Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Critique Groups and the power of structure

You may have heard that I'm part of two local groups, one of which is the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, a chapter of the national group Romance Writers of America. But I'm also a member of a science fiction writing group that I met through Meetup, one that's a subgroup of the Durham Writers Group.

These organizations are very different. The HCRW is very business-of-writing oriented, great for networking and learning about the publishing business. Through this group you can also meet critique partners and learn about the role of editing in what you do, ask others for recommendations on good editors, and other editing-related business, but the group focuses on the business as a whole, not just feedback.

The science fiction group acts as an actual critique group, focused on helping its members improve through personal feedback. Several of its members have published one or more short stories professionally, and can give recommendations on where to publish and how to publish, but the main focus of the group is providing quality feedback for one another, four readers per session.

Usually I talk more about the HCRW and RWA, because they're national and, well, bigger. But today's a shout-out to the Meetup group, which has 25 members and still manages to provide meaningful feedback to almost each and every one.

The place we meet is a whimsical
indoor-outdoor cafe.

If you get the chance and want to meet some up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers, take a look at some of their blogs:

Rich Matrunick

Heather Frederick (And don't forget to visit the blog of Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat!)

Allegra Gulino

Travis Smith

Bill Ferris

Fraser Sherman

That's only a few, but it gives you an idea of the spectrum of writers within: From middle grade to adult, from pre-published to multi-published, and from short stories to novels, we've got someone writing just about everything.

Another secret is to choose a
place that makes you want to write.
One of the major secrets to keeping this group productive despite being so large is a firm schedule. Once we start, the first reader reads for up to 15 minutes, limited by a timer. Once the timer goes off, finish that sentence and you're done! Then each listener has exactly 1 minute (again, someone with a cell phone timer keeps track, usually one of the group's designated leaders) to give feedback. Anything more than that, and they have to write it down and e-mail it to the reader, or just hand the paper over. At the end of the round of minute-feedbacks, and only then, there's a two-minute free for all, usually begun by the reader giving some clarification based on comments, or extra information to make the story make more sense.

When that time runs out, the next reader gets 15 minutes, followed by feedback, and then the next and then the next, for a total of four readers.

Behold the "path of writers,"
which leads to "the usual spot."
After the last free-for-all, we take a moment to choose four readers for the next week. And, because life happens, we also choose two to four "back-up" readers, who will read if one of the original readers can't make it. These backup readers automatically become the next session's designated readers, should they not be called on to read. We do provide an exception for new members: new group members are given priority to read at the next session, and if there are too many back-up readers, one will volunteer to be bumped down to back-up reader again.

The group's full of awesome people, so there's always been a volunteer willing to step down and wait.

Keeping everyone focused is hard work, and our group leaders do a truly awesome job of getting us back on task. It does help that after the meetings, anyone who wants to chew the fat heads down to a local restaurant for evening snacks and late-night gab. So there's a place to chat and follow up.

 Having a successful critique group, be it four friends who send reviews over e-mail or twenty-five who sit down together in person, is one of the greatest boons a writer can have. What I've learned from this group is the value of structure: have a plan and stick to it, and you'll accomplish what you planned.

Does it work? Well, quite a few of our writers entered this group having never published anything, or thought of writing as more than a hobby, and ended up with short stories in pro-rate magazines, and others are published novelists or on the track to being so. So ask them.

How big is your critique group? What kind of procedure do you follow to make sure you accomplish everything you plan?


  1. My lab group does critiques, both of our own work (grant proposals, thesis proposals, abstracts for conferences, papers for submission...) and recently published interesting or headdesk-worthy papers. We don't have a structured system like your writer's group because we have less to submit each meeting. Once a week, someone or multiple someones submit items ahead of time (so everyone has a chance to read it beforehand) and we spend an hour or two going over them at the local bar.
    It mostly works really well. Sometimes it's a busy time of year and not everyone has the chance to read through and critique, but we still get feedback from at least one person. It helps a ton both for making a specific piece better and for our writing in general. We also learn to analyze methodology and conclusions better so it's easier to pick out holes in arguments or new questions to explore.
    The size of the group varies from year to year based on how many vert paleo students there currently are here. At its biggest, there were ten. Right now there are seven, though one guy doesn't always make it.

    1. So you guys pair up if there's too much for everyone to share? It sounds like you've got a good group. That would be really helpful for refining your scientific writing, especially being able to occasionally analyze the work of people no one in the group knows (and thus not have to worry about being tactful).

    2. No pairing up; it's really just whoever has time to read submissions any given week gives critiques while everyone else listens. But yeah... it's amazing how much of a difference there is between the writing quality of grad students who have regular critique sessions and those who don't (and have been in school the same amount of time).