Critiquing rules & procedures (v. 19)

Purpose of critiquing:

Affirmation of strengths. Suggestions for improvements.

A note for the easy-going and free-spirited– sorry about all the rules. Over the past 20+ years the group has encountered a number of problematic behaviors. Each situation gave birth to a rule. The rules clarify expectations and allow us to get on with the writing and critiquing without fuss or conflict. We’ve found structure and boundaries make dogs, kids, and groups happier.

Procedures

Meetings are every two weeks on Sundays, starting at 1pm. Currently we meet on zoom. The meeting ends around 4pm (occasionally later). There are breaks. Bring a beverage (and snacks or lunch) if you need them.

Although we have a schedule (posted to the home page), it’s not etched in stone. If there’s bad weather, or not enough attendees or critiquing, we cancel and sometimes reschedule for the following week.

Everyone’s time is precious. To ensure that we’re going to have enough critiquing to make the meeting worthwhile, an attendance “roll call” is emailed the week of the meeting. Please “reply to all” as soon as possible so that everyone can see how the meeting is shaping up. If you’re not sure, respond with a “maybe” asap. Let the group know if you’ll be late or need to leave early.  A “recap,” a summary of attendance, is sent out a few days before the meeting. If something unexpected comes up after the recap, please email the group.

If attendance/readings fall below a minimum (typically 5 attendees and 3 readings), we may cancel the meeting.

There are no dues.

Manuscripts are not emailed in advance for in person meetings. (But when we meet on zoom, pieces are emailed a few minutes before the start of the meeting.) Here’s the thinking–we don’t read manuscripts beforehand which is a form of homework. The only homework for this group is to write and study writing. (“Homework” is also problematic for the group in other ways–it requires deadlines, deadlines are missed, people come to meetings unprepared, etc. and the group leader has no desire to monitor homework.) Instead, we read aloud at the meeting and comment and discuss on the spot. New members generally find the pace extremely challenging at first, but eventually adapt.  However, we make no claim that this is a perfect method or it works for everyone. Sorry.

Content warnings at the top of a piece are appreciated.

The maximum number of words that can be submitted for critique at a given meeting is relative and depends on the number and productiveness of members with pieces for that particular meeting. Generally, the limit is around 2000-2500 words per piece. When we have a smaller meeting, the max could be as much as 4000 words per piece.  Word count is determined by word processor. There is no minimum.  We make reasonable efforts to be flexible for publisher/agent/application/contest deadlines.

The order of reading is set at the meeting’s beginning and it’s always longest to shortest–those with most words read first, so that we tackle the longest pieces first while we’re fresh. First timers may go first if they’re nervous. Any writer bumped from a meeting because of time constraints gets priority at the next meeting.

For in-person meetings, extra printouts at the meeting are appreciated (but not required) so people can follow along. Printouts should have page numbers, preferably the actual page numbers from the novel so that people have a sense of where a piece fits into the whole. Save paper. Ask critiquers to share. Printouts may be single-spaced and/or on the back of used paper.

At the meeting, the writer does not read their own work aloud. Someone else volunteers to read. The thinking: good dramatic reading can sometimes compensate for not so good text. That’s not helpful. In other words, we don’t critique the quality of the reading; we critique the words on the page.

At in person meetings, critiquers put their name(s) on their print copy, and are encouraged to mark punctuation errors, misspellings, typos, repeated words, and other issues using proofreading symbols. They should refrain from writing substantive comments. Seriously. Don’t make the group leader say something, because she will. All comments must be spoken aloud at the meeting. The thinking:  First, a critiquer cannot simultaneously write diplomatic comments and attend to the reading in progress. (Notes to jog your memory should be written on your own notepaper where you can say whatever you want, however you want to say it without worrying about being diplomatic or understandable). Second, comments shouldn’t be private, and a writer shouldn’t have to wonder later what a cryptic scribbled comment means and who made it. Comments should be spoken aloud so everyone can learn, agree, disagree, augment, and/or discuss.  Additional comments shouldn’t later be privately emailed to a writer unless/until you’re friends.

For meetings on zoom, pieces are emailed to the group a few minutes before the meeting. It is not expected, or suggested, that pieces would be read before the meeting. On zoom, one person volunteers to read,  shares their screen, and everyone else follows along. We do not annotate the piece or write out critiques and email them to the writer. All feedback is spoken-aloud during the meeting, and only during the meeting.

