When my partner and I said goodbye to our L.A. home last June, we left a lot behind. Our teeny studio apartment. Our mountain view (partially obscured by a Wienerschnitzel drive-thru). Our two incredible dogs, who, due to circumstances outside of our control needed to be re-homed (they’re incredibly loved and happy and I get pictures of them regularly). While nothing stung quite so much as saying goodbye to my pups, one of the hardest pieces of “home” that I left behind was my writing critique group.
It took three solid years to work up the courage to find a critique group, and when I did I fell in love. The people were kind-hearted, passionate about their craft, and just as nerdy as me. They provided solid writing suggestions, constant cheerleading, and showed a true interest in each person who attended. Our Saturday sessions fast became the highlight of my week, and without them Unrelenting may never have been finished.
Since settling in Berkeley, CA, I’ve been on the hunt for a new group. I’ve attended a few meetings, lurked on MeetUp, and gotten a feel for a few different options. In doing so, I’ve managed to hone in on what, I think, makes a critique group successful. Your mileage may vary, but here are some of the common themes I’ve found in my favorite groups:
- Diversity of people: The best critique groups include people from all walks of life. People of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences are able to provide so much more than any homogenous group could. I consider it my responsibility to make sure my stories are an accurate representation of reality–even when they delve deep into the fantastical.
- Diversity of experience: From new writers penning their first manuscript to those with multiple publications under their belt, I find it helpful to be at a table with those who are different phases of their writing career. There’s always more to learn, and I love being in the room with those who have publishing experience. I’m also a natural teacher (I spent five years in the trenches of a Houston high school), so I find it refreshing to field questions from those who are brand new to the process.
- Diversity of genres & audiences: Are you sensing a theme? While it might be fun to participate in a genre-specific writing group, I much prefer attending one where all genres are welcome, which exposes me to types of writing I might not otherwise encounter.
- Clear rules & expectations: I’m a creature of habit, so I appreciate knowing what’s expected of me right from the get-go. Are drafts submitted in advance? Do we need to print out copies (please do! Non-auditory people like me will thank you!)? How does the group determine who reads and how much time they get? Are critiques verbal or written? Even something as simple as where to park on your first.
- Expectation of kindness: Critique groups are meant to create better writers. They aren’t meant to tear writers down, insult their ideas, or question their ability to succeed. Any group that spends more time focused on destructive feedback over constructive feedback isn’t worth my time.
- Group Size: This is a personal preference, but I prefer my critique groups smaller and more intimate. I want to get to know my fellow writers, their projects, and their career goals. When the faces change every week, or I have to fight a waiting list to show up, it’s hard to cultivate that sense of community.
- Frequency of Meetings: For me, critique groups are a weekly affair. Some groups prefer to meet less often, but I prefer to integrate my critique group into my life. As someone who works from home, sometimes this is my only guaranteed time to leave the house. It also holds me accountable to making sure I’m writing something new every single week.
These are the basics, of course. There’s much more that goes into a successful writing critique group, but these are the elements I keep searching for. As of now, I’ve found a few close contenders, and I’m eager to return to my weekly habit of sitting around a table, delving into worlds of the imagination.