How To Run A Writing Critique Group

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Writers at a Sojourn songwriting group event

Writers at a Sojourn songwriting group event

Last week we talked about how to start and run a Writing Practice Group. This week we’ll explore another type of writer’s group: the Writing Critique Group. In this group, the goal is to polish and shine something you’ve already written, with a little help from your friends.

As with the Writing Practice Group, it is often best to keep membership at 5-10 writers. But unlike practice groups, it is important that members in a critique group be at a similar skill and experience level, or at least be at a similar level of trust in the ability of everyone to offer helpful critique.

Writing Critique Group Rules of Play:

  • Everyone should bring a piece they’ve been working on. Bring enough printed copies of your song, poem, story or non-fiction prose so that everyone receives a copy. In fact, it’s best to give copies to your fellow writers in advance of the meeting. I’d recommend emailing them your document in advance, and then bringing printed copies to the meeting.
  • Take turns sharing. One person shares while the rest listen (and silently read along).
  • Take turns critiquing. Give every person a chance to offer critique, one at a time.
  • Stay on schedule. Save detailed interaction between members for later.¬†When everyone has critiqued the work, move on to the next work.

One person needs to be the “leader” (or at least, the time manager). This person should make sure every writer receives as close to equal time as possible. Of course, occasionally someone may present a piece of work that is so polished it needs very little work. Others may present something very rough. But in general, make sure no writer is slighted, and that time doesn’t run out before everyone has had a chance to read or perform their piece.

Guidelines for offering critique:

  • Start with the good news. “I like the melody.” “Your theology is spot-on.” “What an interesting character.” Something. Acknowledge and affirm whatever is good about the work.
  • Then talk about the big issues: Plot, theme, structure. Why point out typos if the structure is faulty?
  • Discuss smaller issues next. Grammar, typos, possible alternate chords — although they aren’t of primary importance, they are still important.
  • Offer suggestions. Don’t be that person who merely points out what is wrong. The writer might even already know what is wrong. She may be stuck on what to do next.
  • Encourage. Reaffirm whatever works about the piece. Also remember that writers (probably including you) can be tender. And we feel attached to our writing. No matter how much work your advice would take if acted upon, the writer probably thinks it would take twice as much. Help him get a realistic picture of how much revision would be required. End with some version of “You can do this.”

Guidelines for receiving critique:

  • Don’t interrupt or get defensive. If asked for clarification, give it. Otherwise, be careful about jumping in. If your writing needs lots of additional explanation from you, that’s a clue that you need to revise it.
  • Take notes. It shows that you are considering the advice. Also, it will help you remember what your colleagues are suggesting.
  • Say “Thank you.” Always. Even if you intend to reject every bit of advice. Maybe you’re right and they’re wrong, but they still forced you to think through some issues. And they still took the time to review your work. Can I get an “Amen”?

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