Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How to Start A Critique Group

As readers of this blog know, I am a HUGE supporter of Critique Groups and believe that every writer needs to have a group (of some capacity) they belong to.  I value my monthly Crit Group so much.  And yes, I organized it myself...so, I often get asked how I did that.  Therefore, here it is...

How to Start A Critique Group

1)  Decide what GENRE you want to focus on.  There are lots of different writers out there, and therefore lots of different types of groups.  The first step in creating a Critique Group is to know what kind of group you want or are looking for. 
  • Rhyme vs Prose
  • Picture Book
  • Middle Grade
  • Chapter Book
  • YA novel
  • Illustrators vs. Authors vs Author/Illustrators

At first you might feel inclined to cast the net wide and say you are open to any and all Children's Writers...but I am speaking from experience.  It is best to be specific from the onset.  This kind of uniformity it helpful for gathering those who "specialize" in a particular genre so that you can give the BEST most KNOWLEDGEABLE critiques possible.  Afterall, part of being a good artist is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are.  It is also helpful for the pacing of your sessions...more on that later.

2)  Decide what TYPE of sessions you want to have.  Are you looking for a face-to-face group?  Or does "online" work best for you? 

The group I started was face-to-face, as I wanted to build a community.  I also live in NYC, so we have an abundance of writers in the area.  If you live in a more remote area or someplace where writers are not as abundant, you might choose online. 

However, online is a little trickier if you are looking to create a group with more than 2 people.  Email swaps get a little muddy with more than 2 people involved...so I would look into a forum that allows "conference" type sharing online.  I have to admit, I am not well-versed in this, but perhaps someone who is can share more in the comments section.

Also consider your own schedule.  If you cannot commit to meeting face-to-face because you have soooo much going on...then do not force it.  You can try online.  Commitment is A MUST for your group to work and flourish!  More on that later...

3)  Decide on HOW OFTEN you want your group to meet/swap.  People are busy.  Life happens.  So be honest with yourself and your expectations.  My recommendation is to start with once a month.  Remember, its best if your members are committed to attending each session.  When you meet more than once a month it can be difficult to maintain that commitment.  However, I do know there are groups that meet every week and that works for them and they are very successful...but at first, I would start out once a month.  It eases you in to it and gives plenty of time for revisions, etc in between. 

4)  Cast the net!  Find your PEEPS!  How?  First...make that SCBWI membership work for you.  (if you don't know who SCBWI ~ The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators~ are or you are not a member...become one!  It will be the best thing you did for yourself as a Children's Writer).  Contact your Regional Advisor and ask for a listing of members where you live.  I inquired of the NYC Metro Region and was sent an Excel document of members in the area who have requested Crit Groups.  Now, not every region will have such a list, but every region will have a member list.  Get it and send out an email introducing yourself and seeing who is interested in joining you in a Crit Group.
You can also attend any local SCBWI events and ask around.

Yes, you can post on Craigslist or on Facebook or other Social Media.  But I recommend reaching out to SCBWI.  You might find that is all you need.  That's what I did.  I'd actually be a little concerned about who would show up if I just posted on Craigslist...but again, you know your area.  I'm in NYC...so its a tad different.

Other places to post...your local library, college bulletin boards, coffee shops, book stores.  Be creative and cast that net!

5)  SCHEDULE.  Once you have people interested, schedule your first meeting and make it happen!  It can be kinda daunting to have that first meeting, but do it.  Stop talking about it and make it happen.  And remember, although it is nice to have many eyes look at your work, you only really need one other person to make a Crit Group.  Start there. 

I had 2 people (aside from me) show up at the first meeting.  This last month, we had 11 people.  Allow time to grow.  Be patient.

6)  Choose a LOCATION.  Choose a location that is central and easy to get to.  A library, bookshop, a coffee shop, diner, pub, etc.  Make sure there is space at the location.  This can be difficult.  The first location I chose was the cafe at Barnes and Noble.  It was crowded and hard to find enough chairs to place around the small table.

The next location we tried was a Starbucks.  Again, crowded...and incredibly LOUD, as the only spaces to sit were right below the speakers,  Trust me, its not easy trying to read manuscripts when Christmas music is blasting in your ears.

Now we meet at another coffee shop that reserves a large area for us each month.  Its also quieter.  So, do your research.  And don't be afraid to keep searching for that special place even after meetings have begun. 

You can have the meeting at your house...but that's up to you.  I know that works for some...but its not really my cup of tea.  Its a personal preference.