Once a reading is concluded, the critique begins with a round of positive comments concerning the piece’s strengths called “the circle of joy.” Competent critiquers should be able to identify strengths in any manuscript. Everyone should make an effort every time to contribute to the joy.  Joy should never be skimped on, even if you feel like you give the same joy to a writer every time. Just because you expressed joy about an element doesn’t mean you can’t also have suggestions for strengthening it.  Joy isn’t limited to the beginning; more joy may emerge during the critique and at the end.

Members may make the group aware of their preferred pronouns.

Members may make us aware of any special needs/disabilities/allergies, etc.  that can be accommodated.

Please refrain from wearing scent (perfume, aftershave, scented lotion, etc) to in-person meetings which can trigger allergies.

Please silence cellphones during critiquing.

Rules

The writer must absolutely positively not speak during critique of their work. Seriously! Defending, justifying, or explaining are absolutely not permitted. (This is also standard MFA workshop procedure.) Writers may, however, at the end of the critique ask for clarification of a suggestion, or for people to slow down, or for something to be repeated. The thinking: It’s impossible for the writer to both listen and formulate a response; if you’re doing one, you’re not doing the other. Writers should concentrate on writing down comments for later private consideration. The critique is thus preparation for submitting when the writer will not be present to explain or justify to an agent or editor. PLEASE don’t put the group leader/moderator in the position of having to cut you off because she will. Ruthlessly, but impersonally. Tip: If you have problems keeping quiet–focus on taking excellent notes. (You may also record your critique, just notify us you’re doing so.)

Critiquers must not phrase suggestions as questions. Seriously. Although some critiquing methods favor questions, we’ve found questions cause writers to instinctively respond with counterproductive justifications and explanations which eat up the group’s limited time.  PLEASE don’t put the group leader/moderator in the position of having to rap your knuckles when you phrase suggestions as questions.

During the suggestions portion of the critique, when we are in person, critiquers raise their fingers when they have a comment. One finger is for a new topic and two is for a comment related to a previous comment.  (On zoom we use chat and type 1 or 2). This allows the free-flowing discussion to have some coherence and logic.

One of our most important rules and one of the hardest to understand: Writers may not submit a piece more than once. They should respect the group and treat its attention as precious and not to be squandered lightly.  The group’s initial reactions to the actual words on the page are invaluable.   The same piece may be critiqued a second time only after many months have elapsed AND the piece has been completely rewritten and is substantially different–different scenes, different POV, different ending, etc. The thinking: this forces writers to give us their personal best the one and only time a piece is read, to learn to solve problems on their own beforehand, to move forward rather than endlessly fiddling with rewrites or first chapters. Since new members struggle with this rule, to rephrase—you don’t turn in re-writes to the group until you “get it right.” This rule protects both the group and the writer. The group is unable to react to a revised version while the original is still fresh in our memory (and we have surprisingly long memories). While we do care about you and your novel, the group does not have, nor should it be expected to have, the same unlimited attention, interest, and concern for a novel as its writer. Thus reading a piece more than once constitutes a kind of abuse of the group. This rule is for the writer’s benefit too. A writer usually only sees how to approach a problem scene, especially the opening, after they’ve had feedback on more of the novel. So just move on. Infractions of this rule are serious so PLEASE do ask the group leader for clarification if you’re confused. (If you need readers of rewritten material, ask for volunteers to critique via email outside of the meeting, or perhaps even find a secondary [online] critique group or critique partner.)

Because material can only be read once, most members avoid reading first/rough drafts.

The critique of a novel typically happens scene(s) at a time over the course of many meetings. Most writers read every scene, but it’s not required. Critiquing is not the same as immersive reading of a book; members can still critique if they’ve missed a lot (occasionally this approach even generates better critiques). Novelists verbally briefly summarize what’s already happened before the reading begins, or even better, include a short paragraph or a list of bullet points of summary at the top of a submission.

Like all critiquing methods, the scene-by-scene approach over many meetings is imperfect. Its strength is that it generates a substantial amount of specific, detailed feedback at the micro and macro level which members of this group find consistently useful for their own continued improvement. Many members supplement this approach by having volunteers in the group evaluate the entirety of a revised and rewritten novel or short story before submitting it to agents/editors.

When a writer first begins to bring a new novel to be critiqued, they do not tell us the story beforehand or describe their novel other than to tell us the genre.  However, outlines, synopses, summaries, query letters, log lines, and blurbs can be submitted for critique at any point–before, midway, or at the end of the process of getting a novel critiqued. The writer decides whether they want to share an outline/synopsis/summary/etc. and at what point. If story and plot are a personal weakness, it can be valuable to have an outline/summary/synopsis critiqued beforehand. Other writers prefer spontaneous reactions which are uncontaminated by foreknowledge. It’s entirely up to the writer.

