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How to Survive a Writers' Critique Group

 article about How to Survive a Writers Critique Group

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How to Survive a Writers' Critique Group

All over the United States, and perhaps around the world, aspiring writers meet together for mutual support and development. Groups of would-be writers haunt the basement rooms of churches, family living rooms, and back rooms of restaurants. Since retiring from my career, writing has been my main activity, and I have spent hundreds of hours in writing critique groups.

Many writers reject discipline, and they can be a hard bunch to control. Without rules, however, a writers' group is a great waste of time. Here are some suggested rules that work for me:

The maximum number of writers in a critique group seems to be about eight. In a two-hour meeting, this affords each writer about fifteen minutes, and that is not a lot of time.

Each meeting requires a group leader. This job rotates among the membership; having one dominate leader may not be a good idea for most groups.

If the group is at a limit of eight members, new members can form their own group or go on a waiting list. If there are many writers in an area, specialized groups may form around poetry, memoir, novels, etc. I think it is a mistake to extend the time of a meeting to accommodate more members.

The meeting must begin exactly on time and end after two hours. Why a time limit? The human brain can focus only so long on critical analysis, and the human butt can sit for only so long in one place.

If there are eight writers present, each member must limit their group time to fifteen minutes, and that is about 1,000 to 1,200 words.

"But I'm writing a novel and I must read a whole chapter," protests one writer.

So, break your masterpiece into sections week after week, or just use the meeting as a place to display a limited work sample. It really is not so important that the group appreciate the whole project; that's up to a potential agent or publisher. Without knowing the full plot or all the details the group can help at a specific level with character development, dialog, point-of-view, and so forth.

Those who read should always provide printed, double spaced copies to give to the group. These copies are returned to the writer at the end of the meeting with comments and corrections added.

The group begins with any news, announcements, or brags. One of the greatest moments in a writing group is a new writer reporting a first publication or contest win.

Each member, in turn, reads his/her material aloud, and members follow along in the printed manuscript. After reading, the writer must remain silent while members take turns, one at a time, making their comments. Cross talk, explaining, and defending must be delayed or even eliminated. When each member of the group has offered comments, then the writer may answer specific questions and add comments.

If you don't want honest feedback, don't read. Once you read, shut up and listen. Just listen to opinions and suggestions. Take what you can use, leave the rest, and be sure to say thanks. Never be defensive or argumentative. If your writing does not stand on its own, fix it and don't bother people with explanations.

In commenting on the work of others, sandwich any negative criticisms in between positive, encouraging comments, but always be honest and unapologetic. Avoid any and all personal attacks and never become defensive yourself. Never argue over controversial content.

The group's concern is the craft of writing. What a writer says is his or her business; the group's job is to help each other say it effectively.

Beware the entertainer who is looking for an audience rather than a real critique on what he/she presents. This is a writing group, not a performance group.

Beware the scold who wants to inflict personal standards and preferences on everyone.

Beware the amateur poet who has no idea of meter, verse, modern poetry, style, or devices such as metaphor,

Beware the memoir with memories not worth keeping. Some people assume that they have had a very interesting life. There are, for example, millions of children of abusive alcoholics who think their story is unique and worth writing about. Sometimes, once in a while, that's true in the hands of a good writer. At the other extreme, making cookies with Aunt Emma is probably boring for most readers.

Beware the victim seeking a therapy group. Always go back to the basic reason for having the group, and help those who need some other experience find the right place to be.

Beware the professorial type who wants to be a teacher and group leader.

To be a writer is to sit down alone for long periods every day and write. To be a writer is to submit, submit, and submit some more. If a writing group helps, stay with it, but don't be afraid to walk away if it does not.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development.
ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2.
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