So What Happens at a Critique Group, Anyway?

Written by Jayne Bowers

Are you ready to make your writing the best it can be even if it means listening to constructive criticism? If you’re both motivated and humble, a rare combination, it’s time.

In our group, submissions can be fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. Almost anything our members want to create, we’re willing to read and critique. One person submitted chapters of her three novels as works-in-progress, and today she generously gives the group much credit for her success.

Manuscripts are due three days before our group meets, thus allowing writers time to read, reread, and comment on each submission. Short and long work is accepted, but the absolute limit is ten pages. We double-space our work and insert line numbers. Instead of saying, “There’s a misplaced modifier on page three right after the scene where Harry meets Sally,” it’s more expeditious to say, “There’s a misplaced modifier on line 107.”

The Camden group meets twice a month, once in the evening, primarily for those who work during the day, and once in the morning. The number of attendees and submissions varies from meeting to meeting, but we usually have from eight to ten sitting around the table, edited manuscripts in hand.

While everyone writes suggestions on the manuscript itself, some also write a one or two-page document including recommendations and genuine encouragement for the writer. All submissions are seen as works in progress, with comments looking toward the future. For instance, a critiquer might say, “Switching POVs might be beneficial for the nest draft,” or “I’d really like to see this character developed more fully.”

About that encouragement, we follow the maxim to do the least harm. Our goal is to help, not hurt. Without ever discussing it, we all have a tacit understanding of the sandwich technique. (1) We start with something positive, (2) move on to the meaty middle with pros and cons, and (3) close with something positive. Here’s an example:

  1. “This is a unique twist on an old theme. How did you come up with this idea of writing from the POV of the foster parent instead of the child?”
  2. “I kept getting the characters confused. It could be because there are so many of them…or maybe their names are just so similar.”
  3. “I can’t wait to see what you do with this.”

At first, I didn’t get it, “it” being the whole process of critiquing, and would likely say something like, “I enjoyed this,” and then go on to point out missing words, comma splices, and misspellings. I soon came to understand I was proofing for errors instead of critiquing for story, and I quickly learned to mark grammatical and punctuation mistakes on the manuscript with a heads-up to the writer about their existence. Pointing them out in the critique group often detracts from the primary purpose of the meeting and what the writer wants to know: Is the STORY working?

At the same time, there are still some proofreading errors that we will mention aloud if we think the entire group will benefit. For instance, I recall one member asking another, “Do you think you need to mention that it’s Thursday four times on the first page?” That question, tactfully asked, alerted all of us to the ease with which we all fall into overusing the same word when there are other choices.

We do more than critique, too. We talk about books we’ve read, tips we’ve learned, and possible projects. I always go away with some newfound knowledge! Next week, we’ll take a look at some of those gems.




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One Response to So What Happens at a Critique Group, Anyway?

  1. Kathryn Etters Lovatt says:

    Well said, Jayne. I think the guidelines we use in them Camden Chapter have greatly benefited our members. We are a serious group of writers and we read one another’s work seriously—not harshly, as you know, but certainly critically. We also acknowledge that, in the end, the story/essay/poem belongs to the author and we respect that ownership. Writers’ groups are like all support groups—built on trust and good will.
    Thanks for reminding us of this.

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