An EPIC Synthesis
"How To" Series
#1 "How to Begin an Effective Critique Group"
Your EPIC PR Committee gratefully acknowledges the invaluable contributions of the following EPIC members. Their accumulated knowledge and experiences on this subject, and their willingness to share it with others, will be of untold benefit, both to present and future EPIC members. It is this spirit that will make EPIC a driving force in the Electronic Publishing Industry.
Judy Bagshaw—Author of "Tales From The Heart"
"Why should I be part of a critique group?"
Without exception, our panel of contributors unanimously agreed that for both the published author and the aspiring writer, being an active participant in an effective critique group, if not absolutely essential, is certainly beneficial. Contributor Mary E. Trimble put it this way;
"You can't afford not to. You need to work with people who share the same goals and aspirations. My critique group has proved to be one of my most valuable writing tools. It has helped me produce gratifying, sellable work. Not only that, since I work at home in a solitary environment, my group brings me important social contacts with others who share my professional interests; people from whom I gain inspiration and confirmation that my work is important."
Having said that, however, contributor Carrie Masek added this note of caution:
"Some writers swear by their critique group, other writers swear at them. A group can jump-start your career, or hold it back. They can inspire creativity, or undermine a writer's individual voice."
The "key" phrase has to be "an effective critique group." If there is "effective" groups in your area, by all means, join one and get involved. If there isn't—start one. But "HOW" do you go about beginning "an effective" critique group? That's what this synthesis is all about.
Somethings to Consider First:
"What is the purpose of the group?" To offer support? To critique? To educate? To hone writing skills? To socialize?
"What will be the focus of the group?" Novels, short stories, poetry, memoirs? . . . Whatever? . . . Fiction or non-fiction? . . . Eclectic or genre specific?
"What medium do you want the group to be?" Face-to-face? On-line? or combination of the two?
Contributor Carrie Masek suggests there are at least three essential ingredients to an effective critique group--probably more:
I. The Right People
The contributors were unanimous in their opinion that finding the "right" people is difficult, but essential. Contributor Michele R. Bardsley put it this way; "You should strive to find people with both knowledge and experience; people who share common goals--then go after those people." All agree it is absolutely essential that all members of the group be respectful of every member's work and that they are willing to listen and learn.
Contributor Anita Gunnufson says "One of the keys to the success of our group was getting everyone involved. I made sure each member had a responsibility." The rest of the respondents agree. The "swinging door" problem with the group losing members as fast as it gains new ones will be less of a problem if each member feels like they are contributing something.
"How do you find these people?"
Local High Schools and Colleges
II. The Right Medium, Venue, and Format
Although our primary focus is directed to local, face-to-face critique groups, there are many very successful "online" groups. Most of these are primarily "critique" groups and break down into three types: Web-based; Listserv-based; and private e-mail groups.
With web-based groups, participates send their work to a web-site administrator who puts the work on the web page for other members to review. Other member's critique is then either mailed back to the administrator for distribution or sometimes mailed directly to the author. To find such groups try http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.html.
Listserv-based groups are set up with a list service such as http://groups.yahoo.com or one such as our Epicbiz is on now. Manuscripts and critique are e-mailed to group members, who then review and e-mail their response.
Private e-mail lists are set up directly between group members who share their work and critique directly by e-mail between only the group. Contributor Judy Bagshaw tells us, "We often e-mails our material to group members to allow them more time to critique the material prior to the meeting."
There is both "good news" and "bad news" concerning online critique groups. The "good news" is that it is easy to set up . . . easy to attract members . . . easy to schedule . . . and growing rapidly. The "bad news" is you lose the distinct advantage of "face-to-face" interaction. Perhaps the biggest drawback is the temptation and ease in which plagiarism can be accomplished online.
"How often should we meet?"
Without a doubt, face-to-face groups are the most popular and personally beneficial. Frequency of meetings vary widely depending on the needs, schedules, and distance members have to travel, but contributors agreed that weekly meetings were the most productive. To be sure, weekly meetings will limit the size of your group, but the size doesn't seem to be as important as the quality and commitment of the members.
Contributor C. J. Winters offers her experience pertaining to numbers. "Our group decided seven attendees was ideal. We still had a productive meeting if only four or five showed up and if ten came, that was okay too, but seven was ideal. I feel less than that and you don't get a broad enough critique. Anything over ten makes it difficult for everyone to share their work."
Mary E. Trimble's group goes further than that; they limit their group to no more than ten members. "Group membership in our tightly-knit group is taken very seriously," Mary says. "Newcomers must attend three meetings as invited guests and fully participate in the critiquing process. With the experience that one member can ruin a entire group, a unanimous vote is required before they are invited to join the group."
