7 Habits of an Effective Writing Critique Group

IMG_0663It started with a Tweet during one of our #TWTBlog chats.  A few of us chimed-in and after a few weeks, Betsy organized critique groups for our readers who were interested in taking part in one.  Some of the groups were successful while others fizzled after the summertime. By some stroke of luck, I was placed in one of the thriving ones!

My critique group began with Catherine Flynn, Julie Burchstead, and Melanie Meehan in late June.  We met every Sunday night, via Google Hangout, during the Summer of 2014.  In the fall, we scaled our meetings back to twice a month since none of us had the same amount of time to devote to our writing during the school year.  Twice a month seemed manageable.  In November, Margaret Simon joined our group.  We meet at 8:00 p.m. on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month — no matter what. If someone has a personal commitment and can’t make it, the rest of us meet.  We never reschedule.

I’ve learned a lot about writing, the world of children’s publishing, and about myself as a writer since our critique group formed last summer.  Our group does several things that are effective and make our meeting times fun.

If you enlarge this image, you'll notice Melanie was having technical difficulties that night. Using the group chat function in the Hangout allowed her to participate until she restored the audio on her end.

If you enlarge this image, you’ll notice Melanie was having technical difficulties that night. Using the group chat function (right) in the Hangout allowed her to participate while Catherine was taking her turn until Melanie was able to restore her audio.

1) Arrive early. If your critique group meets virtually, then it’s important for everyone to be online a few minutes before the start time.  Technology is great… when it works.  Occasionally we have trouble hearing or seeing someone on the Google Hangout.  Since all five of us are always ready to go on time or early, we’re able to work through our tech issues quickly so we can get down to talking about our writing.

2) Give people a lens.  Sometimes we tell each other what we’d like feedback on when we share our work in progress in advance of our meeting. Asking one another, “How would you like for us to respond to your writing?” helps each of know how to specifically respond to another writer’s writing.  For instance, if someone wants us to think about whether or not their characters are likable or believable, then it helps for the group members to know that so they’re not commenting about the sequence of events or setting.

3)  Ask tough questions of the work.  Sometimes a character isn’t working or something isn’t believable.  Each of us always manages to ask pointed questions about the work.  We never degrade the writer or the writing.  For instance, when my writing lacks focus, Melanie always asks, “What is this really, really, really about?”  (In fact, she’s asked me this so many times, I come prepared with the answer just in case it’s not clear from the draft.)

4) Be honest if something isn’t working.  Julie is in charge of our group’s agendas.  She created a “Nitty Gritty” spot at the bottom, which is “a place for those honest “for the group” shares.”  At one point, I was feeling overwhelmed by having to read chapters or picture book manuscripts that were arriving in my inbox on Sunday mornings.  I used that space to request everyone share their work-in-progress at least 48 hours in advance our meeting, which would give me more time to thoughtfully review other people’s work.  As a result of my honesty, many times people share their work well in advance of Friday afternoon, which means I no longer have to spend Sunday afternoon cramming for our critique group.

Here's a peek at our most recent bi-weekly agenda. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Here’s a peek at our most recent bi-weekly agenda. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Here's a peek at the rest of our most recent bi-weekly agenda. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Here’s a peek at the rest of our most recent bi-weekly agenda. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

5) Respect everyone’s time.  At the beginning of every critique group session, we decide how much time each person will receive.  We use a timer to keep everyone on-track during our meetings.  While no one ever gets cut-off mid-sentence, we make sure the person who’s talking wraps up their piece so we can move on to the next person.  This prevents us from chatting until 10:00 p.m., which I’m sure we could do!

Sometimes we use the group chat function to share links while someone is taking their turn.  In this case, Julie and I were sharing links (top right once you enlarge this image).

Sometimes we use the group chat function to share links while someone is taking their turn. In this case, Julie and I were sharing links (top right once you enlarge this image).

6) Share resources. The five of us regularly share articles about the publishing industry with each other.  Sometimes we share on our group’s agendas, other times we e-mail links to each other during the week.  While we all want to find an agent so we can get our book’s published, we do not compete against each other.

7) Celebrate and be supportive.  A member of our group received a request for a full manuscript.  We were delighted for her!  Conversely, when I received some critical feedback on one of my manuscripts. Catherine, Julie, Margaret, and Melanie were not only there to help me cope with the hard-to-swallow feedback I received. In addition, they supported me as I made major revisions to my manuscript.

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Want to find your own critique group?  Gather a bunch of writers (It could be fellow teachers from your school or Slicers with whom you connected last month) and form your own critique group.  Don’t know anyone? Join SCBWI and talk with your chapter leaders who might be able to connect you with other writers.

Remember, the path towards publication can be long and full of rejection.  If you can find a group of other writers with whom you can share your experiences with, then it’ll make the journey a much more pleasant one!