Step-by-Step Guide to Setting up a Writing Critique Group or a Manuscript Swap

A little birdie told me what to write about this week.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But recently, quite a few people have either asked me how to advance their writing skills (answer: join a critique group) or how to arrange a critique group or what they should do if they cannot attend a critique group. And while I’ve discussed critique groups on the blog before, I think it’s worth a new blog post dedicated to this topic, because I’ve been helping run critique groups for nearly five (or is it six?) years now, and I’ve learned a lot.

Why Join a Critique Group?

You only will grow as a writer if you write regularly. But motivating yourself to write regularly, with no deadlines, is challenging. Getting useful feedback can also be challenging. For instance, you might have a close friend or relative read it, but will they be objective? And you could take a class, but that might involve spending money. (Note: I think it can be worthwhile to take writing classes – but I don’t have much spare change and won’t assume you have it either.) You can remedy all these problems with a single solution: the critique group.

How to create a critique group:

  1. Phone friends who have confessed their desire to write. Post on FB or send around a few emails. Tell all those contacts to hook you up with anyone they know loves to write. See if you can get four to seven people to commit to show up at your house – or in a friendly restaurant – on a particular date, at a particular time. You can limit members to one gender, one topic, one genre, if you’d prefer. Do not invite anyone to the group who cannot take criticism, who is overly critical themselves, or who is overly competitive.
  2. Tell everyone to 300 to 2500 words of writing – any genre – to the first meeting. Ask them to bring four copies, if possible. Tell them the meeting will last two to three hours.
  3. Send out a reminder to everyone the day before the meeting. (If the date was arranged far in advance, it would be good to send a reminder the week before, too.) Make sure there are snacks, pens, and water available for the meeting. Clarify any parking issues in advance.
  4. Sit around the table and introduce yourselves. Then, establish the rules: Each person has up to a half hour to read and receive critiques (20 minutes if more than four people have material to share and time is short). The focus should be on meaning, structure, characterization, pacing, and other substantive issues – proofreading is secondary. Content read remains private, and no one should report on the writing or the comments to anyone outside the group. Discussion should remain polite, and no personal attacks are allowed. Trust and emotional safety are essential to the running of a writing group, and if you can’t trust the other members, the group will cease to function.
  5. Choose one person to read first. Set a timer. No interruptions. The other group members should write down their questions or make proofreading notations on the draft of the story/poem/article/essay/book chapter they are following along on. Consider what is working and what you enjoy, not only what needs to be fixed.
  6. Moving clockwise around the table, everyone responds with constructive criticism for no more than five minutes. (The longer the piece is, the less time you’ll have remaining in the half hour for comments. That’s why you want to put a word count on whatever you bring.) It’s good to mention at least one strength along with any weaknesses you spot. Be specific and only criticize something if it can be changed. (LIKE: “I don’t believe this character would do that thing. It doesn’t seem psychologically true,” or “I think the last paragraph is really unnecessary.” BUT NOT: “Who would want to read this?” or “This is stupid. Don’t even bother rewriting.”) The best criticism identifies problems but only gently suggests solutions. You want the writer’s voice to remain unique, and you want to leave an opening for them to find their own solution. There is no need to discuss most grammar, syntax, or any other similar types of errors which you have already written down on the copy you received.
  7. As soon as everyone has commented, or the timer has gone off, reset it and move to the person sitting to the first reader’s right.
  8. Repeat steps five and six until everyone has had a chance to present their material.
  9. Before you leave, make sure you set up the date and time of the next meeting and assign someone the job of communicating reminders and so on. That person should have email addresses or cell numbers (for texts) for all the group members. If there are less than six people present, brainstorm ways to acquire a couple more members. Meetings can be weekly, biweekly, or monthly.
  10. At subsequent meetings, it can be useful to check in on the progress of members’ writing (“Did you revise it?” “Did you submit it?”) and to discuss how to submit work, where to submit to, opportunities to attend classes or workshops, and any articles or books you have read recently that inspired you. Celebrate triumphs and mourn failures together.
  11. If people break group rules, issue a warning – once – if you want, but if they continue to break group rules (e.g. routinely bring 5000 words and then they insist on reading the whole thing; they say hurtful things to other members; they tell outsiders about other member’s opinions and ideas) don’t keep them in the group.
  12. A participant can bring a new piece every meeting, but they can also bring a piece back again if it’s been revised and they’re trying to polish the new draft up further. However, bringing a piece back more than three times will likely test the patience of at least some members.

Manuscript swaps

Sometimes, a critique group is impossible. Maybe you don’t know other writers who are local to you, maybe you can’t agree on a time. You can arrange a writing swap to take up the slack.

  1. Find participants using the strategies described above. If you can recruit groups of three (three, six, nine), it makes things easier.
  2. Pick a person who will do “intake,” tell everyone their email address, and pick a date and time by which all material should be sent in. (For example, by 9 a.m. the first Thursday of the month.)
  3. If people don’t mind a greater time commitment, you can expand the word count for participants to send in. For example, 3500 words might be reasonable. People could send in a short story, a long feature, a couple short essays, or a dozen poems. Tell them they will have a week to return materials directly to their authors. (Make sure all the participants have each other’s email addresses.)
  4. After you receive the “submissions,” you match up each piece with two readers. That way, each person gets to read and comment on two pieces, and each also gets to receive two sets of comments on their piece. (For example, say your participants are Asher, Batya, and Carlos. Asher gets to read and respond to Batya and Carlos’s pieces and receives comments from both of them on his own piece.)
  5. Remind members to discuss the writing, not their feelings about the writer. They should use friendly, but professional language. They should provide positive feedback as well as negative. Some people like to use the rule: provide at least two compliments and no more than three criticisms.
  6. Send a reminder six days in to make sure they send out their comments by the next evening.
  7. After a week is over, check up on everyone to see if they have received the comments on their piece. Makes sure no one is complaining of personal attacks, useless rants, or the like.
  8. Set a date and time for the next swap. You could do it once or twice a month, whichever works for the members.

If you’ve got more comments or questions about critique groups and manuscript swaps, put them in the comments! I’d especially love to hear from people who have been in groups before.

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