not only in terms of the number of submissions to be read but also the number of people participating in discussion. My primary critique group is currently capped at 8, and I think it ran best when we had 6. Multiple viewpoints are great, but there comes a point at which everything that can be said about a piece has been said, and additional comments only prolong the discussion.

When you have that conversation about group function, be sure to consider not just what people want out of the group but also what they are able to put into it. My group meets monthly and we review 2-3 submissions of 25 pages each at each meeting. I would love to be able to submit more, but some of the members simply can't read more than that. For some, it's a stretch to produce 25 pages when their turn comes. So, while it's not ideal for the more prolific members of the group, we came up with a process that allows everyone to contribute equally.

We circulate submissions in advance and members are expected to bring written critiques to each meeting. We have kicked members out for not meeting this expectation. We have also kicked members out for inconsistent attendance (some were coming only when it was their turn to be critiqued).

Two things make this work: we have a group leader who's not afraid to act as enforcer, and we documented our guidelines in writing. The writing was particularly important, I think, because every member had a chance to sign off on the process, and when issues arise, we can say this is what you agreed to.

This group has been meeting for three years, and I would say it took almost two years, and several difficult conversations, for our current process to evolve. So, don't be surprised if you have to go through some growing pains to find what works for your group.

01-08-2014, 09:41 PM
I think crit groups almost have to have a word count maximum. What that maximum is depends on your members, but I'd suggest something like 2,000 words.

Other than that, I think the only worthwhile rules are:

1. If someone is critiquing what you wrote, you're only response should be:
A) Thank you, or
B) If needed, a request for clarification.

2. All critiques should be limited to the writing in question. No one should be critiquing the writer as a person.

3. Majority vote kicks someone out of the group in a worst case scenario.

01-08-2014, 10:58 PM
Yeah, we also tended to weed out inactive members. If someone didn't submit for 6 weeks, we would address that. If they just wanted to read, then they could do that for folks outside the group (beta reader). If they wanted to submit, they could stay in the group.

01-08-2014, 11:05 PM
I stopped going to, or believing in, critique groups after my first few stories got blasted by such groups, and each story sold to national magazines first time out, and without changes. These were not Aunt Goldie, Uncle Bob critique groups. Each contained professional writers. One contained several professional writers.

Instead, I started going to writer's groups, otherwise known as "bitch and whine" groups. Well, not really a writer's group, but just a group of writers.

We meet at restaurants, or at the library. Our library has a snack/sandwhich/drink area, so it's much the same thing. We talk about pubishers, about books we've read, or want to read, about editor and agents. We talk about our successes and failures. We talk about writing, too. We discuss everything from good dialogue to bad characterization.

But we never, ever critique any member's writing. We don't need to. What we do works just fine, and every writer in the group has managed to be published more than a few times.

Every so many years, a member moves away, and we bring in a new member. We make it clear we do not do critique. We just talk, discuss, bitch and whine. It's all fun. It keeps us all going. But it's instructional, too, and we all learn from it.

01-08-2014, 11:07 PM
Wow. A library with snacks! How cool is that? :D

01-08-2014, 11:08 PM
My (online, meets via Google Hangounts) crit group has a fairly flexible policy of "no more than 3 pieces, 15,000 words total" per session. We extend that to 30k for novel chunks if we're doing someone's novel, which we've so far done all in a sequence (we'll take two months and go through without a break).

That lets us do our meeting in about two hours. It's worked great so far though we've only been meeting for six months or so and we took NaNo off (had virtual write-ins on group night)

Basically, we took our rules from how the pro we got advice about running a online crit group said she did hers.

01-09-2014, 01:13 AM
Very interesting discussion. I appreciate the insights.
I'm gonna share the thread with my critique group. Right now five out of six submissions for the next meeting are the leftovers from the previous meetings. We'll definitely need to implement some changes as the pile keeps on growing. Part of it is that 5 or 6 of us have full length novels and are feeding submissions one chapter at a time. That alone puts the group over the limits.

01-09-2014, 02:06 AM
Very interesting discussion. I appreciate the insights.
I'm gonna share the thread with my critique group. Right now five out of six submissions for the next meeting are the leftovers from the previous meetings. We'll definitely need to implement some changes as the pile keeps on growing. Part of it is that 5 or 6 of us have full length novels and are feeding submissions one chapter at a time. That alone puts the group over the limits.

Yeah, and people who want their group to get through the novel (someday, because let's face it, someone might want to submit it, right?) having to wait 2-3 weeks to get in 1-2 chapters is like being nibbled to death by cats.