Chip MacGregor

September 10, 2012

How do I get the most out of my critique group?


Someone wrote to ask, “How does a critique group work in the real world? What should one of our meetings look like?”

I love this question, since writers are often encouraged to start a group, but don’t have specifics on how to do so. Some thoughts…  Let’s say you have a group of four to ten people. You agree to meet once per month, somewhere in the middle of the month. On the first of the month (roughly two weeks before your meeting), everybody submits their work to the other members of the group. All the documents are emailed to one another in a Microsoft Word attachment, double-spaced, 12-point font, with plenty of margin space around the words. You may want to limit the page count to five or ten or even fifteen pages (though I know of one group that asks for a chapter per month, leaving the page count to the individual writer’s notion of what a chapter length should be.) There’s a hard and fast rule that you receive it by the first of the month or you ignore it until next month. So you receive everyone’s writing, print it out, read each one, and edit it. You ask questions. You point out things that aren’t clear. You write comments at the end. You try to be polite but honest. If you really want to be professional, you all use the “track changes” feature to make your comments, so that everything is legible.

Keep in mind that the criticism is of the work, not of the writer. And, as my friend Cecil Murphey likes to say, “Members do not make value judgments — they don’t say ‘this is bad,’ but instead offer suggestions for improving the work.” Participants in a critique group are criticizing your work.They are NOT criticizing you. And on each piece you say at least one nice thing, since everybody needs to hear an occasional compliment.

So you gather in the middle of the month at someone’s house, the leader or host puts all her copies of the month’s manuscripts into a basket, and pulls one out. That’s the first one you will talk about. You set a time limit of ten-to-thirty minutes (depending on the number of people in your group), and you all share your thoughts on the work. Don’t repeat criticisms — if one person notes that “Dweezil Gooschitz is a bad name for a character,” nobody else needs to echo that. Just move quickly through the thoughts and responses people had. Consider starting with general comments (like structure and plot and lead), rather than spending time on the obvious minor stuff that will show up in everyone’s edits (like misspelled words or misplaced quotation marks). After making general comments, you can do a quick page-by-page discussion, noting things like clarity and word choice.

Many groups use the Right Hand method of leading — the person to the right of the author will lead the discussion and keep things on track. That way nobody dominates the evening by leading all the discussions, and everybody is forced to lead once.

And here’s a hard and fast rule: When the group is discussing your work, you may not talk. Let everyone have their say — you don’t have to accept all the ideas. Use what is helpful, discard what is not. There’s not an assumption that everything said to you is going to be correct — it’s just helpful to get other sets of eyes reading the words. After everyone has had their say, you may open your mouth to ask questions. But don’t spend time arguing, refuting, or offering explanations. That’s a waste of time.

Hope this helps you know how to do a good critique group.

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  • Juliana Vadnais says:

    What other suggestions do you have for college students who are also busy? I really liked your suggestions so far. I always have a hard time not speaking while my work is being talked about. But it is a good rule to have.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      College students should get together more often — once a week, if possible. I’m serious. Treat it as a class and you’ll improve.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I resisted starting a critique group for several years because “I didn’t have time.” Last January I began driving to another city to participate in one and found it so helpful I realized I would have to make time to start a local group.

    I kept what worked with the first group and tweaked the rest. Now I’m in two groups. Being in a critique group is the single best move I’ve made to grow as a writer.

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