This post is part three in a series. You can read the first post, “Nine Reasons to Join a Critique Group,” here.
So, you’ve just read some editor’s blog post about critique groups and now you’re sold: you want your own critique group.
There are many organizations that connect writers with each other, and some are specifically for critique groups. The Write Life has an excellent summary of the organizations out there, though its list is not exhaustive. (For instance, if you’re a Christian author, Word Weavers International is another great option.)
Some of these organizations will connect you to people who live in your area. Others will connect you to writers across the world. Some offer both options. Different groups have different submission rules, different balances of genres, different meeting frequencies, etc. Whether you’re joining a group or starting your own, it’s important to know what you’re looking for.
In this article, we’ll ask the questions every critique group must ask—and give you the tools you need to answer them.
Online or in person?
My critique group met in person for four years, but for the last few years, we’ve met online over Zoom. Online is a valid option! It allows you to form a group with people who live hours away from you. It also saves time so you don’t have to drive to a meeting place. Beware, though—there are trade-offs. Online, it’s harder to carry on a natural conversation. In person, you’re able to talk over one another, but online, you have to be strict about taking turns. It’s also harder to communicate through body language.
If you’re starting a group with people you don’t know very well, it may be challenging to start it online. You’ll have a harder time greasing the social gears and getting to know one another. You may want to consider meeting in person to start off the group even if the travel time isn’t viable in the long term. That way, you’ll have a stronger foundation of trust and familiarity for your group.
Who’s in the group?
You only have so much control over this, but here are some factors to consider:
Will your group be full of veteran authors? Aspiring writers? A mixture? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here, just recognize that different members’ levels of experience will play a role in your group’s dynamic. Some veteran authors might not be interested in joining a group of inexperienced aspiring authors, but other veterans might welcome the chance to mentor and encourage.
A historical romance author and a sci-fi author might not have much in common. If it’s possible for you to fill your group with writers from a specific genre, that’s often best. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be rigid about it.
Maybe your group will choose three main genres, where everyone in your group writes at least one or two of them. My group has mostly written fantasy fiction. However, we’ve also critiqued sci-fi, dystopian, contemporary literary fiction, poetry, and comedy. Sure, we were less equipped for some of those, but we still enjoyed them and were able to provide some relevant general critiques.
How large is the group?
While you can do critique partners or a group of three, I’ve found four to six people in a critique group is a good sweet spot. You’ll have a range of experience, opinions, and personality without feeling overwhelmed. The downside to a smaller group is that one person with a strong opinion can sway the group more easily—and strong opinions don’t always mean right opinions. The downside to a larger group is that quieter individuals will pull back, not to mention that it becomes hard to manage that many submissions.
Who’s the leader?
This isn’t a heavy-duty role. It comes down to basic communication: set member expectations, schedule meetings, and keep critique discussions flowing smoothly. The biggest one of these is scheduling. If nobody is officially responsible for scheduling, your group could fall apart through inconsistency.
How frequent should meetings be?
I know some groups who have tried to meet every two weeks. Personally, I’ve found weekly is best. Meeting weekly keeps the workload more consistent. It also makes it much easier to alternate for submissions (see the next section).
How much is submitted?
You probably don’t want six people submitting two chapters each per week. We’ve found that having half our group submit one week and half submit the next week is a great way to keep things manageable. My group has a word cap of 5,000 words per person. If all six of us had a backlog of finished novels, that would be 15,000 words per week (which is a lot!). However, we have two prolific writers (one in each half of the group) who will usually hit the cap, and then the others will often submit shorter pieces. It comes out to about 7,000 words per meeting on average, which is much more manageable for our current schedules. Obviously, your group will have different people and may have more or less time available, so experiment to find your own balance!
How should you submit and critique?
When my group first started critiquing, we would have someone read their piece out loud and we would all comment on it. It was slow, intimidating for new members, and difficult to comment on specifics. Now, we have people submit their documents via Google Docs three days before we meet and jot our comments down online. By the time we meet in person, everyone’s already sorted out their major thoughts and we’ve been able to see others’ major thoughts. That way, our meeting time is focused on elaborating on the more significant, complicated comments. I highly recommend this approach.
How much of a commitment is expected?
Meeting time usually takes my group under two hours. The weekly commitment (editing and meeting time) will probably run three to five hours, but you should also consider the importance of long-term membership.
Our group has lost and gained different members over the years. We’ve also had some members go on hiatus because of weddings, a job transition, and other life events. However, three of us have stayed with the group since its beginning, and that stability has helped a lot—especially for critiquing a novel long-term.
Long-term members are valuable, but also, few people are comfortable with indefinitely signing away four hours per week to a group they’ve never experienced. Consider inviting an author to visit your group for a session before they decide if they want to join. After that, if they want to join, they should do so with the intent of sticking around. Setting a tone of commitment will make the group more worthwhile for everyone.
Joining or starting a critique group is your takeoff. It takes some annoying logistics to set up, but once you do that, things move forward fast. However, there is more to flying than takeoff, and sometimes, a critique group may experience some turbulence along the way. Next week, we’ll discuss common critique group challenges—and how to navigate them.
Once upon a time, Tim Pietz thought editors were gray and joyless people who quenched their thirst with authors’ tears. Now, Tim Pietz is the managing editor of InkSword Editing and to his knowledge, he mostly drinks tap water. Tim graduated summa cum laude from Taylor University with a B.S. in Professional Writing and a B.A. in Strategic Communication, and since then, he’s had the privilege of editing for various authors and publishers, including Tyndale House. A teacher and encourager at heart, Tim enjoys collaborating with authors at every stage in their publishing journey.