Critique Groups: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
The process of writing can be an exhilarating experience. There is that terrific buzz that occurs when the words come flying off our fingertips, when the ideas flow faster than we can put them to paper. But there is also a downside to the writing life as well. Most of the time, we work in isolation, alone at our desks and computers, far away from the hum of family life and friends. If we work in a vacuum, how can we know when our writing is ready to be sent off to the publisher or the editor? I believe that every writer needs a core group of trusted readers who will give him an honest appraisal of his work. The best place to go for helpful criticism? The writer’s critique group.
Critique groups can take the form of online forums that require registered membership or in-person meetings with other writers who live nearby. I believe that the best critique groups--whether online or local--are comprised of peer writers with a wide range of publishing experience. Beginners learn from the more experienced writers, and the veterans learn by teaching others the subtleties of the craft. I’ve belonged to all kinds of critique groups in my career. Currently, I’m fortunate to be a member of one of the best critique groups I’ve ever seen. But what separates the good critique group from the bad and the ugly? Here are some things you should look for.
Mission Statement. What is the primary function/purpose of the group? What are the goals? The mission statement can be a formal statement or a general set of guidelines, but it should clearly define the expectations of the group. A typical mission statement might read something like, “Our group is a critique group designed to help fellow writers improve their craft and work toward publication if that’s their goal. Our policy is to assist, not assault.” These two sentences tell you that the focus of the group is on improving the writer’s craft in a non-hostile atmosphere.
Leadership. Critique groups without leaders tend to falter over time. A successful critique group has a leader with the recognized authority to facilitate critique sessions, keep things organized, and exclude members who are abusive or disruptive. In the face-to-face critique group, this leader is the person who brings the meeting to order, guides the members to a productive discussion, and makes sure everything is on schedule. For an online group, the leader may be an active moderator who keeps a close eye on the participants to see that the members are following the rules and submission guidelines.
Predictability. Whether you participate in an online critique group or attend a local meeting, you need to have a certain level of predictability. The online group needs to have a fully functioning site with regular access. There should be written guidelines for submission procedures, formatting, response times, and participation. The in-person group functions most effectively when it has an established location and meeting time, allowing members to set aside time in their calendars for the meetings. My critique group meets on the first and third Wednesday of every month at a local bookstore. That predictability makes it easier for new people to find us.
Commitment. One of the greatest failure points for any critique group is the lack of commitment. Members get busy with other things or lose interest. Sometimes, you have a situation in which a small core group does all of the work while the other members are passive observers. The best critique groups require that all of the members participate equally. Writers should both submit work for critique and critique the work of their peers. Look for groups that have an active membership with writers who write, not just talk about writing.
Where to find critique groups? Fortunately, writing critique groups abound in all shapes and sizes and can be found in almost any town and at numerous locations on the Net. To find a local critique group, visit bookstores, libraries, community colleges, community centers, and creative writing workshops or classes. You will even find critique groups meeting at some coffee houses. The Writer magazine also offers a limited list of writing critique groups that you can search for by location:
These Websites have links to several good online critique groups:
If you decide on a local group, sit in on the meetings a few times to be sure the group meets your needs. Every group has its own dynamics and personality, and not all groups are helpful or friendly to newcomers. For online groups, it can be useful to observe or lurk in the background before submitting your own work for feedback. If you can’t find a local or online group that you like, then think about starting one of your own. A good critique group offers support, friendship, and the opportunity to share your work with other writers. And when you find the perfect critique group for you, you will never want to leave. Happy writing!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.
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