What’s a Critique Group

Someone in the Writers Helping Writers group on Facebook wanted to know how to get others to review their work and when. Melissa Watkins Alexander (a member of my critique group) suggested that books should be developed from the very beginning with help of a critique group. I agree. I also thought people should understand how ours works and how they can build their own.

So what is a critique group? Well, the most productive ones are… productive. That is, they’re composed of active writers working on books in your genre. If you’re just tagging along, it’s hard to keep up the continuity with the reviews. Every week or two, members of the group exchange chapters to review from our WIP (Work in Progress) well in advance of the meeting. So on the Sunday a week before the Sunday meeting, (according to the rules) we must turn in the next chapter to be reviewed. I say “chapter” but that’s sometimes a chapter or two on a single thread.

Some groups meet in person at a quiet spot (good luck finding one of those), or at someone’s home where the kids, spouses, or pets aren’t an issue (again, good luck), but lately, we’ve been meeting online so travel and loud bands playing the the background are not involved. It also means I don’t get to sample the fries at the mall, or Margo’s English pastries and tea. To do the online thing, you need good (as in fast) broadband connections and some tech-savvy members (no problem there with our group).

The reviews should be honest, focused, and gentle(ish). We don’t want to crush anyone’s writing spirit, but we also don’t want to encourage substandard prose or twisted plots. Professional writers need to learn to take criticism. Some of it rolls off our backs, but we need to get used to rejection without wanting to quit. Sure, we should quit using characters where we don’t have the skill to portray their correct dialect (my own failing), but not quit the book.

When we meet online or in person, we take turns focusing on one member’s chapter–one person talking at once. The writer should not reply until the reviewer is done. We discuss chapter and overall book structure, whether or not the action makes sense, whether someone (usually me) has offended some group of people (again), and whether or not the story flows well or get bogged down like a two-wheel drive Honda in a muddy field. Anything is fair game. In my group, I’m the only guy and a tech geek, military geek, and handyman so I bring a different POV and subject-matter-expertise to the team. For example, when the characters are using guns or are in battle, I can provide first-hand experience to keep the writer on track. Each of us has a specific talent to bring to bear on the reviews. In our group, we’re all experienced writers with at least one book in print. That said, I was invited to a critique group before having my first book published and it really helped get it moving in the right direction. I’ve also been in groups that wanted to pray beforehand. I didn’t come back. Not that I’m not religious, I just feel that there’s a time and a place for everything. I’ve been in groups with far too many people with far too little experience. I’ve also been in groups with intellectual bullies. In my opinion, three to five is about the best size.

Once you build your group, treasure and nurture it, but keep your eye out for new members as people tend to move on or just move to another town, job, or lose interest in writing the great American novel.

The mechanics are pretty simple (as they should be). A (full) week before the meeting, we send the team a copy of the chapter in a Word .docx file. This is done by creating a cloud share site with folders for each member and folders for “Submissions” and “Reviews”. When we get a chance during the week, we download and edit each chapter with Track Changes enabled (show all markup). We save it to a new file with your personal tag, and send it back to the cloud site where everyone can see it. On the day of the meeting, we open the files so everyone can see the edits and discuss what we think is right, what’s wrong, what made me cry, and what made me mad. After that, we go back to our books and incorporate or ignore the reviews. Of course, if one publishes a book with the suggested change still not applied and the Editor for the New York Times says “It’s a great book except for the horrible sentence structure on page 19,” then, you’re pooched.

Bill Vaughn

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