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Guidelines to Forming an In-Person Critique Group

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Maryn

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This is massive. Get a beverage and settle in.

A critique group I co-founded celebrated its twenty-ninth year of existence in June. We made some blunders early on, are not as diverse as we'd like to be, and had a few wild rides and one major disagreement that broke the group in two, yet the core group continues. This is a guideline to how you might be able to form a similar group that works for you.

MEMBERS
Finding members is difficult. Finding members who are a good fit is vital.

Where to find potential members? Post fliers for a meet-and-greet anywhere readers go: libraries, bookstores, coffeehouses, senior centers, and the neighborhoods near colleges and universities, from bars and restaurants to laundromats. Post about it online at sites aimed at your town, city, or area or at writers anywhere. Post it to Twitter, Facebook, MeetUp, Craigslist, NextDoor, and anywhere else local writers might see it online.

It helps a group enormously if its genre focus is narrow and its membership broad, mixing men and women, young and old, various income levels, races or ethnicities, political and social viewpoints, etc. Put your fliers where all kinds of people will see them.

While it's tempting to be open to anyone who wants to join, members with very poor writing skills suck a group's time and energy while giving back little more than good intentions. In my experience, members who write poorly often accept all corrections with good cheer and repeat the errors, learning nothing. How can you be sure members have basic mastery of written English? Some groups require membership in a writing organization, enrollment in a college writing course, or a short writing sample.

The person starting a group should consider the type of writing they do and what support they need to get better. A group which is open to all fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, poetry, graphic novels, picture books, and fetish erotica may not be capable of helping anyone improve. If the founder writes science fiction, s/he should seek others who write it, too, or at least read it.

Be aware that if manuscripts might include anything to which any parent might object (strong language, violence, drug use, sexual content, even political or religious messages), members who are not legal adults can be problematic.

MEET POTENTIAL MEMBERS
The group's founder should arrange to meet people who are interested in a writing group at least two different times. Weekends and evenings work best for most adults. Since this is a drop-by-and-meet situation which won't take much time for anyone but the founder, times need not match those of meetings.

Consider scheduling to make it easy for someone to stop by on the way home from work, or while running weekend errands. Consider more than one location, making it easy for urban and suburban writers to find you, college students lacking cars to reach you, or whatever else seems apt.

Take care to choose places easy to find, with plentiful free parking, and safe for people arriving alone, especially at night. A table at a few public libraries might suit your purposes – and the librarians will be happy to direct people to you.

Your fliers in public places should specify the place and time of your meet-and-greet and who is encouraged to come. (SciFi Writing Group forming. Writers seeking paid publication can learn more at the Downdown Library, Saturday August 20th, 12-3)

Be a little early and snag a large table. Make yourself easily identifiable with a SCIFI WRITERS GROUP sign propped against books. For your own comfort, bring a friend or family member, even if s/he doesn't write. Two people who appear friendly and comfortable are more approachable than one who seems nervous or bored. Spread copies of favorite reads on the table; they make good conversation starters for the people who approach you.

Have a sheet for each drop-in where people share their name, email, phone number, what genres they like to read, what kind of fiction they want to write, and any schedule preference they have for meetings. When they leave, write yourself notes on how you’ll remember that person and tuck the sheet away. Why? Because there's a decent chance you'll get a bad vibe off somebody and not want them in your group. You need to know who that person is. It’s also helpful to remember who’s who in general. Tip: If you decide to use a single sheet, do not take last names or addresses. That predatory-seeming person should not see that information.

Use your contact information for everyone who might be interested. Send an email about the first meeting and a text about one or two additional meetings, always giving place, date,and time. After that, you can assume anyone who hasn't yet attended isn't going to. Do not give out everyone’s email in a group mailing; use BCC and mail it to yourself as the main recipient.

You're likely to have people who never show up, and maybe others who want to bring a friend who also writes. It's helpful to be flexible about the size of a group. Groups of five to ten people can work even if someone must skip a few meetings, without being so large there's too much material.

SCHEDULING MEETINGS
The group's founder gets to establish when and where the group will meet. Pick a time which works for you and is likely to remain ideal. Weekends or early evenings work best for most adults.

Again, you want a place easy to find with lots of free parking, safe for anyone alone. Don't overlook public transportation routes and handicap accessibility. If you choose a coffeehouse or restaurant, make sure it's affordable and that a group will be welcome to linger rather than expected to clear out for other patrons. In general, bars make poor meeting places unless and until a group is well established and could meet anywhere. Consider a meeting room at a library or bookstore, where no one is obliged to buy anything, not even a beverage. Meeting at someone’s home is less than ideal; they will need to clean and may feel the obligation to feed people as well.

