Thursday, January 24, 2008

Critique groups--or not

Do you use a Crit group? Vicki and I were talking about this not long ago when we were discussing rewrites and getting outside opinions. She doesn’t have a crit group, and I do. We’re both happy with our situations, too. One of the listserves (MWA? SinC? I forget which one) recently had a discussion about crit groups and how individual ones work. There was a lot of variation, and I came to the conclusion that I’m lucky I’ve got one that works.

I have a hunch whether a crit group works or not depends on a handful of factors. Time and peoples’ availability would be big issues. But the biggest thing would be the chemistry of the group. Right now, my group consists of four people. For the past few years, the group has been all women, but it hasn’t always been that way. I think it’s best to have a variety. We’ve also tried five people, but we’ve returned to four (someone moved) because we found reviewing four pieces of writing fits in a two-hour time frame, and that’s handy for our group. If someone new begged to join us, we’d probably relent.

Here are our “rules:”
•We send our material out to group members several days before the meeting. (Email, snail mail, whatever)
•We all read what we’ve received and bring the pages, on which we’ve written comments before we come to the meeting. We assume everyone has done their homework unless someone says something. Every now & then, real life does intervene...
•We do not read aloud—we figure our readers won’t, so we don’t.
•We eat at our meetings, but we work at the same time. No one serves—it just happens that people pick up fruit or muffins on the drive over. Writing is the focus of the meeting, so we munch and critique simultaneously. Makes for some laughs and grease spots, but we don’t care.
•We are always kind. We don’t discuss a person’s education, experience, or ability—and fortunately, everyone we’ve had in the group has had decent writing skills.
•We don’t allow prima donnas. One person’s work is as important as the next. If one person goes first one meeting, another goes first at the next.
•When your work is being discussed, you don’t defend it. You listen. You can ask opinions on what would work, though.
•We talk about what is working AND what isn’t working: we try to balance positive with negative comments.
•We agree that if three people have the same criticism, the author needs to pay attention. If it’s a mixed bag, it’s up to the author whether to make changes.
•We focus on the writing, not on the genre. Our projects vary: fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, mystery, chick-lit, etc. Some of it may not be what certain members would choose to pick up and read, but we look to help each other with continuity, plot structure, character development, big-picture stuff.
•Grammar and syntax isn’t the main focus of the group. We’ll correct something if we see it, and we treat it like a typo—which happens in all of our work.
•Condescension isn’t tolerated. New people are accepted on probation.

People have come and gone, but we’ve never seen anyone leave in a fit of temper or with hurt feelings. The ones that left the group usually moved, got another job, or temporarily (we hope) gave up on what they were working on. Some may have felt that they weren’t getting enough out of the group, but were too polite to say. I’ll never know for sure, but they’re still saying hello when I run into them elsewhere. And we still ask how the writing is going and wish each other the best.

1 comment:

NL Gassert said...

Hi Debby. I think you nailed it when you mentioned “chemistry.” It’s the glue that holds the group together, especially considering that the idea is (constructive) criticism, which is always easier to take from someone you really like :-)

I think it’s also worth mentioning that new writers should look for a group of experienced writers. I liked the group I was in when I started out writing (great chemistry), but I didn’t learn very much, because none of us knew what we were doing.