Monday, November 24, 2008


When a writing friend approached me with the idea that we should start a critique group, I was reluctant. I didn’t feel I could afford to take time away from my work.

"You can’t afford not to," she countered. "We need to work with people who share our goals and aspirations." She was right and I have never regretted my decision to help form our group 15 years ago.

Our critique group has proven to be one of my most valuable writing tools and has helped me to produce gratifying, saleable work. Not only that, since I work at home in a solitary environment, my critique group brings me important social contacts with others who share my professional interests, people from whom I gain inspiration and confirmation that my work is important.
It didn’t take long to find other dedicated writers also looking for ways to improve their writing skills. We soon had a strong, workable group, meeting three intense hours every Wednesday in a meeting room at our local library, which offers a neutral, business-like environment. Several of us get together beforehand for lunch so that we can get the chatting out of our systems because once the meeting begins, we hold a fifteen-minute period for announcements then get right to business.

We have no permanent leader in our critique group but rotate that responsibility each month. That month’s leader passes an attendance sheet around and each member indicates whether or not she has brought work to read. One of our members designed a simple matrix, a good tool to use to determine how much time each person has to read, based on the number of readers present.

We limit group membership to ten so that everyone has a chance to share her work each time we meet. In our tightly knit group, potential new membership is taken very seriously. After first submitting a sample of her work for our initial approval, newcomers must attend three meetings as invited guests and fully participate in the critiquing process. A unanimous vote is required before a new member is invited to join the group. Yes, unanimous. We’ve all heard horror stories about how one member can ruin a critique group. We make every effort to see that it doesn’t happen to us.

Care is taken to critique the work, not the author, subject matter or style of the work. In other words, if a member writes a piece on a sensitive topic, such as abortion, we do not discuss the issues of abortion per se, but rather, did the writer state her case clearly? We strive to point out the strengths along with suggestions for what might make the writing clearer and more powerful. Is the story compelling? Can the facts be verified?

On my next Blog, I’ll discuss a valuable feature of our Critique Group–our By-laws. I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on critique groups in "Comments."


Sally J. Walker said...

Mary -- I founded the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston, Nebraska for the Omaha area in June of 1985 through the sponsorship of the local public library. Now into our 23rd year, we have over 25 members with an average of 18 attending our around-the-calendar Wednesday meetings, as well as communicating regularly on our Yahoo List Serve.

Teens are memtored 5:30-6:00, poets meet 6:00-6:30, dramatists (playwrights & screenwriters) 6:30-7:00 and fiction writers 7:00-9:00. The first Wednesdays of the month are always strictly for readings & critiques. The other meetings we have 10-minute presentations in each section on scheduled topics determined by the members in November of the previous year. Members can sign up to present or I prepare the short continuing ed programs. The Calendar of topics is posted on our website

After the peresentation people wishing to read 5-7 double-spaced pages of fiction or properly formatted scripts toss their names in for random drawing. (Anybody not getting a chance that week are first up the following week.) Each person gets a total of about 15 minutes for reading and feedback that moves around the table from the writer's left. As facilitator I keep the comments moving. Writers are cut off if they "defend" or feel the need to "explain" since that prevents others from commenting or eats into another reader's time. Everyone is free to ignore comments, but all are expected to be respectful. Critiquers also pass along notes for the writer to take home. We discourage people handing out copies of their reading to hold down individual expenses.

We do not practice a lot of back-slapping nor do we allow hurtful commentaries. Each critiquer is expected to specifically laud the positives and provide constructive comments free of "I liked balh-blah" or "I just didn't like blah-blah." The "Why's" help people to grow. Everyone attends with the expectation of learning how to write better. Each piece of writing is considered hard work and worthy of our attention whether it is presented by a newbie or by a multi-published author.

Our group "Rules" are also posted on our website with a tad of sarcasm that most new people understand and appreciate.

We also have three social events (an April Shakespeare's Birthday party, a June picnic and the end of year Holiday Party) as well as host an october writing retreat from a Fri evening thru Sun afternoon that is an intense write-a-thon.

There is no charge and we decided several years ago to forego "bylaws" that would require us to register as a non-profit organization in the State of Nebraska. No one wanted the hassle. Our "Rules" have sufficed to provide structure without "Robert's Rules" intruding on our valuable critique time.

We have slowly grown over the years with a lot of great writing coming out of the group including several becoming published or produced.

Some of our members have developed Peer Partnerships for more in-depth critiquing and others have attended special interest critique groups outside NWW (romance, screenwriting, poetry) . . . but a core membership of 10 regular and devout writers attend week in-week out. We agree that it is a sort of addiction or "fix" of writers helping writers, meeting with people who understand.

We've had many people over the years attend two or three meetings and decide we are "too serious" for them. We've also had our share of "experts" who attempted domination, were challenged and decided to go elsewhere. Creatives are Creatives. Our system works and the proof is in the success of so many of our members, as well as the heart-felt comaradarie that keeps bringing back people once "life circumstances" straighten around. We meet at the same place, same time every week and all know where to find us.


Mary E. Trimble said...

Sally, your comments are so interesting. Wow, and I thought we were organized. Your group(s) sound wonderful. And serious, just like they should be. Thanks for your comments, Sally.

Mary T