Ultimate, Iron-Clad, Final Rules On Critique Groups

I got an email asking my advice about forming a critique group. I answered, but I’m going to expand on it here, so if I get asked again I can just point.

A couple of things by way of introduction: First, get it out of your head that you need a writers group.  You don’t.  You need to write.  If you get as lucky as I did, you can find a group that helps; but you’re just as likely to find one doesn’t, or is even harmful.   Second, the point of a critique group is not to improve the manuscript (though that is a very nice bonus), it is to train the editor who lives in the back of your head.   If you are very good at revisions, then skip the critique group and just hang out with your friends and drink coffee and scotch and argue about politics and season 6 of “Buffy.”

There, that said, if you do form one, what should it be like?  Fortunately for you, I know the answer.  Herewith, the Exactly Right Way to do it, and no other way will work.  I actually believe that, except that I can point to groups that violate every one of these rules and work just fine.  So, oh well.

And note I’m talking about a group that meets in person; for those of you meeting electronically, I have no idea, but I suspect much of this is different.  So, then, without further ado, here is the Ultimate Truth about writers groups.

1. The correct number of people is 5-7.  Any fewer and you don’t have enough diversity of opinion; any more and it becomes  a pain for everyone to talk.

2. You must respect every member as a writer, a critic, and a person.  That last one is not just something I’m saying because it sounds good; it has immediate, practical value.  Here’s why:  At some point, Jim Douchebag is going to say something about your book that makes you go, “Oh, crap.  He’s right.”  And you’ll fix it, because you have to.  And for the rest of your life, every time you look at that book you’ll go, “Fucking Jim Douchebag has his greasy thumbprint on my beautiful book!”  So don’t go there.  Don’t work with anyone whose greasy thumbprint will upset you.

3. Do not have a leader.  I mean, seriously.  What the fuck?  A leader?  Pfui.

4. None of this read aloud bullshit.  You pass out manuscripts ahead of time, find out when people can get together (another reason for the small number: it’s manageable), and talk about what you’ve read.

5.  None of that artificial crap about how long people get to talk.  First, you go around with general comments–the sort where it doesn’t really apply to any specific moment in the book.  Then you go through it chapter by chapter, page by page, even sentence by sentence if necessary (“My next comment is on page 41.” “I have something on page 38” “Go fish.”).  I’d skip the persnickety copy-editing type details (though it’s nice if someone marks those for you and then hands you the marked-up manuscript after the meeting), but on the other hand, sometimes grammar can be very useful.  In fact, having a grammarian in the group is really, really nice (bless you, Pamela, and bless you again).

6. Mention passages, scenes, sentences that you like.  This is not about stroking the writer’s ego.  It’s because two years from now, when you’re gleefully reading the book that you helped with, and your favorite passage is missing because no one told the writer it was good, you’ll feel like an idiot.

7. Do not be afraid to argue.  I mean, the writer shouldn’t argue, but there’s nothing wrong with strong disagreement among the critics. If someone likes a particular way of handling something, and you thought it sucked, that is a good thing. Argue, and let the writer listen to the argument; the writer will then be able to form a useful opinion, and possibly even pull a general rule out of it.  (General rules and laws about how to write or how not to write are the Big Bonus Prize.  You can’t make them happen, but when they do it’s the big payoff.)

8. The argument (see above)  is over when the writer says it is.  (We use the code-phrase, “Thank you.  I’ll think about it.”)

9. Oh, right. You meet as often as you need to in order to cover as much writing as the group is doing.

I may be adding stuff as people point things out, but in general, there. The final and ultimate truth about writers groups, and anything else is a mistake.

Except that, yeah, well, never mind.


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I play the drum.

14 thoughts on “Ultimate, Iron-Clad, Final Rules On Critique Groups”

  1. Heh. I had to instruct a crit group friend in #6 because I started with this list and she thought I was trying to Not Hurt Her Wittle Feewings. So she started waving it off, indicating that I should go on and get to my “real crit.” When in fact I was saying, “Here is what is right with this book. So when you rewrite it from the ground up fixing the BIIIIIG problems I am about to mention, you can be sure to try to keep as much of this stuff as possible!”

  2. Marissa: Exactly right. I will never forgive myself that, “You damn betcha, ratface,” doesn’t appear in that book of Kara’s, because I forgot to say how much I liked it. *sob*

  3. You didn’t mention the food. You always told me that was the important thing. Or at least, that was what kept everyone coming.

  4. Pete: I dunno. Certainly, nothing good can come of trying to defend the book; but I’ve gotten a lot of useful things from, “Think it might fix it if I made the love interest a space alien?” or, “would killing off the protagonist on page 2 fix that problem, do you think?”

  5. Good advice. We do well with four critique partners. We each focus on different sub-genres, bringing some diversity of perspective, and include a former editor. (Yay, Liz!). You mention ‘passing out manuscripts.’ I’m especially frugal and advocated our adoption of a strictly digital manuscript exchange. Word’s ‘Track Changes’ feature and ‘Insert, Comment’ feature are very handy tools. No trees are harmed in the course of our critiquing.

  6. I think season 6 wasn’t bad, but it definitely seemed a bit directionless at times, at least compared to seasons 5 and 7. Though I actually liked the three villains. Also…Once More With Feeling.

  7. Was Once More With Feeling season 6? It was one of my absolute favorite episodes, right up there with Hush from season 4….

  8. Apologizing first for being off-topic.

    I’ve been a long time lurker of Dream Cafe.

    SKZB mentions the phrase “you damn betcha, (insert word here)”. I seem to recall reading that phrase in a book in my younger days. Does anyone happen to know the first known use of that phrase or its’ origin?

    I believe (my memory isn’t what it used to be) the phrase I read was “you damn betcha, featherbreath”. It was definitely a sf/f book, as that is predominantly what I read.

    It has become that song that gets stuck in the brain … repeating over and over … taunting you to remember the artist.

    A company I worked for had a “culture statement”. It was read (out loud with everyone at the same time … which I refused to do since I got over that in the 3rd grade) before every company meeting. One that pops out that might be pertinent to this topic states the following:

    “We will commit to listen to, value, and respect each others’ opinions while engaging in productive conflict, supporting, recognizing, and respecting the diversity of each other.”

  9. MynarM, perhaps you’re being ironic or self-referential but…
    SKZB (as Verra) tells Barlen (he of the scales) “you damn betcha, featherbreath” in one of the Dragaera novels. Possibly “Taltos”. Perhaps Barlen also has avian characteristics in addition to reptilian? Though birds are, of course, modern day dinosaurs.

    I wonder if there’s some vague connection to “Feathers or lead”, the riddle of the Kallikanzaros, or if it’s an allusion to something else.

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