As founder, you determine how often you'll meet. Members need time to read, critique, and to write. For many groups, every other week or once a month works. Only if your group is very small should you move a meeting to accommodate a single member's needs.

You're the de facto leader unless and until the group decides it wants an official leader. (Most groups don't need one, just volunteers to handle various needs as they arise.) Start on time and set a time the meeting ends. The first several meetings will be about establishing how you will all work together while you also get to know one another. An hour might be sufficient.

GROUP GOALS
The members must either agree on a common goal or accept all goals and whatever standards they require.

A goal of paid commercial publication sets the bar high in terms of quality – maybe too high for the beginner, the poorly educated, the non-reader, the person whose native language is not English, or the writer lacking confidence in their skills.

However, if the goal is set lower, some members invariably interpret that as tacit permission not to write their very best and to accept poor writing from others. This may open the group to the attitude that mastery of writing mechanics – grammar, punctuation, word usage, spelling--is not important.

A group that exists to support one another in all members' writing goals, from paid publication to self-discovery, can work, if that's what all the members agree to do, and if they're all able to change gears for each person's manuscript. The members who aspire to paid publication may appreciate support in a group like this but not get much from it that improves their writing skills. They will be the first to leave.

WHAT HAPPENS AT MEETINGS
As the members grow comfortable with one another, it's important that you interrupt any socializing to start the writing group meeting on time. Unless and until you all focus on the meeting's purpose, you and others may need to draw the group's attention back to the task at hand repeatedly.

It's up to the founder and the members to establish what takes place at your meetings. This is something to discuss before "working meetings" begin. Allow one or two meetings to hash it out.
  • How will manuscripts be formatted? Is there agreement on what submission format means? Is there a single source we can agree to use?
  • How will manuscripts be distributed? Does everyone have the necessary internet access and computer skills to do digital-only? Are there advantages to paper copies? Can all members afford paper copies for distribution?
  • Will we read manuscripts aloud? Will we read them silently during meetings?
  • What length manuscripts are acceptable? Will we use pages or word count?
  • How will members provide feedback, aloud or in writing or both?
  • How do we critique? How do we mark errors, make comments, ask or raise questions, etc. on the manuscript? Will we do any overview as part of the critique process, noting general strengths and areas of concern?
  • What kinds of critique are unacceptable? What will we do if a member does this?
  • Will members be required to provide writing for critique on a schedule?
  • What happens if someone does not have critique ready? What if one person often isn't ready?
  • What happens if someone never provides his or her writing for critique?
  • What is the person whose work is being critiqued allowed to do in his or her reaction?
  • What will the group do if a member's behavior is not acceptable, from hostile reaction to feedback to not paying their share of any tab to writing others find morally repugnant?
When the members have reached agreement on how the meetings themselves will operate, write it up and give a copy to everyone.

My longstanding group founded in 1992:
  • Has a single genre in which we write.
  • Is leaderless, although volunteers maintain email and phone lists, contact everyone if a meeting cancels, reserve meeting space, arrange video meetings, etc.
  • Limits manuscripts for critique to 5,000 words.
  • Agreed on a submission format with line spacing, margins, and font size requirements.
  • Starts on time. Members may arrive early to socialize.
  • Never reads manuscripts at meetings, silently or aloud.
  • Produces both an overview, a half page to no more than two pages, and a marked manuscript for each work being critiqued.
  • Critiques on a printed copy which is given to the author at the end of the last critique along with the overview.
  • Has the critic put their name on their overview and sign page one of the marked manuscript, so the author knows the source of all feedback.
  • Assigns the author responsibility for providing or arranging for printed copies. (Not all members have internet, working printers, sufficient ink, etc.) Some members are able to print manuscripts at home; others receive a paper copy as a meeting ends.
  • Uses all of our meeting time to deliver critique overview aloud, reading from written copy.
  • Asks that the author not respond to critique as it’s being read aloud. Anything unclear in a critique can be discussed between critic and author after the meeting.
  • Demands that the author not defend or explain the manuscript aloud at any time, since the story or book will never have that opportunity and needs to stand on its own as written.
  • Does not assign a due date for anyone to produce a manuscript. If you have two members who write quite a bit and the group meets every three or four weeks, usually there’s something distributed for the next meeting.
  • Allows long-time members who are no longer writing to remain in the group so long as they complete critiques for other members.
  • Expects critique overview to include what’s good about the manuscript and close with encouragement.
  • Asks novelists presenting new chapters to include a single-page summary of the story so far.
  • Caps meetings at two hours. Occasionally a few members opt to stay late to finish something or to socialize.
  • Uses remaining time of meetings less than two hours to brainstorm, discuss, or otherwise support one another.
  • Meets at a public place that sells food and beverages, but not alcohol.
  • Shares calls for manuscripts.
  • Celebrates sales, “good” rejections, the completion of large or difficult writing projects, etc. and commiserates as needed.
Maryn, going to a virtual meeting on Thursday
 

Maryn

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Nah, I'm just a hippie-type, like the rich ones I used to see in urban centers Back East, way back when. Torn jeans, five hundred-dollar cashmere peacoat.
 