Writers who want help solving a problem or developing parts of an idea or story can request a “Plots ‘R Us” session (instead of a critique) in which the group brainstorms solutions for specific problems with plot, motivation, characters, etc. A writer can talk the group through the problem, or provide a written outline or summary. “Plots R Us” is, of course, no substitute for critique of the actual manuscript.

Members of the group should be actively writing and pursuing publication, generally traditional publication, but each writer chooses when and how often they get critiqued. Many members use the meetings as a personal bi-weekly deadline.  Life happens, of course, but if a writer is never writing or being critiqued, membership in the group should be reconsidered.

Writers may NOT submit a piece that has already been accepted for traditional publication because typically the piece can no longer be revised.

Writers are free to do whatever they like with feedback–implement it or ignore it.  Writers decide later, on their own, after the meeting. They should not discuss their dilemmas or justify their choices during the critique. If, however, a writer generally decides to ignore the group’s feedback, membership in the group should be reconsidered.

Guidelines

Be considerate and gentle, yet professional.

Be kind, but also impersonal and objective.

Always encourage in the critique. Be constructive and tactful.

Avoid overly enthusiastic fan gushing; it tends to stifle suggestions for improvement and it’s often dangerously misleading for the writer. Instead, lavish praise on specifics.

Avoid blurting. Take a minute to consider a diplomatic phrasing of negative reactions.

Avoid interrupting.

Avoid repeating yourself and each other.

Be aware of your own personal preferences. Do your best to temporarily be a reader of a particular genre.

Avoid showing off how much you know about science, history, or whatever.

Writers should avoid the discourtesy of publicly dismissing other’s feedback. Writers may come to realize that considering dissenting perspectives helps them to better connect with more readers.

Avoid vague judgments and sweeping generalizations which are unhelpful and sometimes even insidiously destructive. Always be specific–praise specific strengths, techniques, and passages; suggest improvements for specific weaknesses.

Avoid referring to characters or their actions as too stupid to live, or referring to another writer as a beginner.

Offer concrete options or solutions, but avoid rewriting a story.

Be aware of style. Help others develop their style rather than imposing your style on them.

Avoid making jokes. Humor about someone’s writing can be hurtful.

Be patient. Be sensitive to different writing levels. Try to gauge comments appropriately. Avoid being completely uncritical on weak work or unrealistically harsh on polished work.

No digressions into other topics during critiquing.

What happens in critique group, stays in critique group! Seriously! Sharing any aspect whatsoever of another writer’s ideas or work with someone outside the group (including a spouse or significant other) is strictly prohibited unless the writer has given permission beforehand.

At any time, if it turns out the group is not a good fit, it’s hoped that the writer will give up their spot, no hard feelings, so that someone else can join. The group leader reserves the right (which she exercises on occasion) to ask a writer to leave for never submitting material for critique, for not contributing to or benefiting from the group for an extended period of time, for ignoring rules, for rarely being able to attend meetings, or for engaging in unacceptable behavior. There’s nothing the slightest bit personal about it.

Additionally…

When a writer finishes a novel, wins or places in a contest, gets an agent, publishes a book or short story, or has some other writing success, we celebrate by bringing cupcakes and other snacks to the meeting.

When a member hits the NYT bestseller list for the first time with a novel that was critiqued by the group, they buy lunch for the group!

Rules and procedures are frequently adjusted. Suggestions are always welcome.

red pen

by Mr. Wright http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattwright/

What to expect and not to expect from this group:

  • We can help you improve as a writer.
  • We can help you develop your own style and story.
  • We can’t make writing decisions for you.
  • We can’t teach you everything you need to know.
  • We’re not teachers to whom you turn in rewrites until you get it right.
  • We’re not uncritical readers. If you’re looking for readers, we may not be the right group for you.
  • We won’t tell you how wonderful your writing is (that’s what mothers, partners, and friends are for).

What writers need to do themselves:

  • Keep writing
  • Stay motivated
  • Work hard at learning and improving
  • Finish manuscripts
  • Study writing through how-to books, workshops, and courses
  • Network outside of the group
  • Join writing organizations
  • Research markets
  • Submit to agents and publishers
  • Attend conferences, workshops, classes, etc.

If this group doesn’t sound right for you, and it makes no claims to be right for everyone, try finding a writing group, or starting your own

Updated July 21, 2023

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Header photo: Ithaca, NY courtesy of the talented Paul Joran