Creative Writing Critique Groups that Work for Everyone

by Ara Hone

If you’re alarmed by your critique group’s lack of luster or fret over its true purpose, this article shares example insights on how it can work for everyone.

First, let’s take the pressure off: perfect groups don’t exist. No combination of people will magically meet all writing needs. But if you’re in a group and you like it—and let’s be real, good critique partners don’t fall out of the sky—then the group is worth nurturing. So—if it isn’t meeting expectations, then perhaps it’s time for an overhaul.

In the working world, we provide education and on-the-job training to help workers achieve goals. Not so in the writing world—it’s a lonely place—it’s up to individuals to succeed. Critique groups, then, are an important part of the writing process for those who choose to participate. When groups function well, we can rely on them for everything from technical craft support such as critiquing and editing, to socializing.

Some of our deepest friendships form in critique groups, and I’m sure you feel the same: I genuinely love cheering on my partners when their publishers say YES to manuscripts. When they say NO, I’m there to pick up the chins—as they’ve done for me too many times to count. We need each other!

Where, then, is the on-the-job training for the care and feeding of this important group? If your group is struggling to meet even the basic needs, however, you’re not alone. Many groups wrestle with how to build and maintain fantastic critique groups that work.

GROUPS ARE AS UNIQUE AS ITS INDIVIDUALS: My own Group as an Example

Our critique group is composed of writers who are traditionally and hybrid-published and specialize in popular fiction. The primary genres include horror, speculative fiction, romance, and mystery/noir. Our writers are also published in poetry, and one works in contemporary literature and fabulism. We write for varied audiences.

Our stated goal is to help each other sharpen craft skills that lead to publication.

We’ve chosen to remain small. Our group is never bigger than four, which builds deep, tight bonds. We know, like, and trust each other, and what’s more, we enjoy reading each other’s work. Reading isn’t a chore—it’s fun! People move in and out of the group for different reasons, but we’ll stay small because we’re determined to be each other’s cheerleaders and helpers. Never rivals.

Here’s a quick story. Last year, we discovered a gap in our goal of increasing craft skills and discovered it correlated to our sagging acceptance rates. Being the little science nerds that we are, we did a strawman diagnosis and decided to tighten our fundamental process for critiquing work. We’d gotten lazy in performing multiple reviews.

Has that ever happened to you?

A  NEW PROCESS WAS BORN

Here are the options now available to members.

  • Quick turns: We read and return work within days (sometimes hours)
  • We plan ahead on deadlines.
  • Video chats to discuss WIP. We live in three states and two time zones.
  • First-time review is a critique and focuses on one or two big picture items of what’s working and what’s not.
  • Macro Edit
  • Micro Edit

I’m happy to report our acceptance rates are doing great! There’s something to handling work multiple times through a deliberate process, but each writer decides what she needs. It takes planning and patience, but with a critique group that’s committed to each other’s success, the process is worth the time and effort.

WHAT’S YOUR GOAL?

Now that I’ve shared our story, what about your group?

Ask each member to share his or her reasons for joining the group. Keep honing the responses until you reach a streamlined consensus. There’s power in uniting behind a common goal. Write it down.

Decide on the administrative goals of the group, such as turn-around times, deadlines, and so on. What works for one group won’t work for every group. Customize.

And last: Write, Publish, Enjoy, Repeat!

Summer is the perfect time to shake things up and find a new process that works.

Until next time … feel free to pass this on. Thanks for reading!

Ara. 😊

Resources:

Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages. Simon & Schuster, 2000.