Teaching yourself how to write a novel is tough. Doing it without any kind of feedback is nearly impossible. Because writing is a solitary occupation by nature, you can sometimes feel like you’re operating in a vacuum. But you’re not. There are people all around you who are going through the same experiences you are, the same hopes and frustrations, the same struggles with story ideas and writer’s block. These fellow writers are ready to help you, and they’re hoping you can help them, too. All you need to do is gather them together in a critique group.
If you can’t find a critique group through your local writers organization, you can start your own. My critique group has been meeting for years, thanks to a simple set of guidelines and a helpful hand from the moderator. If you’re starting your own critique group, it’s worth it to take a look at how we run ours.
The Nuts and Bolts of Running a Critique Group
Our setup is simple. Each week, the moderator sends out an invitation to everyone on the email list. It states the date, time and location of the next meeting, and asks anyone planning to attend to RSVP.
Bringing a chapter is optional; if you don’t have any material ready, you’re welcome to just show up and help others. When you RSVP to the moderator, tell her whether or not you’re bringing something to read. That way, when you divide up into groups, she can spread out the readers evenly.
Critique groups come in all sizes. If you have more than six people, it helps to divide up into smaller groups. We intentionally mix up the groups from week to week, so everyone hears a variety of perspectives on their work.
When it’s time to start, one member passes out copies of her chapter and then starts reading aloud. Everyone else follows along silently, occasionally marking typos or notes on their own copy. After the reader is done, everyone has about ten minutes to finish writing up their notes about what works in those pages and what doesn’t. (Tip: Now is a great time for the reader to go get a cup of coffee!)
After ten minutes, the moderator announces that it’s time to discuss. Starting with the person to the reader’s left, each member takes turns talking about what was good about the pages and what could use some work, along with some suggestions on how to improve it. During this time, the reader should keep quiet and listen.
After everyone has had a chance to offer a critique, it’s time for the next reader. Members get to read in the same order in which they arrived that night. (There’s a distinct advantage to being prompt!)
And that’s about all there is to it. It’s simple, it’s straightforward and it works. But you have to have the right people with the right attitude. Above all else, you need politeness and consideration for your fellow writers. When it’s done right, a critique group can be enormously helpful in teaching you to become a better writer.
Critique Group Tips from the Trenches
* If you’re bringing your own work to share, bring up to 10 pages, no more. Use standard manuscript format: 12 point Courier New, double-spaced, one-inch margins. (Don’t use Times New Roman; the font allows too many words per page, and you’ll run out of time to read.)
* When you offer a critique, look for any problems and then suggest solutions. Begin and end your critique with something positive, sandwiching the tougher comments in the middle. Whenever possible, put a positive spin on it: instead of saying, “This part doesn’t work,” you could say, “This part would work better if . . .” and then make a suggestion. Corny, maybe, but the writer’s ego is on the line, so a little verbal cushioning goes a long way.
* Because you’re hearing only a ten-page section of an entire work, it’s like picking up a book in the middle. Certain aspects of the story are bound to confuse you. That’s okay. Just focus on critiquing the material you understand and move on. As you read more of the book each week, it’ll all come together.
* Keep in mind that there are people here at all different levels, writing in different genres, so respect is a must.
* At all costs, resist the urge to argue with a critiquer. My best advice is to turn yourself into a bobble-head doll and nod along in silence. Yes, it’s a natural instinct to defend your work. But if you give in to that urge, you stop listening, which means you stop learning. If you want to become a better writer, listen. Remember, when people point out flaws in your story, they’re actually trying to help you.
* Personally, I find it enormously helpful to bring along a notebook and take notes as I’m hearing critiques of my work. A comment that sounds ludicrous at the time may later reveal itself to be pure genius.
* Above all, remember that you’re among friends, and you’re all in this together. Relax and have fun!
Do you have a writing question? Need a writing coach to help you solve a problem with your novel? Just ask! And if you try this idea and like it, let me know!
I'm going to have a hard time not thinking of you as Bobble-Head Laurence from now on.
Great advice, as usual.
Hi, I am thinking of starting a writing group in my area (I live in Athens, Greece)and I found your advice extremely helpful. I would just say to any future writers – focus on your own ideas and way of writing before seeking external comments and critiques. Then if you are stuck or have questions, get outside help. In other words, trust your instinct and build on it. In the past I used to look outwards before really finding out what I wanted to say.
Well said. I also think it's a great idea to finish a novel you're working on before you start asking for critiques. That way, you don't start doubting yourself and stall out in the middle.