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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

How to run a critique group (one group's experience)

Guest post by novelist Luanne Oleas


I've been in the same critique group for seven years and I've been managing it for five years. I inherited it from our local writers group (my area branch of the California Writers Club).We've had only minor changes in membership over the years. We went virtual during the pandemic, and I doubt we'll ever go back.


I'm lucky that most of the members are in my time zone because our meeting runs about six hours, once a month. There's a fair bit of administrative work involved to keep it going, but it's well worth the effort to have people consistently reading and commenting on your work. There are  six of us, all fiction writers. I doubt we would have time for more members.


How it works: We each submit a chapter a month, anywhere from 3 to 15 pages. That submission should arrive a few days before the meeting so the members have time to read through it once before the meeting starts.


During the meeting, each writer reads his submission aloud and other members comment on what struck them, good and bad.


What I find particularly helpful is that we have members from ages 30 to  90. Expressions that work for the older members don't fly with the younger ones. It's good to know that. We are also at all different skill levels: two with multiple books published, several with books written but unpublished, and one on his first book. Being at different levels in our careers hasn't been a hindrance. We all bring something to the table. Our group has two fantasy writers, a fictional podcaster, one adventure writer, and two women's fiction, so yes, we span multiple fiction genres. I had to get up to speed on fantasy and podcasting, somewhat, but it wasn't difficult.


To start a virtual critique group, you need:


      A shared folder like Google drive

      A few reminder emails

      Members who are slightly (but not overly) tech savvy.


The process: We find it best if the author being critiqued doesn't talk unless asked a direct question. No defending your work. Also, those giving critiques must mention what works as well as what doesn't. A good way to start is to use the following questions:


       What specific passages stand out or stay in your mind? Why?

       What do you think is the main idea of the work? (Express this in your own words.)

       What does the work almost say?

       What do you want to hear more about?

       What, if anything, is too obvious or too explicit?

       What is the best feature of this work? Why?


We start the meeting at 6 pm, allow 30 minutes to socialize, then at 6:30 we start reading. No socializing is allowed after reading starts. Also, at the end of the meeting, we set the date and time of the next meeting. The reminder emails give the links to a shared folder and to the Zoom meeting. Usually they go out a week before the meeting.


Our members use Word docs, Google docs, or PDFs when submitting chapters. Within a day or two after the meeting, each member emails specific comments directly back to the author. In the meeting, we cover only the high points of our critiques; we get into the weeds with the edited files we return. We return files directly to the author by email, not posted in the shared folder, to cut down on maintenance for the group Admin.


A lot goes into the care and feeding of a critique group, but the benefits make it worth the effort. Different members have different strengths when it comes to critiques. We have a lawyer who is great at grammar edits, an ex-teacher who is better at suggesting word choices, a mathematician who catches all the conflicting details, a marketing maven who is better at story lines, and a techie who helps with the youthful viewpoints and offers suggestions to update the work and make it more current.


If you write about other settings, it's amazing what group knowledge contributes. I happened to have a main character who uses an online dating services. Since I've been married for over 40 years, I had no clue how they worked. I got lots of advice to make it more realistic. Basically, it's like have a panel of experts help improve your work.


You also learn how to deal with the comments others make on your work. If one person says "this doesn't work," you can usually ignore that comment. If everyone, or even the majority, say something doesn't work, you probably need to change it. But also, in the end, you as the author have the final say. Maybe because you know the whole story, you may know why you have to keep a passage despite suggestions to the contrary. This has helped me when I had to deal with editors as well. 


To have a successful critique group you have to be willing to put some effort into it, accept each other's strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to ask members to conform to the rules or find another group. The last is probably the toughest part. We must all agree to a new member joining and there's a trial period of two months before they become a permanent member.  ''


Having random writers comment on your work might be one way to improve it, but you really never know how seriously to take their comments. Many authors need consistent (not sporadic) comments on their work. Establishing an on-going critique group might be a better option. I hope my suggestion can help some folks get started.


Best of luck,

Luanne Oleas


Luanne is author of the novels Flying Blind: A cropduster's story and A Primrose in November. Learn more about her upcoming work on her website and check out her blog. This letter first appeared in an Authors Guild discussion group and is reprinted here with Luanne's permission.


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