4 Rules for Writing Groups

You’ve finished your first draft and you’re ready to get some feedback before you start the editing process. Or else you’re stuck with a half-baked plot or a series of scenes without a thru-line, and you need some help figuring out where to go next. Either way, you’re ready to join a critique group.

But where to start?

Last week, the Writer’s League of Texas hosted its July Third Thursday panel, in which three Austin authors discussed writing groups. How do you know when you’re ready for a critique partner or group? How do you find the right one for you? What are other writers looking for in groups?

Nikki LoftinKaren MacInerney, and Ron Seybold offered all sorts of inspiring tips and insights, and it all wrapped up neatly into Seybold’s four rules for being a good critique partner.

Whether you’re working to become a more productive member of your writing group, or looking to find a new one, here are the four things you should require — from yourself and your fellow writers.

1. Be Honest

The point of taking your writing to a critique group is to have your writing critiqued. That means letting other people tell you what’s not working. As young adult author Nikki Loftin put it, we all know that in our heads, but we may not know it in our hearts yet. If you’re sharing your work with the expectation that you’ll hear nothing but praise, you’re not ready yet. So be honest with yourself: are you really ready for feedback?

2. Be Hopeful

At the same time, critiques are about more than just criticism. These are opportunities to learn what is working, so you can hold every section of your manuscript to the highest standards. So be hopeful, in approaching your own work and your peers’, that you’ll find some spark of great writing. After all, says Seybold, if you can’t identify some things that are working, you’ve got no business looking for what’s not working.

3. Be Specific

When asked about how to give feedback, mystery writer Karen MacInerney joked that responses like, “The whole thing was just, I don’t know, fuzzy,” are altogether too common and not at all useful. As a critique partner, it’s your responsibility to verbalize what section of the manuscript or what stylistic choices made you disconnect from a story. Generalizations won’t help your fellow authors improve their work, and they won’t help you improve yours, either.

4. Be Polite

Above all, all three authors emphasized the fact that authors expose themselves through their work in a way that most professions don’t require, and that we have to honor that vulnerability in the way we respond to fellow writers’ work — and demand that they honor it in your work, as well. That’s not to say we should be throwing false compliments around the table during critiques, but we must always be aware of how we frame feedback. Is it constructive? Is it the right level of feedback for this story at this stage in its life? Is the author taking it well, or is it time to lighten up?

So how do you go about finding the right group? How do you track down fellow writers who are honest, hopeful, specific, and polite (and well-read in your genre, and the kind of people you can stand spending time with)? The best strategy is to form your own circle. Join a bigger group and get to know the members, then form a smaller group with just a few of the writers you identify most with.

When you’ve found the right people, says MacInerney, you’ll know, because the critique will resonate and you’ll come away feeling energized.