Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups III

Okay, so in the last post about critique groups, I mentioned ground rules and that I would do a post about the afore-mentioned ground rules in critique groups. There’s plenty out there on this topic, but I’m going to talk specifically about those that I felt helped everyone get the best out of critique, and gave everyone a fair shot at both receiving and giving critique.

Before I get into ground rules, I just want to mention the obvious, which is that critique groups work best when they meet regularly and face to face (whether online or in a coffee shop.) It adds a level of accountability and helps everyone maintain a level of momentum. I recommend once a week or once a month at a set time. How much time you spend can vary, but generally, the groups I’ve been in settled on an hour of focused work. In those groups, we exchanged work a week prior to the meeting, to give everyone a chance to read thoughtfully and make notes and comments. (If the author has specific questions they’d like the group to consider, it’s good to include that with the work when it is shared. ) This seems like a small thing, but it leads to a better, more thorough critique, though I’ve known of groups that read the day of the meeting. Here I’d just like to leave a reminder that I’m talking about what has worked for me.

Some folks prefer to handle the process of critique organically. But the best experiences I’ve had is when ground rules have been established. Ground rules can be as extensive or as general as the group needs, but I think the more basic the better.

The first ground rule about critique is that work shared within the group is not meant to be shared with anyone outside of the group. Obviously, this is to help establish trust. No one wants their word-baby exposed to the world before it’s ready.

The second ground rule, generally, has to do with structure. At the beginning of the meeting, the group will choose which piece to go over first, and then go in a circle, allowing everyone to offer critique. It’s best during this time for the author not to interrupt the feedback, to just take it in and then ask for clarification at the end. This helps to eliminate cross-talk, which is the biggest criminal in terms of sucking up time. Cross-talk is going to happen no matter what. In CLAW, with Rune Skelley, we came up with a safe-word to get everyone back on topic when this happened. It is possible we had way too much fun with that…

Anyway, at the end of that first round robin, it’s usually time to pick the next vict… er… piece and start over.

The third ground rule that we developed was to leave grammar and spelling out of the discussion to focus on the content of any given piece. Largely this was because the author generally received a rough or digital copy with those things already pointed out, so for purposes of the meeting it was redundant.

Last was not so much a hard and fast rule as it was a suggestion, and that was to remember the management technique of “the compliment sandwich.” You know what I’m talking about, when the person says, “Well, I think you do a really good job with x, but y needs some work. This z, however was really great.”

Obviously, due to the nature of what a critique group does, that y section takes up a lot more words. But it is as important to note what is working about another author’s work. Sometimes that can point out a solid direction for rewrites as much as the rest of it.

It would sometimes happen that in a particular week we didn’t have work to look at. When that happened, we’d choose a topic regarding writing to discuss and sometimes we’d pull out writing prompts to do, just to get the idea engines moving.

 

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