Critique groups play an integral part in a writer’s development. However, finding the ideal one isn’t always easy. Maybe there aren’t many options on in your area. Or the majority of the groups available are write-in style, but you’re looking for feedback on your work. Or you’ve explored online communities, but you prefer to connect with people in your area. If you’ve run into these issues, you have the option to start your own critique group. So where do you begin?
Identify the writers you want to connect with
While you might wan to open your group to as many people as possible, you need to have some specificity in defining your ideal writer. For instance, a novelist and a poet may not be the best fit to critique each other’s work. At the minimum, you’re probably best suited to find someone writing in the same medium. If you’re looking for fiction writers who write YA fantasy, put that in your group description and/or group name. The important takeaway is to be specific enough so you can advertise your group to your intended audience.
Aside from writing experience, consider other demographics you’d like to include in your group. Maybe you’d prefer people of similar identities like gender or race. For me, I was tired of being the only 20 something attending writers’ groups dominated by people old enough to be my parents, so one of my specifiers was age. That led me to include “writers in their 20s” as part of my group’s name.
Define the structure of your group
Open membership means anyone can drop-in and participate whereas closed membership is restricted by the organizer who decides who is allowed to join. If you’re looking to get the most out of critique groups, I’d suggest a closed one which are typically smaller and facilitate closer working relationships. That way, you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with members’ writing, styles, and goals while also inviting opportunities for deeper critiques.
How many members?
Your preferred size will vary if your group is open or closed. For critique purposes, three to six at a single meeting is a small enough size to go in-depth and address everyone’s needs. More than that means less time to dedicate to each person’s writing — unless members aren’t sharing a submission each meeting. Another benefit to smaller groups is flexibility with scheduling and meeting times. In my group, if members had other commitments, we’d find another date where most of us were available.
How often do you want to meet?
This typically ranges from once a week to monthly. For a critique group, this would depend on how often members can produce work to share. Once a week is difficult unless you’re sharing early drafts or have a bunch of chapters stockpiled. Monthly might be more realistic for those who need more time. But if you’re ambitious, I’ve found every two weeks to be better in boosting productivity and for everyone to get more experience with each other’s work.
How long will meetings be?
This will fluctuate depending on how many members and submissions you have — and if you opt to spend some time socializing before getting down to business. The meetings I’ve facilitated ranged anywhere from one hour to three hours. For an individual submission, we spent about twenty to thirty minutes, so with four members on average, meetings were about two hours. As the organizer, be aware of the time variability and be flexible.
Establish ground rules
Aside from meeting structure, you’ll want to establish some ground rules. These cover the logistics, critique etiquette, and member expectations. I was pretty laissez-faire once the meetings started, but you need a plan in case you run into any problems — such as a member who shows up late, fails to bring submissions, or hurts peoples’ feelings during feedback.
You don’t need to create a handbook. A short blurb will do. For instance, here’s a brief paragraph of my expectations that I posted on my Goodreads group page:
Be respectful of others whether commenting on discussions or while providing honest feedback on stories. Email your story or chapter by Thursday night before the Sunday meeting. When critiquing, point out what others have done well as well as areas they can improve.
Aside from general rules, create some guidelines for critique etiquette.
Specify if members will submit their writing prior to or during the meeting. If submitted before the meeting, set a deadline. For instance, my group met on Sunday afternoons, and I would email a reminder to send submissions by Thursday night. This date will also depend on the number of submissions and the length of each piece.
As for the length of submissions, I’d suggest standardizing formatting (at least double spaced, 12 point font). Word count is a better standard so you won’t run into rogue single-spaced submissions with tiny font and giant paragraphs. Submissions in my group were around 5,000 words. And if they were a bit longer and couldn’t be condensed, the member had to notify the group and send it out a few days in advance.
The length and number of submissions will also affect the overall meeting time. You’ll want to allocate enough time for each person. In my group, we’ve spent about 20 to 30 minutes per member, randomly choosing one submission, then taking turns presenting feedback. However, be mindful that this can vary because some people are extra chatty with comments or a piece might have more issues to tackle than others. After all, these are just guidelines that are meant to keep the group on track rather than rigid commandments to follow. As the group gets underway, feel free to modify these rules to see what works best.
Finding a venue
Now that we’re amidst a pandemic, the more sensible option is to host a group online through a video-conferencing platform like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet. Some free versions may have time limits for group meetings so be aware that you may have to pay for a subscription. Make sure you have a reliable internet connection and are familiar with the interface in case you need to use certain features like screen sharing. As with public venues, make sure everyone is in a quiet space to best facilitate the discussion.
Assuming public gathering spaces will reopen soon, you might consider coffee shops, libraries, and bookstores. Preferably, a space that’s quiet enough so you can hear each other. One of my groups started at a Starbucks, but the store kept blasting music, so we relocated to a doughnut shop, and later a Barnes and Noble Café. A benefit of a closed group is having greater flexibility to change locations. Invite members to give feedback about venues and work together to find a better spot.
If you use Meetup.com, it’ll help your cause if you’re creating an open group as it’ll draw a bigger audience of prospective members. If it’s a closed group, you can also limit the number of RSVPs on your group page — however, some people may just show up, so be wary of drop-ins. In my experience, it’s not the best platform to find committed and consistent people. Also know that you’ll have to pay a monthly fee to keep your group page running. So if you’d rather save your money, you’ll need to explore other options to promote your group.
Attend other meetups
Find and visit other writers’ groups and organizations. You can do this locally or online. I identified a drop-in group on Meetup and went every Saturday because new people were constantly attending. I’d chat up anyone who looked to be in my target demographic and gave them a flyer with my contact info. It turned out that someone was interested and ended up joining my group.
Seek out bookish spaces
Assuming you’re a writer and bibliophile, you know writers are readers. So chances are if you come across a reader you might find a writer. That being said, you’re probably are aware of your local libraries, independent bookstores, and online reader communities. Investigating these areas can pay off whether you’re just asking around or passing along your contact info. When I was organizing my first group, I contacted my local libraries and the staff agreed to host the event and helped with advertising. As for online resources, I used Goodreads. I created a group page to post announcements and resources and a soon-to-be-published author in search of a critique group contacted me.
Tap into your social network
Sometimes we might unexpectedly meet people through mutual connections. Do you know any writers among your friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances? Do you know if they know any writers? I didn’t study English or creative writing so I was out of my element. However, when I was in grad school I met a classmate who happened to be a writer. Later on, I invited him to my group and his mom (also a writer) knew someone at a tea shop she frequented who was interested in joining.
Screening members (for a closed group)
If you’re running a closed group, you’re not going to let any stranger barge into your meeting unannounced. Establish some criteria for your ideal member. For my second group, all I required was for people to be motivated, have some writing experience (they couldn’t be a complete beginner), and could consistently produce