Five Rules for In-Person Critique Groups

I belong to a critique group, and a pretty brutal one at that.  Brutal in its honesty that is.  In my experience there are two types of in-person critique groups for writing:

The Social Group – this is where the often unstated primary objective is social.  Group members will supply pieces of writing for review, but most group time is taken up by social interaction and chatting.  Critiques are usually given orally and tend to be very general in nature.  Procedures tend to be very loose.

The Critique Group – this group meets with the specific purpose of improving the writing craft of its members.  Social interaction is present of course, but it is secondary to the main goal.  Critiques are highly specific and delivered ‘on paper’ with an oral summary. There are clear rules for the group to follow.

Who's first for a critique?

Who’s first for a critique? Art by SYoshiko.

The group to which I belong is the second type, and it has been quite successful.  That success is promoted and re-enforced by following these five rules:

  1. Meet on neutral ground.  Meeting in someone’s residence tends to promote the social nature of the group.  Moreover it can be difficult to be completely honest in a critique of work if it belongs to the person supplying the meeting place.  My group meets in the local library.
  2. Have a set schedule for meetings.  We meet every second Thursday and our meetings are planned three months in advance.  Should the library room in which we meet not be available, we have an alternate location chosen (usually the local pub which is, admittedly, less than ideal).  The day before the meeting, an email goes out to group members reminded them of the location and the works that were to have been critiqued for the meeting.
  3. Appoint an administrator.  ‘Administrator’ is probably too lofty a term, but this person books the meeting rooms and sends out the reminder emails to the group members.  If a meeting needs to be cancelled for whatever reason, this person sends group members notification.  The administrator reviews upcoming dates at the beginning of each meeting and helps ensure that the oral summaries (see below) do not run over time.
  4. Critique the work, not the author.  Writing is personal and we all put a lot of ourselves on the page when we write.  It is crucial to the group’s success that critiques honor the distinction between the author and the work, and restrict the critique to the work only.
  5. Have clear submission rules and critique procedures.    At a minimum the group should decide upon the acceptable genres, submission format and submission length.  My group accepts a wide range of genres but seems to focus on fantasy and literary works.  We requests submissions to be printed in hardcopy and distributed to the group in person, for return and critiquing at the next meeting.  We limit submission length to 5,000 words.  Effectively this means that novels and novellas are submitted chapter by chapter to the group.

Critiques are done over the two weeks with notes written directly upon the submitted work.  At the group meeting, an oral summary is provided by each member of the group, in turn, until all critiques for a particular submission have been delivered.  Oral summaries are short, no more than four minutes each, and are not a conversation.  In other words the critiquer does not ask the author for clarifications or explanations during the oral summary.  The critiqued paper copies are the work are returned to the author, who is then given a chance to rebut the critiques.  The rebuttals are held to four minutes as well.  The critiqued author then decides which of the remaining critiqued works will be next.  This pattern continues until all of the works have been reviewed.

We’ve found the foregoing rules to be helpful in keeping our group on track.  Your mileage may vary.  🙂

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