Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

To Critique Group or Not to Critique Group: THAT IS NOT A QUESTION!

March 5, 2019 by Erzsi Deak

by Laura Gehl

Part II of Laura Gehl’s incisive exploration of writers’ critique groups. To read Part I, please go here.

You may have read Part I of this post, in which I discussed the benefits of a critique group. I am in two critique groups—one online, one in person. They are both wonderful in different ways. In this Part II post, I am going to talk about the benefits of online versus in-person groups, as well as the pros and cons of different critiquing formats.

Online vs. In-person

ONLINE

Benefits: Very convenient! No commuting time to meetings, no juggling schedules, just critique from your own home whenever you have time. It can be easier to both give and take critical feedback online than in person.

Difficulties: Depending on how the group is structured, online critique groups may not have the same accountability as in-person groups. When you don’t have to face your critique partners month after month without a manuscript to discuss, you may coast along in a life-is-too-busy-to-write haze. Online groups may not have the same level of personal connection as in-person groups. (However, some online groups schedule writing time together—where everyone writes at the same time from their respective locations—or have check-in times each week where everyone says what they are working on and how it is going. This can help with both accountability/motivation and feeling connected.)

IN-PERSON

Benefits: In-person groups tend to have some amount of social time at the beginning and/or end of the meeting. This provides time to talk about publishing issues more broadly (submission questions, editor questions, good and bad news) and also time to talk about non-writing jobs, family, travel, hobbies, whatever. The social time can build a closeness in in-person groups that sometimes lacks in online groups. Having an actual discussion about a manuscript, rather than just a series of typed comments, can also be more conducive to brainstorming plot ideas and/or having in-depth conversations on certain topics.

Difficulties: If you live in a location without a lot of other writers, it can be hard to find an in-person group. And some groups simply can’t find an in-person time that works for everyone. Also, people may feel less comfortable giving difficult feedback face to face, especially at first.

HYBRID

A number of online groups meet up once a year, or more, for a weekend retreat. If you can make it work, this can potentially be the best of both worlds.

How many members is the right number?

The perfect number for a critique group is eight. Unless you live in California, in which case it is seven. Just kidding—there is no one magic number. For online groups, the number of members can be pretty big. Not everyone will critique every manuscript, and having more people can be a plus so that each piece gets critiqued by a number of different people.

For in-person groups, the number of people varies depending on the format. Usually, in-person groups break down into two categories:

1) Groups with a small number of people (usually 4 max) who pick dates such that all members can attend all meetings. Everyone critiques everyone else’s work at each meeting. The small number is necessary both so that dates can be found that work for everyone, and so that there is time for everyone to comment on everyone else’s work without the meeting lasting for twenty-seven hours (sixteen hours is the maximum recommended meeting length).

2) Groups with a larger number of members (could be as high as 12) where only a few members have work discussed at any one meeting.

Some of these larger in-person groups meet more often than smaller groups—weekly, perhaps, instead of monthly. With this type of group, not everyone can make every meeting, and that’s okay, because there is always a critical mass.  

How often to meet/share?

ONLINE: Many online groups limit submissions to one or two pieces per month. Some have submission windows (submit only on the 1-5 of the month, or the 15-20 of the month), some are fine with submitting anytime.

IN-PERSON: Most in-person groups meet monthly. However, as mentioned above, some larger groups may meet more frequently, with the understanding that not all members will make it to every meeting.

What critiquing format works best?

Online groups tend to use one of these formats:

1) Sharing manuscripts in Google Docs

BENEFITS: everyone can read everyone else’s comments and note where they agree/disagree

2) DIFFICULTIES: the document can get too cluttered with lots of people commenting, and nobody can really make line edits without things getting too confusing

2) Sharing MS Word manuscripts by email

BENEFITS: Each critiquer can make comments and line edits separately

DIFFICULTIES: It is less convenient for different critiquers to see one another’s comments, and less convenient for a writer to collect/assemble all the feedback from different documents.

3) Posting manuscripts on a private group blog

BENEFITS: It is easy for everyone to see each other’s comments without the cluttered-manuscript problem mentioned above.

DIFFICULTIES: It is more difficult to suggest line edits. This format works best for picture books or posting just a few pages of a novel and is not ideal for reading/commenting on longer works.

In person groups tend to use one of these formats:

1) Read at the meeting

Some groups have the author or another member read the work out loud at the meeting, followed by a discussion of the work.

BENEFITS: No advance preparation needed; reading aloud can make some problems more obvious, such as overuse of certain words or problems with rhyme or meter.

DIFFICULTIES: Takes up a lot of extra time at the meeting, doesn’t give people time to mull over the work before discussing

2) Read before the meeting, then discuss in person

BENEFITS: Gives time for everyone to mull over the work in advance of commenting

DIFFICULTIES: Anyone who wants work discussed at the meeting needs to send it out to other members early enough so that everyone can read it before the meeting

3) Read before the meeting, then discuss in person—plus send line edits either before or after the meeting

This is similar to #2 but has the added benefit of easily giving detailed feedback in addition to big-picture feedback.

4) Read before the meeting, then read aloud at the meeting, then discuss

This hybrid approach allows for making notes and line edits beforehand but then listening critically at the meeting as well—perhaps noticing repeating words and other problems. It can be particularly valuable to have the work read aloud by someone who is not the author of the work. The author may hear that another reader pauses in unexpected spots, or places inflection on unexpected syllables.

That’s it for my thoughts on different types of critique groups and critique formats. Check back On Sunday March 17, 2019, for Part III of this post, about how to find or start a critique group. 

Laura Gehl is the author of picture books and board books including ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, the PEEP AND EGG series, MY PILLOW KEEPS MOVING, and I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY. She has four books releasing in spring 2019: DIBS! (illustrated by Marcin Piwowarski, Lerner); EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T (illustrated by Joshua Heinsz, Little Bee); BABY OCEANOGRAPHER and BABY ASTRONAUT (illustrated by Daniel Wiseman; HarperCollins).