Last week, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion about critique groups at a “writers table” hosted by the California Writers Club Mt. Diablo Branch. I’ve been fortunate to have participated in a number of these groups over the years and I find them invaluable. Our discussion covered the basics: how to set up ground rules, ideas for critiquing, group management, and so on, but the question that circled around over and over again was this: how do I find one? Perhaps it might be more accurate to say: how do I find one that’s right for me?
I’ve never really known the answer to this. Networking gets you closer to finding a group, but finding one where the participants are approximately at your level, are equitable in their approach, and know how to offer feedback in a meaningful way is a tough job. Right now, I participate in a fabulous poetry group called Greenhearts, organized by Sharon Coleman, an amazing and thoughtful poet who always wants the best for poets everywhere. She’s the founder and moderator and we are all grateful. Our group members write wildly differently, but they’re all high quality poets and many publish regularly. Its a gift and I look forward to our almost weekly meetings with joy and anticipation.
I also belong to another poetry critique group that meets in the evenings. Robert Eastwood leads it and it’s held twice a month at two different homes. I only go to one (there’s a limit to how many of these groups you can handle), but that group is so very different from the other poetry group that I get very different feedback. That feedback is less intense than what I receive and share in the first group I mentioned, but the difference is invaluable.
I also belong to a writing group whose members write novels (historical, young adult), short stories, memoirs, many types of prose. Again, we have a founder and moderator: Gloria Lenhart. She says she started her groups (she runs more than one) because she wanted a critique group for her own work, but her energy and dynamism in making it work (now for many years) is a testament to talents beyond her writing talent. It’s not an easy task. She has some basic requirements that include not only being willing to listen to honest and well-delivered feedback but also to demonstrate that the feedback makes a difference as new pieces are brought to the group and the benefit of the feedback becomes visible through the writing.
Good critique groups are serious business for serious writers. They are not “love-ins” nor should they be. If a group wants to get together to share and enjoy each others’ work, that’s great, but it’s not a critique group. If you’re just getting together to write independently in each other’s company, that’s great, too, but it’s a “meet-up” not a critique group (I have one of those, too—I love it).
A critique group takes work. You must be prepared to read others’ work and provide honest, thoughtful feedback that takes time to prepare. The advantage is that by analyzing others’ work, you learn how they put their pieces together and that’s a bonus because you learn their strengths and can make them your own.
Right now, I feel tremendously blessed to have these groups in my writing life and I thank every one of the people in them from founders and moderators to participants. Thank you. You make my writing life and my work better. I hope I do the same for you.