Saturday, November 28, 2015

Critique Groups Do's and Don't's

Take the Leap
 
The purpose of a critique is to sift out what's wrong. Showcased is your polished masterpiece, ready for publication. Explore your options until you find the most effective, longest lasting way to vet your work.

While working as a freelance writer, my family moved frequently. Luckily, through membership with organizations such as SCBWI, I found a writing group at each juncture. The information gathered here comes from my own membership in different types of groups.

Join a Critique Group or Start your Own
Gather interested prospective members. Make sure each writer is:
  • Serious: willing to devote time studying her craft while practicing it.
  • Dependable: can be counted on to come to meetings and review members' work.
  • Honest: willing to let members know where she stands, as a beginner, intermediate or advanced writer.
  • Open: lets members know ahead of time what type of writing she would like to have reviewed.
  • Communicative: gives her input on everything from critiquing to helping to run the group.
Rules that Work
  • Establish a leader.
  • Decide how many members are desired.
  • Decide the type of writing preferred, if any. For example:   
  • Open Group: Allows all kinds of writing at any level. The advantages are many.               The variety of different types of writing gives the group widely varying points of view. One of the groups I belonged to had a poet, three article writers, and an adult novelist. The group expanded my world.
  • Closed Group: Offers members who write only in your genre and are at about the same level. Advantages include powerful know-how in your genre. Potential for longer critiques is possible. Partnering among members is possible for more frequent and indepth critiques. Also, members can help each other stay abreast of conferences, webinars, informational books, etc. When I wrote biosketches for Biography Today, I had deadlines which weren't easy to keep because of my daughters' activities. My writing partner spent one entire day helping me crank out one of my assignments so I could meet the deadline. Whew!
  • Agree on one of the following:
  • No Homework: a writer brings a chapter, a section or a few pages of a work to be read on the spot. The writer can read her own work or ask another member to read it. During the reading, each member takes notes on a separate piece of paper. After the reading the members go round- robin to share their notes then give their note paper to the writer to take home.
  • Homework: each piece of writing is emailed to members by an agreed-upon date, no exceptions. Members critique the work at home and share their results at the meeting. Members' copies are then given to the writer to take home. Writer brings her own copy of her work so she can follow along during the critiques. Critiquer is given a specified amount of time to explain her critique and the writer is given a specific amount of time to ask questions or comments. I've belonged to both types of groups and really have no preference. I found both Open and Closed Groups effective as long as they were run productively.
  • A timer: members agree on the amount of time given to each critiquer. Enough time is given so that no one feels rushed. There can be exceptions, along as everyone agrees, if a writer needs more time. However, this is an important rule, especially if the group is large. Everyone deserves a critique. There is nothing worse than having one person take up so much time that the meeting either lasts too long (and everyone gets exhausted, which can weaken enthusiasm), or there isn't enough time for everyone to share their work.
  • Cut the Chit Chat: be firm about saving chit chat for later because it's easy to fall into this trap and lose the main purpose for meeting.
  • Food or No Food: meet at a public place, if possible, such as a room at the library. Meeting in people's homes can be way too comfortable. These kinds of meetings can incur a serious loss of productivity. One of my favorite groups solved this by having two pot luck meetings a year, summer and winter, at lunchtime. We still worked but relaxed and visited. We even brought white elephant gifts for our winter get-together (in someone's home) during the holidays.
Parting Words of Wisdom
Here is a sprinkling of "focus" notes I keep on my bulletin board as reminders of what I am about as a writer.
  • Show, don't tell: spend one (or more) entire revision sit-downs combing your ms for "telling" statements. Turn those into "showing" your readers what's going on.
  • Nonfiction articles: one editor's advice was simple. Answer the W's in the first two (or three) paragraphs. Then the rest of your article is the How.
  • Nonfiction articles and books: Before embarking on your idea (and spending time on it), make sure you have acquired the photos.
  • Write it plain, then make it pretty: I heard this during an editor's talk and have followed it ever since. It's a great tool. The first time(s) "getting it down" you can't possibly expect your writing to shine. All you're doing is pouring your soul onto paper. After you're sure you've written everything you want to say, put your ms for a rest. When you pick it up again, make your writing more interesting; splather your personality all over the page; give it your all.
  • Entertain your reader: Just like being a host at a party; if you're having fun, your reader will have fun.
  • When in doubt, research: if you're stuck (have writer's block) it might mean that you need to do more research. Fiction and nonfiction alike both have to be accurate, so perhaps you need to spend some time looking something up to learn more about it. If you're stuck on a non-research-type problem, then you might need to rest a bit and do a THINK. One of my writing instructors talked about BIG THINKS a lot. We all keep pen and paper with us at all times. Who knows, you might solve the problem by suggesting what you need before you go to sleep at night. The problem could be solved in the morning or in a few days, depending on the size of the problem. If you can identify the problem as a plot problem, a characterization problem, etc., then study the area in question. You might find your answer there. I think we all know, too, that often our answers come while we're sewing, doing a flower arrangement, or on a walk. So sometimes it's best to do something else that's creative to relax your mind. It often kickstarts your imagination into doing wondrous things.
  • Sit your reader down across the table: and talk to him. Tell him your story. You can try this out loud if you've come to a snag.
  • Write while sitting on the edge of your seat: that's how you want your reader to be, so engrossed in your story that their eyes light up and their super excited about your story.
  • Remember this wisdom from Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
Watch for next month's post: "You, the Writer; You the Critiquer."
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Navy
Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction courses, picture book course and mystery and suspense course. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.

8 comments:

  1. This is great, Linda. I've always felt that a good critique group is worth its weight in gold! I couldn't have done it without mine!

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  2. Linda, great information that writers will definitely benefit from. Critique groups are a must. When I first started out, I found a couple in SCBWI. Later I formed my own group. My groups were always around 5 members, closed, online, and took the homework route.

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  3. I agree, Heidi, and I too couldn't have made progress without the input and support of my critique group. Karen, that's neat that you've found groups online. The ones that lasted for me were in person. Currently, I hope to find a lasting one online, perhaps through SCBWI.

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  4. I think this is so important, I included the topic in my The Frugal Book Promoter. After all, it's usually about perfecting our writing to the point we can sell it to an agent, a publisher, or do a professional job of self-publishing, right? Critique groups and books are the two most frugal ways to keep our skills growing.
    Anyone forming a critique group of their own is welcome to my guidelines for critique groups--a combination of teaching theory at UCLA where I taught and 12 step group guidelines. Reach me by using the contact information on my Web site at http://howtodoitfrugally.com.

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  5. Linda, Thanks for the post. The advice and support I receive from my critique group keeps me writing. I tried an online group, but it did not compare to my in person group.

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  6. Hi Mary Jo, I'm glad you pointed out the benefits of meeting in person. My experience has been the same--I've gotten more indepth advice in person because of the opportunity to ask questions and discuss. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I cannot express how grateful I have been to my critique groups. Thanks for compiling this advice.

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  8. Thank you, Melinda. Our critiquers are terrific editors because they're working writers. What could be better than that!

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