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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ten Laws of Critique Groups

by Chip MacGregor

Chip MacGregor
Chip MacGregor is the president of MacGregor Literary, a full-service literary agency on the Oregon Coast. A former publisher with Time Warner, he has worked with authors as a literary agent for more than a dozen years, and was previously a senior editor at two publishing houses. An Oregon native, Chip lives in a small town on the Oregon coast. Chip is also the author of a couple dozen books and a popular teacher on the craft of writing and marketing.

I recently had someone write to me and say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”

I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. 

Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:

Why do you want a critique group?
1.  Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.

2.  The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).

3.  Personally invite people to participate. Don’t put an announcement in the neighborhood bulletin or the local paper. One of the maxims of organization is that people perform at the level at which they are recruited. If you tell them “this is an open time for everybody,” you’re going to get the bad poets, the unteachable storytellers, and the “I’m-in-pain-let-me-share-my-angst-with-you” types.

4.  At one of your first meetings, set some guidelines. These can be simple: You have to come as often as you’re in town. You have to submit your writing to others at least once a month (or every other month). You have to read the work of others before the meeting. You have to offer constructive advice, not just negative criticism. You have to be willing to listen to everyone, even if you disagree with their opinion. (And this is a perfect time to quote Jim Bishop: “A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”)

 5.  Make sure the group has a leader. Without a ramrod, a critique group turns into a therapy session for the most needy in the bunch.

Creative types need a regular meeting time & place.
 6.  I think creative, artsy writer types need a regular meeting time and place. It offers discipline to the group. Of course, you all disagree with that, being creative, artsy types. So sue me. You probably also like William Faulkner, even though he is boring and pretentious, but your college writing professor insisted he was deep, and since you want to appear deep too, you tell people at parties that you “loved ‘Soldier Pay’ but thought ‘As I Lay Dying’ lacked focus,” or some such rot. Your group will meet at Starbucks once, at your house once, then you’ll skip a couple months, meet for dinner somewhere, and fade away. So put some regularity and discipline into the meeting schedule.

7.  Above all, listen to criticism. Scottish people have a saying: “Learn to unpack a rebuke.” There’s no point in joining a critique group if you spend all your time defending your writing. So have a rule that you have to listen to people’s ideas, even if you’re going to ignore their insipid, Neanderthal advice. Jarrell once wrote, “It’s always hard for poets to believe that one says their poems are bad not because one is a friend, but because their poems are bad.”

8.  The membership in the group dictates how much you’ll listen. There’s nothing worse than being in a group with one guy you really don’t like, and you don’t respect his lousy writing, but he always wants to talk for a half hour about that terrible state of writing in publishing today. If you find people who are at your level, both in terms of quality and experience, you’ll find yourself much more open to hear what they have to say.

Feedback is easier if you trust the person offering advice.
9.  Find a writing partner who you really trust. One person, maybe two, that you’ll listen to. When he or she says to you, “Farnsworth, I know you love medical mysteries, but I question your use of including each character’s dental records in your story,” you’ll know that they aren’t criticizing just to build themselves up. This your friend. He (or she) LOVES you. He’s only saying it because he wants you to improve your story. That one person will make you better, and you’ll find yourself becoming a much better critiquer of others and member of a group. Really.

10.  Insist people write. I was once in a critique group where people argued about the merits of “Left Behind” and debated which trends were hot in bookstores, but we never really got around to writing anything or examining each other’s work. Write something each time, insist others do the same, and submit that work ahead of the meeting so that everyone can read it and tell you how awful it is. (Or how wonderful it is, depending on how you’re feeling today.)


In closing, a note from Lillian Hellman: “They’re fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talk about writing. Or themselves.”

3 comments:

Ron Estrada said...

Good points. I've been in several critique groups now, one live and the others online. It's tough to find a group you can really work with. I've been with excellent groups but felt like I was too slow, not doing my fair share of the critiquing. I suppose that's another tip--be sure the people in your group all work at the same pace or agree that the guy with an hour a day for writing can't do as much as the others. I've got a partner now, Gina Conroy. That works out well because it's much easier to keep up with one other person. And since we're at about the same level with our writing, we can push each other. I'd love to have a local group, too, but that's tough in a small town. I'll keep trying, though. Thanks for the tips, Chip.

Nicole said...

Ditto on William Faulkner, Chip.

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm probably in the best critique group ever! Gina Holmes, Jessica Dotta, and I met in the beginning of our writing careers - all raw newbies. We got with a few others we'd met online and formed our own crit group. The thing that made work is we were all serious about being published. We read craft books, critiqued hard, and "unpacked" those crits knowing our CPs wanted our best. Now, 4 of us are still together in a small group, and all published. The 5th remains my final and toughest as a beta reader. I never would have made it if not for my CPs. They're the best!