Ten Laws of Critique Groups

by Chip MacGregor
Chip MacGregor
Chip
MacGregor is the president of MacGregor Literary, a full-service literary
agency on the Oregon Coast. A former publisher with Time Warner, he has worked
with authors as a literary agent for more than a dozen years, and was
previously a senior editor at two publishing houses. An Oregon native, Chip
lives in a small town on the Oregon coast. Chip is also the author of a couple
dozen books and a popular teacher on the craft of writing and marketing.
I
recently had someone write to me and say, “I’m going to a big writing
conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before
about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group
that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually
WORK. Can you help?”
I’m
a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved
or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few
principles for getting the most out of the group. 
Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:
Why do you want a critique group?

1.
 
Ask
yourself why you want a critique group.
 What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to
have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the
benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers —
more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing
wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find
a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of
professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material.
If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought
into your group.

2.  The value of a critique group is based almost entirely
on the membership
. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit
better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group.
Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe
twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are
(that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to
the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving
your writing).
3.  Personally invite people to participate. Don’t put an
announcement in the neighborhood bulletin or the local paper. One of the maxims
of organization is that people perform at the level at which they are
recruited. If you tell them “this is an open time for everybody,” you’re going
to get the bad poets, the unteachable storytellers, and the “I’m-in-pain-let-me-share-my-angst-with-you”
types.
4.  At one of your first meetings, set some guidelines. These can be simple:
You have to come as often as you’re in town. You have to submit your writing to
others at least once a month (or every other month). You have to read the work
of others before the meeting. You have to offer constructive advice, not just
negative criticism. You have to be willing to listen to everyone, even if you
disagree with their opinion. (And this is a perfect time to quote Jim Bishop:
“A good writer is not, per se, a good book critic. No more than a good drunk is
automatically a good bartender.”)
 5.  Make sure the group has a leader. Without a ramrod, a critique
group turns into a therapy session for the most needy in the bunch.
Creative types need a regular meeting time & place.
 6.  I think creative, artsy
writer types need a regular meeting time and place.
 It offers discipline to the
group. Of course, you all disagree with that, being creative, artsy types. So
sue me. You probably also like William Faulkner, even though he is boring and
pretentious, but your college writing professor insisted he was deep, and since
you want to appear deep too, you tell people at parties that you “loved
‘Soldier Pay’ but thought ‘As I Lay Dying’ lacked focus,” or some such rot.
Your group will meet at Starbucks once, at your house once, then you’ll skip a
couple months, meet for dinner somewhere, and fade away. So put some regularity
and discipline into the meeting schedule.
7.  Above all, listen to criticism. Scottish people have a
saying: “Learn to unpack a rebuke.” There’s no point in joining a critique
group if you spend all your time defending your writing. So have a rule that
you have to listen to people’s ideas, even if you’re going to ignore their
insipid, Neanderthal advice. Jarrell once wrote, “It’s always hard for poets to
believe that one says their poems are bad not because one is a friend, but
because their poems are bad.”
8.  The membership in the group dictates how much you’ll
listen.
 There’s
nothing worse than being in a group with one guy you really don’t like, and you
don’t respect his lousy writing, but he always wants to talk for a half hour
about that terrible state of writing in publishing today. If you find people
who are at your level, both in terms of quality and experience, you’ll find
yourself much more open to hear what they have to say.
Feedback is easier if you trust the person offering advice.
9.  Find a writing partner who you really trust. One person, maybe two,
that you’ll listen to. When he or she says to you, “Farnsworth, I know you love
medical mysteries, but I question your use of including each character’s dental
records in your story,” you’ll know that they aren’t criticizing just to build
themselves up. This your friend. He (or she) LOVES you. He’s only saying it
because he wants you to improve your story. That one person will make you
better, and you’ll find yourself becoming a much better critiquer of others and
member of a group. Really.
10.  Insist people write. I was once in a critique group where people argued
about the merits of “Left Behind” and debated which trends were hot in
bookstores, but we never really got around to writing anything or examining
each other’s work. Write something each time, insist others do the same, and
submit that work ahead of the meeting so that everyone can read it and tell you
how awful it is. (Or how wonderful it is, depending on how you’re feeling
today.)

In
closing, a note from Lillian Hellman: “They’re fancy talkers about
themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t
listen to writers talk about writing. Or themselves.”