Guidelines for a Writing Critique Group

critique group feedbackThere are many formats in which critique groups can operate. Much of how they are run depends on the size of the group, whether they meet face to face or online, and the level of writing expertise among their members. As each group forms, the way it operates will evolve. It will vary with the aims and needs of its members.

For three years I have been a member of a small group that meets monthly at our local library. Over time we have lost and gained members. That has resulted in some changes in the way the group operates. In the last month, more shifts have happened and the old core members decided the time had come to formalize, to some degree, what we expect from the group and its members.

There may be readers here who wish to form, or participate in, a group of their own. While this document only represents what works for my group, I thought it might be helpful to share the guidelines we developed. These may evolve over time as the needs of the group change, but so far these work well for us. Our group is small (no more than six members) and quite informal.

Stratford Writers Group Guidelines

We currently meet on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at the Stratford Public Library at 7 PM. We must be out of the building by 9 PM when the library closes.

Given those constraints, and to insure that every member benefits from the meetings, we have agreed on certain guidelines. We have also agreed to do our best to adhere to these guidelines with the understanding that, occasionally, exceptions may arise.

Each member will submit, in a Word document, a submission of up to 3000 words five days ahead of the meeting to give members time to read and critique that submission. Please number paragraphs or lines so that when we talk about it we will be able to find the reference easily. Each member has an individual preference for the kind of feedback looked for. We will attempt to respond to those wishes. For example, some want editing, others only response to flow, development, etc. We will respect those wishes as much as possible.

While members may submit longer pieces if this assists in understanding continuity of the piece, members are not obligated to critique more than 3000 words. The submission should indicate which section he/she wishes to have critiqued. On occasion a member may not have something to submit. In that case he/she will still critique the submissions of the remaining members.

During the meeting each member will have a set time during which he/she will give their feedback. The person whose piece is being discussed will listen, may ask brief clarification questions, but will not argue with the feedback of the member giving it. Due to time constraints it is not possible to engage in detailed discussions. This can be challenging but we have found that becoming immersed in explanations and argument is counter-productive for everyone.

When we forget this, (and this happens sometimes due to our passion about our work) other members may gently suggest we move on. This will be given in the spirit of fairness and friendship and ought not be taken as a personal affront.

Remember we are all there for the same reason – we want to do the best work we can. To that end we should be ready to accept objective, honest feedback without going into a defensive posture. This becomes easier when we learn to trust that the feedback is being given to help our creative process – it is not a personal comment on our work or talent. Destructive feedback is never helpful. Some writers may find that this process doesn’t work for them.

Time allotted for each person’s feedback will be determined by the number of members present. Often it will be minutes only.

These are the guidelines that have worked for OUR group. They were created as a group effort, based on consultation, and agreed upon by its members. Any new members will be asked to agree and adhere to them.

Your group will be unique. Please regard this as a starting point only, a place to begin thinking about what your group will look like and how it will work best for your members. And have fun encouraging each other to new heights of achievement in writing.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “Guidelines for a Writing Critique Group”

  1. This sounds like a wonderful way to run a group. I’m not a part of a writers’ group now (other than online groups), but I really like this: “Due to time constraints it is not possible to engage in detailed discussions. This can be challenging but we have found that becoming immersed in explanations and argument is counter-productive for everyone.” My main frustration with groups has always tended to be a lack of structure so that members get caught up in dissecting one passage or sentence for the entire group, and miss everything else. This is a nice way to keep things on track.

  2. These are great guidelines, Yvonne. We have similar guidelines in my writer’s group, in that 3,000 words is the limit. I think that’s a nice cutoff point.

    I really like the idea of numbering lines/paragraphs. I have one friend who does that, but it’s not a rule. That line numbering really does make it easier to follow along, though.

  3. I sort of dabbled with a local group, who think they are serious writers, and some of them are. ‘Nough said. They would greatly benefit from your credo.

  4. Thanks, Yvonne. Structure is important–and a group leader who can rein in the members. At least, that’s been my experience!

    1. Yes, a leader CAN be useful – provided they keep to making sure the meting moves forward and doesn’t overstep their authority. We had a “chair” rather than a leader, and her only responsibility was to make sure discussion didn’t get out of hand. She has just left the group, so we may have to look at that again.

  5. Hi Yvonne,

    Congratulations on being a member of a group that works well together and who respect each other’s writings, that is imporant. Writers need to be able to work with others.

    Here is a cautionary tale, look before you leap, before you join a group quietly check it out:

    5 years ago, I saw a flyer about a writing group meeting at our local book store coffee bar, so I stopped in and stayed in the background pretending to read a book while listening in on their meeting, to see what it was like before joining it. I decided not to join it.

    It was nothing like your group, instead, the group leader had an overbearing alpha type personality. I heard her say, she was still working on her first novel and was bringing a chapter a week to the meetings.

    Unfortunatly, she was quick to criticize and berate the other members chapter or short story. I was shocked at how demoralizing and degrading she was to the others. Also whenever someone tried to point out something about her chapter, she was quick to scoff off the comment.

    When the meeting broke up, she was one of the first to leave. As the other members left, they were talking about how nasty a power trip she was on. By chance, I was in the book store when their next meeting was scheculed. I noticed her sitting alone where they had met before. As I drank my coffee she frantically called each of them only to have no one answer her call. I noticed they never met there again after that.

    1. Sadly, that scenario is all too common. That’s why having a “leader” can be counter-productive. On the one had you need someone to make sure things move forward; on the other that person HAS to respect all members. The bottom line for me is that feedback must not demoralize, but rather support the writer to move in a positive direction. Sharp, negative criticism never does that.

  6. I like this format, especially the bit about avoiding detailed analysis. That’s not because I don’t want my work analysed, it’s be cause when people start discussing the finer points of grammar, with clauses and syntaxes and prepositions I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. I’ve never understood any of that stuff and simply write as I would say it. If people can’t understand that: tough.
    But comments about whether something is intelligible, or makes sense, whether it flows and maintains interest are very useful.
    A great post to start a new year. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Ian. I mostly agree, though in the final analysis those DO have to be considered. But for me, that is an editor’s job, not that of fellow writers who may not know any more than I do. Whaat’s important for me, as you say, is whether it works and flows well.

  7. I coordinate a group that has 6 -8 regulars. We begin our meetings with a starter writing activity where everyone writes and then we discuss what’s been done. Then we have a workshop time where we critique work previously submitted. So far, we have restricted the size of these submissions to +/- 500 words. That has become a problem – too short to get a real flavour of the writing. However, time at meetings is of the essence. I think I’ll share your idea of line numbers and see what our group thinks. Thanks for the idea.

    1. Great. I hope it’s helpful to your group. Most of our members are working on larger projects so the workshop idea won’t work for us. I think it depends on the goals of the group. Each one will find its own path if all members work together well.

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