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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Five Cs of a Good Critique Group

By Chris Stewart

In my first post on this subject, I talked about the biggest contributor to a good critique group (sometimes people also call these workshops, though not meaning one you sign up and pay for) - chemistry. To refresh your memory this link should, in theory, take you to that post: Chemistry

A critique group is a partnership, so let's move on to the other four factors.

The first is Commitment. Pretty self-explanatory. If you agree to take part in a critique group then commit to at least six months. Ideally you should be meeting every 2-3 weeks, but even if it's once a month, it takes about three or so sessions for you to start feeling comfortable and for the group to find its groove (or for you to find your place within the group if you're joining one that's already established). Then it takes another few meetings with your guard down to determine if you are getting what you need in terms of critique (I'll touch on that in more detail in another post when I discuss how to comment). Are they 'getting' your work as well as challenging you to go deeper, experiment, explore? And do you respect them, as well as their comments? If you find yourself at odds with another member to the point where things devolve into sniping and you're in danger of leaping over the chips and salsa to strangle them with their scarf, perhaps you should find another group. Or an anger management class.

The rule here is: you can't bail. If one meeting really stinks - maybe the discussion was lackluster, someone spilled soda or wine on your (insert designer of choice here) dress/pants/shoes, or no one told you how fantastic you are (horrors! You must get over the need for that and leave your ego at the door), or even two meetings, you have to give it the entire six months and then make your decision about whether or not to continue. People are busy and sometimes come to group tired and crabby. Groups can also be in a bad mood as a whole. Not every session can be a love-in. Be fair. You aren't 'all that' 24/7.

Continuity - this is 'part b' of the above. You committed to coming so, show up to each meeting, and on time. Email everyone your writing by the agreed upon deadline, print and read everyone else's work as soon as possible so you give yourself enough time to try to understand and feel each one, and comment in writing on each, signing your name. Everyone needs to be able to count on - meaning - trust each other. In this day and age trust is pretty miraculous. I mean, let's face it, letting someone read and critique your work is more intimate than sex, isn't it? That said, knowing that picturing others in their underwear levels the playing field, and being that we all love a good metaphor, I'm not advocating going as far as requiring nudity during the critiquing process to make a point, okay?

That brings me to Care. Take care with each person's work. Treat it with the same seriousness and heart you would your own. I said above that you should feel it and I meant that. Fast, superficial readings are not allowed. Read each piece at least twice (four times if it's a poem), and make your comments keeping in mind what you think is the goal/meaning of the piece, and the voice of the writer. Don't rework it so it sounds like you. Don't be fooled - this is a very difficult thing to do. It takes alot of - you guessed it - care.

Last is Contribution. What you turn in to the group will depend on your motives for joining a group. Ideally, you should have a project in mind. You should have a firm idea of what you want to accomplish. Don't offer up random writing from ten or five or two years ago because the deadline crept up on you and you hadn't written anything. Don't turn in anything you don't care about. You're going to get out of this group what you put into it. If you put in crap - guess what? Write something new for every meeting. Even if it's only five pages, or an outline of upcoming chapters, or a few revised poems the group has already seen - permit me a twist on Ezra Pound's famous saying - 'Make it new.'

A good critique group is really a good relationship, just with three or more people (what you've always dreamed of, right?). It requires all the Cs above and more, including communication, which we'll get to in the commenting post. As such, it's a growth experience, for you and your writing. Plus it gets you out of the house, which, for hermit writers, is a good thing.


Chris Stewart is the founding director of the Write Here, Write Now workshops in Baltimore, and the program director for arts in education and literature with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is www.therealwriter.com.

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