Critique Groups

Forming a Critique Group at BARN

So, you’re writing — and now it’s time for peer review and feedback! Critique groups are an excellent way to receive constructive criticism while connecting with other writers. A group that meets regularly is also an excellent accountability tool. Here’s what you need to know about forming a critique group at BARN.

  1. Everyone in the critique group must be a BARN member.
  2. At least one person must have fob access to the studio.
  3. Contact the studio lead for: a time on the schedule and calendar, communication with other members to see who wants to join, and approval to meet in the studio.
  4. Read all information below to increase your chance of building a successful group.

What can a critique group offer?

1.  Valuable outside perspective. When you’re too close to your own work or mired in self-doubt, a critique partner or group can offer both suggestions and reassurances.

2.  Accountability. It’s easier to blow off an internally imposed deadline than it is to disappoint someone who is expecting to review your pages on a certain date.

3.  Support. Great critique partners or groups believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

4.  Practice. At some point, you’re either going to submit your work to editors and agents, or you’ll self-publish. Both routes take an enormous amount of courage. Being willing to receive criticism helps build up your confidence and courage and teaches you how to release your work into the wild.

Best practices in forming a critique group

1. Define the scope or goal of the group. Do you want a genre-focused group, such as fiction? What do you hope to accomplish? Do you want to write and submit stories for publication? Or do you simply want to work on craft? Or both? Is the group’s main purpose to help writers get published? Or is it just a forum for sharing work? The group can have multiple goals, of course, but it helps to know what they are.

2. Decide on numbers/members. Keep the number of members limited. Four or five is a good starting place. If one person leaves the group, replace him/her with a new writer. Fill empty spots by invitation and agreement of the group. This will build trust, ownership, and respect in your group. Should all members of your group be writers?

3. Establish meetings. Find a time/day that honors writers’ lives (work, family). Twice monthly seems most common and is usually better than weekly as it gives writers a chance to write/edit in between meetings. Two hours is generally the right amount of time for a group of four, if all share. Figure a half hour per presenter. Any more time than that and energy starts to wane.

4. Determine the location. BARN Writers’ Studio provides a space. Please contact the studio lead for an appropriate time and to get your group on the calendar.

5. Organize. Develop a system to keep you organized. It’s also helpful to establish a routine during the meetings. For instance, begin by sharing any news and related information and then move into the critique session. Learn to keep track of time to give everyone a chance to share. Beyond the very reasonable, don’t socialize too much during group time. It will eventually crumble the will of the group. Get to know each other in other ways.

6. Submitting work and critique structure. Will work to be shared be submitted online to everyone before the meeting? If so, how long before? Will the work be shared at the meeting only — orally or in writing? How many pages will be shared? A chapter? May each person share or will you decide ahead of time who shares, or rotate? Calculate critique time based on length of meeting and numbers in the group, allowing for hellos and transitions. If your group is larger, you may want to divide up critiques every two weeks.

7. Giving critique. Critique the writing, not the writer. Find what works; what doesn’t. Speak as objectively as possible, as if the writer is absent. Examples:

  • This passage is confusing; perhaps another word here would work better.
  • I want to know more.
  • There’s a POV shift in this section.
  • Too much use of progressive tense/passive voice.
  • Needs more thrust.
  • The story really starts on page 4.

Upon completion, provide the writer with your edits and notes on hard copy. Give the writer a moment to explain unanswered questions. Determine ground rules at your first meeting. If you clearly define in writing the ground rules, you’ll reduce the risk of developing harmful critiquing habits. Remember that a critique group is not an opportunity to tear down another writer, but neither is it a mutual admiration society. Instead, it’s a gathering of writers committed to producing their best work and helping others do the same. It’s an idea pool, a sounding board, a safety net. It’s also a support group that provides encouragement and helpful criticism. “Critiquing is tearing apart, not down.”

Basic guidelines for achieving an up-building, friendly atmosphere:

  • View feedback as part of a learning process.
  • Don’t give false encouragement, but at the same time, be supportive of and receptive to new ideas.
  • Don’t just criticize, also suggest.
  • Respect individual writing styles.
  • Give everyone a chance to share work and provide feedback.
  • Don’t argue with those critiquing your work.
  • Be willing to consider change.
  • When critiquing, start with something positive.
  • Give both general and specific feedback.
  • Don’t forget to have everyone bring copies of their manuscripts so members can make notes as they read along if you read in your group meeting.

8. Receiving critique. One approach is to be quiet! Sit back and take notes. Let the questions and comments fly. Take it all in. Answer questions at the end, if necessary. The other approach is to listen carefully to comments, explain where necessary, and pursue another’s “train of thought” for improvement. Megan Chance said that the writer sharing his or her work at a critique group is responsible for getting the best information possible and for achieving his or her goal in submitting the work. Above all, be willing to take information for improvement and consider it. As the writer, however, you do not have to use it.

9. Confidentiality. Make an agreement with the whole group that you will not steal ideas, or talk about the work outside of the group, except in general terms.

10. Commitment. Discuss and determine as a group how you want to handle breaks, respites, and waning commitments. Life happens. Sometimes people don’t show up, or arrive late or unprepared, or travel for extended periods. Ask yourselves how you want to support each other, how tight or loose you want to be with commitment to the group, etc. It’s a choice.

11. Other resources for critique groups:

40 Places to Find a Critique Partner Who Will Help You Improve Your Writing

Back to the Writers’ Studio home page.