Back in March, I discussed why you should consider joining (or forming) a critique group if you’re an aspiring writer. I mentioned I’d blog about critique group arrangements and rules later, and this is my much-anticipated payment on half of that promise. I’ll just talk about arrangements today.
I’ll only address in-person groups that meet periodically, since those are the ones I’m familiar with. Online groups are wonderful, particularly for those who would otherwise have to drive a great distance to meet with other writers, but I’ve never joined one.
Membership. It’s important when setting up a group, or when seeking to join an existing group, to have a sense of how membership will work. What is the size of the group? Larger groups require firmer rules and more discipline, but there is certainty and comfort in that. You may not get your work critiqued as often, but when you do you’ll benefit from many points of view. Small groups are looser in structure and friendlier, but may meet on an irregular basis. In smaller groups you can be more assured of getting your work critiqued at every meeting, but you’ll receive fewer opinions.
Some groups have leaders, or moderators. Larger groups have greater need of some authority. Regarding the rank-and-file members, groups may start with writers having a range of skill levels, but through attrition tend to end up with a leveling of skill. I recommend you join a group with some who are more skilled than you (how else will you improve?). Every group should agree on some process for admitting new members to ensure the group remains dynamic and fresh, and keeps its size and identity.
People being what they are, sometimes a difficult member creates tension, making meetings less productive and beneficial. Groups need some way, whether by formal rule or unwritten understanding, of dealing with such people since they are often the cause of a group breaking up.
Meeting Logistics. Every in-person critique group has to figure out such logistical concerns as where it will meet, how frequently and on what dates, at what start time, and for how long meetings will run. These aspects varied widely among the handful of critique groups I’ve been in. It’s important to maintain the discipline of meeting regularly. Then there’s the matter of costs. Some groups have to pay for a meeting place, but most do not. For most groups, the only cost has to do with food, so the group needs to decide whether food is allowed and how that cost will be shared.
Meeting Conduct. Getting down to the actual business of critiquing, members need to agree on the amount of text each can provide in a session–maybe a page number limit. How will the work be delivered? I’ve been in groups where manuscripts were handed out and then read at the meeting; my current group e-mails them ahead of time. I understand some groups have the writer read his work, then members give oral critiques. The matter of how to give and receive a critique deserves a blog post of its own, and I’ll do that. Some critique groups do more than just critique–they suggest writing exercises to hone their skills. My group has done that on occasion, and one such exercise helped me get a story published!
Group Dynamics. Like most times when people meet periodically in teams for a shared purpose, the group goes through the phases of Forming, Norming, Storming, and Performing. It’s great when you get to that last stage, but I’ve never been in any kind of group that got there without going through the other three phases first. During the Forming or Norming stage is when group rules need establishing. As I mentioned, larger groups require more firm rules, perhaps even written down. Smaller groups can get by with fewer and unwritten rules. Writers as a class of people tend to resist rules and authority, though, and that causes the tension between chaos and order I alluded to in this post’s title.
As I’ve said before, critique groups have improved my writing more than any of the other writing aids I have tried. When they work well, they’re just super. Wishing you the best as you seek a critique group, I’m–