Introversion

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Torn jeans, five hundred-dollar cashmere peacoat.
Probably pre-torn too, you fashion elite, you.

bezoar, noun
A calcification or other solid found in the stomach of a mammal, especially ruminants. Once thought to be an antidote to poisons or to have magical properties.
First haggis, now this. People are strange. "Hey, here's this rock I found in cow guts! It's probably magic, I should definitely slap a cobra and find out."

Edited to add: Sorry for the derail. It's hard to be an extreme introvert and think about joining an in-person crit group. I get a knot in my stomach just thinking of it. Would you never recommend forming a group that allows members that are only remote, interacting by email, etc?
 
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Unimportant

but appreciated anyway...
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Probably pre-torn too, you fashion elite, you.


First haggis, now this. People are strange. "Hey, here's this rock I found in cow guts! It's probably magic, I should definitely slap a cobra and find out."

Edited to add: Sorry for the derail. It's hard to be an extreme introvert and think about joining an in-person crit group. I get a knot in my stomach just thinking of it. Would you never recommend forming a group that allows members that are only remote, interacting by email, etc?
:) "slap a cobra" had me giggling.

Every crit group I've been in has been remote. Most of 'em worked fine.
 

Maryn

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I wasn't the elite hippie. I was the one who wore her jeans clean out, then turned them into a skirt, and later made a purse out of what remained. When I met Mr. Maryn, he had a WWII peacoat, scratchy as can be. I believe our daughter wears it now.

Obviously I need to change my learn-a-word. I never know how long to leave them around. I'll try to find one that's interesting.

Oh, right, we had a topic. I've never been in a not-in-person critique group that worked, except the in-person one during COVID, and even that one's not thriving like it has in the past. In the ones I tried, it seemed like people split into Entirely Too Kind, who were loath to point out anything negative that wasn't also minor, like punctuation errors, typos, etc., and Vicious Nasties, who delighted in savaging anything that had some good (and often its author, too). I'm sure the fact that they didn't have to look you in the face to say that was a factor.

Maryn, not a big fan of humans overall
 

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I've seen pros and cons of virtual meetup.

It's great to connect with writers all over the world for a dozen different reasons. I do miss the in-person aspect.

Maryn, thank you for the comprehensive post. I've seen your similar one before. It's very good.

I'd add that as a solo writer, you don't need to marry any particular group. Play the field, what the hell, and take what you can from each group. One group I'm in is very good about topics like echo words and clarity. Another is good about tension and verisimilitude. Another is good with marketing.

And it's nice to network.
 
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llyralen

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Thank you very much, Maryn!
Awesome stuff!
 
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Maryn

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Sure, I'm happy to answer questions. Probably not useful for anyone not in the process of forming a group, but I'm glad to help one individual who is.

What kind of places do you guys meet when it isn’t online? You said public with food or drink that can be purchased? Do you have examples of places that work for that?

We initially met at a bar-and-restaurant place because it was located close to where we'd met taking a writing class. Our group was large and they had tables that could accommodate us. Months in, when our waiter realized it was a writing group, he had to tell us all about his writing for fifteen minutes. At the next meeting we made sure we didn't get one of his tables, but he swapped and did it again, even sitting down with us. This was not working. (For old time's sake, we met there for our final in-person meeting before I moved away.)

For quite some time we met at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant that wasn't doing a lot of weeknight business and didn't mind if we lingered. Then one member lost her job and could not afford to go out to dinner. She did not want our collective charity. So we started meeting at coffeehouses where she'd just get water. Some were okay, some were loud, some wanted table turnover.

After our group split in two and my cadre was small, we started meeting at a Panera Bread at the end of their lunch rush, since there was zero demand for tables. People who wanted to eat could eat and people who just got a free water were at ease. While several of us were working, a particular weekday happened to be convenient for all.

If nothing is read, are the works/critiques discussed out loud? And the writer is not allowed to defend? Do they discuss the critiques too, though? Or stay relatively quiet during critique?

Each critique overview is read aloud. The author (and other members) do not interrupt. There is sometimes brief discussion at the end of the last one by the critics but without the author's input. "I can't agree with you on X" or "Did you really not get Y? It seems obvious to me." That kind of thing.

