I’ve been in a number of writing workshops and critique groups (and have led some as well) and, in general, I think they’re valuable for getting feedback on your writing. We all need constructive comments and suggestions at some point as well as moral support, and a good group can provide this. Sometimes you might outgrow your critique group or find that the members become less and less objective about your work the more they get to know you personally. And of course there can always be growing pains where writing levels among members end up differing dramatically.
If things aren’t going so well in your writing workshop or critique group, or if it’s just at a standstill or kind of stuck in the mud, here are some possible changes to consider that might shake things up for the better.
~ Regularly Scheduled Meetings – Employing a definite schedule will go a long way in taking your writing and all members’ writing seriously. It will also help with writing discipline since members will commit to submitting their pages by a certain date and use that as a deadline.
~ Regular Attendance – Members who often skip meetings or pull out from submitting their writing at the last minute can put a damper on the group’s morale. Make sure all participants are on the same wavelength and replace those who aren’t dedicated or share the group’s vision.
~ Arriving Early – Set the time of the meeting and make sure that when it begins it will start with the manuscript critiques. If people want to socialize first, have them come thirty or so minutes earlier for chit-chat and catching up.
~ Read Manuscripts Ahead of Time – I’ve heard of some groups where participants bring in 10 pages or so and read them out loud and then get “instant feedback” from the group. In my last blog post I celebrated the art of reading your work aloud, but that was in the context of self-editing and revision. I don’t know about you, but I have a very hard time articulating much useful feedback when I’ve only heard something for the first time and haven’t read it on the page. Since most of us are looking to have our work read on the page by agents, editors and general readers, I think it makes sense to submit work ahead of time so members can read (and re-read) and think hard about what they want to say, and then write comments on the hard copy. Another good practice is to have everyone write a cover sheet attached to the manuscript that offers a summary of general reactions to the piece.
~ Select a Leader – This can be a person who is the ongoing leader or someone who can be changed at each meeting. Meetings will be more focused and will run smoothly if there’s a person in charge who can pay attention to the time and cut off discussion if need be in order to move things along.
~ Organizing the Verbal Feedback - Consider having the leader begin the group with each participant giving their general reactions from what they’ve written on their cover sheet. After that’s done, the leader can then lead the group in a page-by-page analysis. An example could be:
Leader: Who wants to comment on page one?
Greg: The opening paragraph really hooked me with the protagonist’s strong voice and the issue she was grappling with.
Melinda: I liked the opening too, but I was confused as to who was talking when the dialog started in the fourth paragraph.
Leader: Anyone else agree or disagree with that?
Riley: Yes, I was confused as well.
Leader: Anyone else? Ok, let’s move on to page two.
This type of approach is more efficient than a freewheeling style. It’s also specific, which will probably resonate more with the author and hopefully will avoid pointless digressions.
Author Silence – I think it’s important to make sure that the author of the piece does not respond to any of the feedback until after everyone has finished giving his or her reactions. The writer can take notes while this is going on and then ask questions afterwards or offer clarification of unclear areas. An author “arguing” back or wanting to explain things or make a point in the moment will only bog down a meeting. And sometimes things can go so downhill that they will never recover.
When a critique group is working well, the writers will be inspired to go home and write more and look forward to the next meeting. In your critique groups and workshops strive to create an atmosphere where everyone can take themselves seriously as writers, enjoy the process and sincerely help each other.