When the deed is done: How to run an effective writer’s critique group

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
      — Larry L. King, WD

Once the writing is done, you should definitely pop a champagne and celebrate.

But guess what happens next?

You can either have a sucky first draft of your novel forever, or you can get stuck into editing it.

Unfortunately, almost everyone is absolutely terrible at seeing the story issues or the misspellings in their own writing, so you need a writers’ critique group (a “crit group”).

So how do you find a good group? What should you be looking for when you need someone to really dig into your work (a critiquer or “critter”)?

What should you focus on when it’s your turn to crit someone else’s work?

And what should you be aiming for when you are the one running the crit group?

I ran the Dugong Writer’s Critique Group for two years as Facilitator and served as Secretary for two years before that while it was run by our founder, Grace Dugan, author of The Silver Road (ebook available from Penguin or on Kindle from Amazon). The group ran from 2007 through 2010 and we learned many valuable lessons from the experience.

Read on for tips not just from my group, but also from BWF presenters Vision Writers Group and memoir author Claire Dunne.

Today’s post will be charmingly illustrated by the creative folk worldwide who put captions on photos of cats.

How to find a critique group, and what to look for in a good one:

You can usually find good critique groups through your state writers’ association (here in Queensland, it’s the Queensland Writers Centre, who have a list here). But if there are no groups near you, or if you write in a very niche genre, there are millions of group forums online where you can get feedback on your work from other writers in your genre.

What to look for:

  • Critiquers who will be firm but fair.
    • A good critter doesn’t apologise for their opinions or back down if you don’t like what they said.
    • A good crit attacks your story, not your choice to write that story.
  • Critiquers who write well themselves.
    • If you’re jealous of someone else’s writing, study the stories they’ve written, then listen hard to their crits of your story.
  • Critiquers who write differently to you.
    • When I was writing fantasy, I struggled with creating 3D characters, so I asked specific critiquers from the real-life drama genre to tackle my work from the character angle.
  • Critiquers who attack story problems, not just grammar and punctuation.
    • Inexperienced critiquers will often just present you with a proofread or line edit of your story. Experienced critters know how to pick out the broader character, plot and style issues that are hindering your story.
What a bad critter sounds like Image source: Avid Mystery Reader blog

What a bad critter sounds like
Image source: Avid Mystery Reader blog

What to focus on when you critique someone else’s writing:

When I was studying my Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) at QUT, our lecturers provided us with a basic template for critiquing someone else’s writing. Your critique might consider the following elements in your fellow writer’s story:

  • Narrative point of view – is the choice of narration or POV appropriate for the story? Is it effectively used in the story?
  • Characterisation – is it convincing? Do the characters have psychological or sociological underpinning, logical motivation, human insight, and character development?
  • Structure – is the story well-structured? Effective beginning, close (ending), narrative complications, or developments that build to the climax?
  • Language – is the use of language effective, fresh, or vivid?
  • Use of other writing techniques – are description, exposition, portrayal or recreation of scenes, and dialogue put to good use?
  • Voice / style – is the writing style convincing, engaging, and appropriate to the story?
  • Theme – does there seem to be an underlying theme or idea that is evoked, even if subtly and indirectly?
  • Wider impact – does the writing have a resonance beyond the immediate scene or setting? This could be achieved by imagery, description, social insight, etc.
  • Emotional impact – what does the reader feel, and how is that emotional impact created? (The impact could be excitement, pathos, humour, outrage, boredom, fear, etc.)
  • Inventiveness, wit, imaginative power – is the story original?
  • Believability – do all details of the story form a logical and coherent whole?
  • Does the writer “show not tell” in their story – do they dramatise or recreate and evoke, rather than relying on bare exposition and statement?
  • Aims – what do the aims of the story seem to be, and to what extent have they been fulfilled?

You must also:

  • Show a consistently empathetic and thoughtful engagement with the writer’s work.
  • Make a sincere effort to understand the aims of the story and demonstrated an outstanding understanding of the techniques of narrative fiction.
  • Select a suitable writing tone so as to be cogent, fair, and support your views. Set out your critique in a logical way.
"Reflecting cat takes time to reflect." Image source: Spider Diaries, University of Richmond blog by Andrew

Image source: Spider Diaries, University of Richmond blog by Andrew

 

At BWF this September, Vision Writers’ Critique Group held an open crit session where they explained their usual process. They then ran a live crit session where each of their members presented their crit of three members’ stories. They provided the following suggestions for what to say when you are critting someone’s work:

  • Begin with a one sentence blurb of “what it was about”. This allows the writer being critiqued to check that you actually understood the point of the story and what it was trying to be.
  • Discuss what you thought worked in the story.
  • Discuss what didn’t work for you, and how you would fix those issues.
  • Finish up with something the writer can be proud of – something that you liked in the story or that was well-written.

