Five Basic Critique Group Rules

Over the years I’ve taken part in a lot of critique groups. I’m a big fan of them. They provide writers of all levels with a forum for finding honest and supportive feedback, assuming everyone knows the general rules of critique group behavior. Few things are worse than getting stuck at a table with a writer who doesn’t play well with others. This is one of the reasons why I prefer open critique groups to be moderated by someone with lots of writing workshop experience.

Unfortunately that’s not always what you get. So today’s post is all about the basics of critique group etiquette. It’s a few ground rules to help everyone get what they need from the experience, regardless of whether it’s moderated.

My first critique group rule is the most important. And it’s really more of a foundation for all my others. It’s an attitude that all participants really need to adhere to in order to make a critique group function properly.

Critique Group Rule #1: Never forget you’re there to support each other.

A critique group is not a competition or a showcase. It’s a place for writers to help other writers write better. (Yeah, that last sentence was on purpose! Leave a comment and tell me how you’d handle it in a critique group.) It must start with acceptance and respect coming from all participants.

Critique Group Rule #2: Start your feedback with a compliment.

If you cannot find at least one thing good to say about the work, then don’t say anything at all. Period.

Critique Group Rule#3: Critique the work, not the writer.

Often this boils down to phrasing. For example, “Your metaphor doesn’t work” can be interpreted by the hearer as a general assessment of a writer’s ability to use metaphor in general. But if you say “That metaphor doesn’t work,” you’re just talking about the words on the page. It’s a fine distinction, but it can mean the difference between a comment being perceived as constructive or destructive.

Critique Group Rule#4: Don’t Defend Your Work. Not even a little.

This can be incredibly difficult to pull off, but you have to do it. Otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll twist the discussion into a debate about your authorial intentions. And that’s not helpful to anyone, especially you. Remember, your intentions are ultimately irrelevant because you won’t always be there to explain what you meant to your readers.

If questions or clarifications occur to you, note them as your work is being is critiqued. Then, once everyone’s given their opinions, you can ask any follow-up questions you feel you need to.

Corollary to Rule Number Four:

When you verbally justify your writing, you tend to get trapped in one-on-one discussions that usually end up wasting everyone else’s time. That’s not respectful.

Critique Group Rule#5: Don’t mess around on your phone while a writer is reading her work.

I can’t believe I even need to say this. But this very thing happened during a recent unmoderated critique group I participated in. It’s rude! There’s no excuse for it! And it sends a clear and unequivocal message that you hold those around you in contempt. If it’s an emergency, then excuse yourself and leave the room to take care of your business.

Sorry to get a little strident there, but that kind of self-absorption angers me. There is never a good excuse for it.

… Okay, I’ve taken some deep breaths, and I’m better now.

Just remember, critique groups are all different, and there are as many ways to structure them as there are writers who take part in them. But these five rules are pretty much universal. And they all grow out of what should be the basic organizing concept of any critique group:

Respect Each Other