"How long should a meeting last?"
A typical meeting would be two-three hours in length. This, of course, varies according to the format. Lunch or dinner meetings don't usually work well. If your members want to eat it is usually preferable to schedule that before or after the meeting. The biggest "meeting buster" is usually a person that feels a need to "chase rabbits" and dominate the conversation into areas unrelated to the purpose of the meetings. This should be avoided at all costs.
"What officers do we need?"
Over-organizing has also been the death-knell of many writing groups. Our contributors recommend the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Seriously Simple) method should apply—the less "offices"—the less opportunities for power struggles and the less time is wasted on "business." After the group has been organized, a chairman is usually designated to maintain order and prevent the conversation from straying. Some groups rotate the chairman on a monthly basis.
"Where should our group meet?"
Answer; someplace free, quiet, and convenient. Your local library usually has rooms available they will be happy to schedule for your group. Bookstores are often glad to have writing groups. Community rooms in your local bank, Chamber of Commerce, or Church. Restaurants often have special rooms set aside for groups. Often though, they require participants eat. If your group schedules a lunch or dinner either before or after your meeting this can work well. Member Homes sometimes work well, but invite problems in the long term.
"What about activities besides the regular meeting?"
"Our group often has a booth at local Book Fairs, Renaissance Fairs, All day workshops, retreats, and a purely social Christmas party each year, says contributor, Sarah Winn. But we keep these activities separate from our meeting times."
III. The Right Feedback
In a typical critique meeting each member who had material to submit for critique would bring 5-7 pages for each member. The author, or someone they choose, would read the work, with each member following along and noting questions or suggestions on their sheets. After the reading, each, in turn, would then point out something in the work that they liked--this is very important. Contributor Carrie Masek says, "If a member didn't hear something in the work they can honestly compliment, they simply don't make any comment at all. Only after the "pat on the back" do members make their suggestions or ask their questions. It is absolutely essential that care be taken to critique the work--not the author or subject matter. Respect is a must! All members should always remember, it is the authors work. Ultimately, they and they alone must make all final decisions.
"How should I structure our group?"
"Groups that form around specific genres, such as romance, mystery, western, or science-fiction seem to work best," Contributor Dr. Gay Kinman says. "If you are in a group that does everything from erotica to inspirational, giving a good critique of other member's work can be difficult, if not impossible. Someone who is not familiar with the genre may not be helpful, and may even be harmful. Most genres have their own guidelines of "do's and don'ts." All genres, however, rely on a good story with interesting, well-developed characters, and a logical, satisfying ending.
"Ideally, each member of the group has e-mailed pages of the manuscript to be critiqued to other members in ample time for them to go over the work carefully. Hearing the material read aloud is helpful, but you'll give—and get—better feedback reading it with red pen in hand, sprawled in your favorite reading chair ready to make notes.
"In my group," Dr. Kinman continues, "we take turns critiquing. When one person is through, then the next begins, and we are careful not to interrupt each other. You're not there to defend your work, you're there to make it better. You may not agree with what they are saying, but hear them out. I usually respond with, 'okay, I appreciate your suggestions, I'll look at that.'
"When you critique, you should always give the most honest evaluation that you can. Praise what you like, suggest changes where needed, but above all, don't try to impose your style on someone else's work.
"Critiquing doesn't mean 'criticize'—it means 'critique'—that's positive and negative. Many experienced critiquers use the 'sandwich' method: The first 'slice' is overall praise; the 'meat' is the actual critique—viewpoint changes, flaws in plot, character inconsistencies; then the last 'slice' is a positive comment on the overall work.
"Of course one can't make every change suggested, nor should you, but if two people point out the came thing, pay attention. I love reading another authors work. It's a thrill to know the writer, to read a new story, to be a part of making it better, and a thrill that they trust you with their newborn baby."
Contributor Dusty Rhodes says, "I've seen critique groups verbally tear another fellow-member to shreds with unkind comments, sometimes bringing them to tears. There is no place for this and should not be allowed."
Jeff Strand says, "It's important, however, that any critique session not be simply an exercise in mutual ego-stroking. You're there, presumably, with the intent of improving your work, and it's probably not going to get better if you spend every meeting listening to people say how wonderful you are. You need to be in a group where people can be honest and constructive, and listen to each other's opinions without getting defensive."
Michele R. Bardsley suggests you send a blank email to Convey Criticism and Survive Critiques<.
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