 

From my own experiences at uni and in Dugong Writers’ Group, I would add the following pointers for new critters:

  • Don’t just copy edit. This is about larger issues.
  • Recognise that there’s a difference between style and voice. Style needs grammar; voice doesn’t.
"I has idiosyncratic conjugation." Image source: Stan Carey’s blog

Image source: Stan Carey’s blog

What to aim for in running a great critique group:

When asked about the basic principles for running a group, the Vision Writers Group said every group will be different, so there are only a few essentials:

  • Every critiquer has 2 minutes to present their crit to the writer.
  • Right of reply from the critiqued-person (“critiquee”):
    • At the very end of all the crits of their story, the writer is allowed to respond to the critiques that have been given. They might choose to defend some story matters that have been misunderstood, but their time might be better spent by asking for more information about how to fix troublesome issues. For example, a story problem is a real worry if it gets picked up by more than one critter.

 

In Dugong Writers’ Group, we found that we were reinventing the wheel a lot, so some principles that we found useful were:

  • Running a group is about facilitating a discussion, not directing it.
  • It is essential to book a space.
    • You can’t just meet wherever. Cafés are noisy; the riverbank is breezy; and uni meeting rooms were often already booked out for the duration of group assignment season.
    • Dugongs met at the State Library of Queensland because it’s free to book a meeting room, and they had nice big desks for us to spread out our crit notes and marked-up manuscripts.
  • Environment makes it.
    • At SLQ, we were overlooking the Brisbane River, which provided a sense of inspiration and open possibilities. Plus, it was an easy venue for new members to find, and there was great public transport for everyone to get there.
    • But when we occasionally met at Grace’s house in the uni holidays, her couches were so wonderfully worn and comfortable that we instantly relaxed. We became better friends, beyond being just fellow critters or even fellow writers.
  • Create time limits forcrits, and enforce them.
    • If your meeting room is only booked out for 2 hours, and you have more than two members, you can’t afford to let one person talk for fifteen minutes over one crit.
    • Besides, eventually people will need to go to the toilet. Remember how annoying it is when you’re busting to go and someone just won’t stop talking, but you don’t want to interrupt them by running out of the room? Yeah…
  • If you have an overbearing critter who tends to interrupt, speak to them privately.
    • They usually won’t work it out on their own, and they’ll only get offended if you don’t explain why you keep cutting them off.
  • Have a template for new or shy critters to use: what worked, what didn’t, and what could use tweaking. Focus on setting, pace, characters, dialogue and writing style.
  • If your writers are from vastly different genres, expect that there will be some conflict over opinions or expectations for a story.
    • When there is conflict, don’t ignore it; talk about this concept of different expectations with the group.
    • For example, the Dugongs let in writers from all genres, and our steam punk writer would often be in trouble with our historical era writer for anachronisms and inconsistencies; and our crime writer was always in trouble with our children’s book writers for excessive swearing.
"lol, I have no idea how to drive this." Keep calm and keep on going. Image source: We Heart It

Keep calm and keep on going
Image source: We Heart It

Memoir author Claire Dunn spoke about the related concept of group formation in her talk at BWF. She agreed that you should expect that there will be some conflict.

She points to research first conducted by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 that showed the stages of development for any group:

  • Forming
    • The group meets each other for the first time.
    • Members test each other out, finding who has what strengths and weaknesses.
    • Alliances and friendships are formed, either out loud or silently.
  • Storming
    • The group clashes because of different personalities, ideas, goals, and skill sets.
  • Norming
    • The group finds a holding pattern, a kind of “normal” for running the group.
    • Alliances and divisions are set in place for as long as this norm exists.

In Claire’s case, the group was formed by the collective separation that the participants had from their familiar support systems, family and friends. Her memoir, My Year Without Matches, is all about her year living in a shanty tent in the Australian outback. She went out as part of a social isolation project; the group were all trained up in basic survival skills like how to live a fire without matches and how to create a waterproof tent from leaves and bark.

The group formed bonds, stormed as they struggled to learn the new skills before the training ended, and created for themselves a norm for how the group ran. When the training finished, however, the group disbanded and they were all living in separate bush tents, having to decide whether or not they would continue to visit each other’s spaces. Then the group had to re-form, re-storm, and find a norm for their new situation.

This group forming pattern is useful to keep in mind while your group is growing, but it’s also useful for writing your story. If your characters are put together in a group, they should follow something like this pattern. Their forming, storming, and norming could even help drive the plot.

"Iz our fort. No gurlz allowed." How not to run a group. Image source: Write Meg blog

How not to run a group
Image source: Write Meg blog

After the critique:

There are times when you really need to call in a professional. Maybe you’ve been in a writing group forever, and you’ve come to know what to expect from your critters. Maybe your group isn’t terribly experienced, or you just need more insight than your fellow writers can provide.

View my rates for editing, copywriting, or proofreading, on my Freelance Services page!

View my rates for editing, copywriting, or proofreading, on my Freelance Services page!

If that’s where you’re at, check out my freelance editing services at TJ Withers-Ryan, Freelance Editor. You can read testimonials from authors and companies who’ve really benefited from my editing services. I’ve also won awards for my own writing, so you can rest assured your story would be in safe hands.

Editing is not just a job – it’s my passion, my calling; and I’m not ashamed to say that I do it well.

If your story needs help, you know who to call!

 

What’s the best writing tip you’ve ever gotten from a critiquer or an editor?

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is always highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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One thought on “When the deed is done: How to run an effective writer’s critique group

  1. Pingback: Best books and media I’ve found in 2016 so far | TJ Withers-Ryan

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