7)  Show up and HAVE FUN!  Building community and partnerships that work can be a challenge...but have fun with it.  Be honest with yourself and others.  Its not going to work for everyone.  Personalities might not gel.  Its like dating.  Allow people to come and go.  But remember, your main focus is your work.  You do not have to like everyone, you don't have to like all of their writing.  What is important is that you are all writers and dedicated to helping eachother be the best writer you can be.

 In that case, diversity is very important, if possible, in your group.  Men and women.  Young and older.  All ethnicities.  This won't happen right away.  But it is something to strive for.

I hope this was helpful.  Stay tuned for next Monday when I will discuss "How to Run a Crit Group Session". 

Happy Writing!


  1. Marcie, what are your thoughts on critique group vs. "writing partner?"

    1. I have to say I am partial to the Crit Group. Although it is great to have a "first reader" who you share manuscripts with and bounce ideas off of...I think having a group discuss your piece will be helpful in many more ways. There is nothing as exciting as hearing 3 people debate or discuss a section of your story, bringing up ideas and thoughts you never even dreamed of.

  2. Great post! Thanks, Marcie! You're in a great area for finding like-minded writers - pickins are a little more scarce in the back-of-beyond where I live. I sometimes think I'd like to try an inline group, and then I think of how over-scheduled I already am and cringe at the idea of adding one more thing :)

    1. Good point, Susanna. You have to know your own limits. However, setting guidelines and swapping online maybe every other month might be helpful. Remember, the point is to HELP your work...not stress you out. :)

  3. I have a writing partner and as of abut three months an online SCBWI crit group (because of living in France). We have already had people come and go to this new group, so we are still in the gelling stage. I have had helpful feedback, but there were no ground rules given when I joined, which does concern me! Also I don't alway have a new picture book manuscript ready every month.

    I do agree, though, it is very valuable!

    1. Next week I will discuss setting guidelines and how to run the sessions. After about 3 months, its time to set some guidelines so that the group can flourish and be the best it can be. I just did that with my group. We had been meeting since Aug and I set guidelines for the new year.

  4. I flipped back to your January 20 post to re-read your exchange with Tara about the 'green-ness' of your group. It ain't easy bein' green! (OK, gratuitous, but who doesn't have a soft spot for Kermit?) I like your concept of pairing newbies with more experienced partners. In general this could enhance the productivity of a critique group. I wonder if this would something an editor could pull together easily - someone who is reviewing MS from both new and experienced writers and could see complimentary strands, techniques, and personalities?

    1. Perhaps, Cathy. I really want to start an online mentorship program in which I match newbies with published authors. I don't think this could REPLACE an author's need to be in a Critique Group, but I do think having a writing partner to mentor you who is not as "green" is important. Also, when starting your Crit Group, another piece of diversity to keep in mind is the published vs pre-published authors. We are lucky in our group to finally have both. We also have those who are self-published and those who have been published electronically. Its important to have all kinds in the group.

  5. Very useful guidelines! Not sure about dividing up rhyming vs. prose but certainly if you're the only person writing fantasy and the rest of your group doesn't even READ fantasy, that might be of limited use... Are you going to set an attendee limit? There's a point where it can get too big and not everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts... Also, are you reading AT the meetings, or distributing things before hand via email and then critiquing in person? The second way saves a lot of time...
    Thanks for sharing, and thanks as well for being part of the 2012 Comment Challenge!
    Keep on commenting,

    1. All good questions, Lee. :) I am going to be talking about how to actually set the parameters of the group and how to actually run the session next Monday. Therefore, I promise to answer all of these questions then. :)

  6. Great post! I just wrote a small stone on Sunday in which I expressed my frustration over not being able to find a critique group/partner. I tried to start a writing group a while ago and it just didn’t work out. I think I will try again. I recently contacted my local writers guild and sent a message to my regional SCBWI advisor so I will have to see what happens (I don’t know why I didn’t think about doing that years ago). I think being honest and having guidelines is so important!

    I swap regularly with a writer friend of mine, but she does a lot of business-type/non-fiction writing and I do a lot of children’s writing. We help each other the best we can, but I don’t think it’s the same as having someone who writes in the same genre.

    And perhaps Marcie, down the road, you will be able to blog about online, critique groups. ;)

    1. True dat, Rena! :) Although, I believe there is a big difference between having a "group" and a writing partner who you swap with. I am a face-to-face person, generally, so having to deal with two many people online can get hairy for me. I prefer to swap one-on-one online and with a group in person.