The writer is obliged to thank people and if time permits, can very briefly discuss the parts of the critiques s/he found useful after all have been read. No explanation or defense of the work is permitted. None. As I said, the work has to stand alone, like it will in the hands of the buying public. If something will become clear later, or makes sense only if you remember Z from page one, and multiple readers didn't get it, then the author needs to fix that, not explain it to us.

Would you say four 5000 word manuscripts for 1 month is a good load to start with? The leader decides what will be critiqued that meeting? Basically, people submit to the leader first?

That might be a fairly heavy load if the people in the group are thorough. It takes me two or three hours per manuscript to read, mark up on a second reading, then write an overview. Depending on how busy people are and how in-depth they critique, it could be a struggle to do a good job on four. If some of the members are less skilled, markup can take a long, long time.

That said, our group met every two weeks most of the time, so four in a month would be doable. I found I had time for three, max, and preferred one or two.

We did not submit to a leader who then distributed on some sort of schedule. Our group runs leader-free.

At the end of each meeting people distribute print copies (or in later years, some print copies for the people unable to print and some agreements to email) without anyone scheduling whose turn it was. I can count on one hand the times too many were offered. Each time, someone offered to hold it back for the next time.

FWIW, it might be wise to establish a policy that specifies how often a person must submit something as well as how often they can. You can weed out people who rarely write and people who'd happily take far more than their share of the group's resources.

Maryn, still bitter at the person who overused the group
 

llyralen

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Sure, I'm happy to answer questions. Probably not useful for anyone not in the process of forming a group, but I'm glad to help one individual who is.

What kind of places do you guys meet when it isn’t online? You said public with food or drink that can be purchased? Do you have examples of places that work for that?

We initially met at a bar-and-restaurant place because it was located close to where we'd met taking a writing class. Our group was large and they had tables that could accommodate us. Months in, when our waiter realized it was a writing group, he had to tell us all about his writing for fifteen minutes. At the next meeting we made sure we didn't get one of his tables, but he swapped and did it again, even sitting down with us. This was not working. (For old time's sake, we met there for our final in-person meeting before I moved away.)

For quite some time we met at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant that wasn't doing a lot of weeknight business and didn't mind if we lingered. Then one member lost her job and could not afford to go out to dinner. She did not want our collective charity. So we started meeting at coffeehouses where she'd just get water. Some were okay, some were loud, some wanted table turnover.

After our group split in two and my cadre was small, we started meeting at a Panera Bread at the end of their lunch rush, since there was zero demand for tables. People who wanted to eat could eat and people who just got a free water were at ease. While several of us were working, a particular weekday happened to be convenient for all.

If nothing is read, are the works/critiques discussed out loud? And the writer is not allowed to defend? Do they discuss the critiques too, though? Or stay relatively quiet during critique?

Each critique overview is read aloud. The author (and other members) do not interrupt. There is sometimes brief discussion at the end of the last one by the critics but without the author's input. "I can't agree with you on X" or "Did you really not get Y? It seems obvious to me." That kind of thing.

The writer is obliged to thank people and if time permits, can very briefly discuss the parts of the critiques s/he found useful after all have been read. No explanation or defense of the work is permitted. None. As I said, the work has to stand alone, like it will in the hands of the buying public. If something will become clear later, or makes sense only if you remember Z from page one, and multiple readers didn't get it, then the author needs to fix that, not explain it to us.

Would you say four 5000 word manuscripts for 1 month is a good load to start with? The leader decides what will be critiqued that meeting? Basically, people submit to the leader first?

That might be a fairly heavy load if the people in the group are thorough. It takes me two or three hours per manuscript to read, mark up on a second reading, then write an overview. Depending on how busy people are and how in-depth they critique, it could be a struggle to do a good job on four. If some of the members are less skilled, markup can take a long, long time.

That said, our group met every two weeks most of the time, so four in a month would be doable. I found I had time for three, max, and preferred one or two.

We did not submit to a leader who then distributed on some sort of schedule. Our group runs leader-free.

At the end of each meeting people distribute print copies (or in later years, some print copies for the people unable to print and some agreements to email) without anyone scheduling whose turn it was. I can count on one hand the times too many were offered. Each time, someone offered to hold it back for the next time.

FWIW, it might be wise to establish a policy that specifies how often a person must submit something as well as how often they can. You can weed out people who rarely write and people who'd happily take far more than their share of the group's resources.

Maryn, still bitter at the person who overused the group
Thank you very much! This really helps!

Yeah, I didn’t know if I was asking too much, your original post is really wonderfully thorough!

The waiter caper was funny! It would not have seemed funny at the time, of course.

My ideas are coming on where and who, etc. Thank you very much.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away