Writing and Critique Groups: How many exist?

This morning, Jane Friedman (editorial director of Writer’s Digest Books) asked me to pass along the following message that she also posted on her blog (http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules). Please feel free to comment below if you have any feedback to share on this topic. Thanks!

Original message:

Every week at F+W, we have a pub board meeting where sales, marketing, and editorial teams discuss new projects for publication. It’s the editor’s job to convince the sales team that we have a viable book idea (with the right author) that will sell.

This morning, we pitched a book on writing and critique groups. While anecdotal evidence tells us that most writers do participate in some form of critiquing (whether as part of a formal group or not), we don’t have hard evidence. So the sales people tabled the project until we could return with information that substantiated our claims. They also disputed whether writers would spend their money on a book about writing groups and critiquing, even if they are an active writing group member.

So we’re putting together a survey that will soon go out to Writer’s Digest newsletter subscribers, to see what data we can collect. I’d love to hear from readers of this blog as well, if you know of any information/data that would be useful to us. (And if you have a blog, perhaps you can post on this topic and gather feedback too!) Ultimately, I’d love to create a groundswell of discussion that will convince our sales team that this idea deserves realization as a physical book.

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23 thoughts on “Writing and Critique Groups: How many exist?

  1. Leon

    Greeting. Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
    I am from Lebanon and , too, and now am writing in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "Cheap airline tickets for italy tickets cheap tickets discount airfares airline tickets usa international cheap flights from usa rome cheap tickets."

    Thanks :(. Leon.

  2. Bruce Niedt

    I’ve been a member of a small (half dozen) but active group in South Jersey called the Quick and Dirty Poets, for about three years now. Though I’m old enough to be the father of most of the members, I’ve had a great time in their midst, enjoying their energy and honesty. One member just got her MFA from Bennington and another is working on hers. Several of us have won awards (our Bennington MFA, in fact, won first prize for rhyming poetry in the annual WD contest a few years ago – the same year I won 10th prize for non-rhymimg poetry). Our members have published four print and online journals (three are still active), and one member has a chapbook publishing company. We host regular readings with regionally well-known poets at a local coffee house. But the best product of this merry band has been the great constructive feedback they’ve given me for my poetry at our regular monthly meetings. I’ve definitely grown as a poet by hanging with them.

    Sara, I like your group’s "ground rules". I’d say our group adheres to most of them too.

  3. SaraV

    Hey Robert!
    Having a critique group should be mandatory if you are serious about writing (my personal opinion based on years (4) of experience). I have an amazing group and my writing has improved exponentially and my life has been unbelievably enriched by having these women in my life.

    You have to have ground rules and a book would be a great place to set that up.
    Some of the rules that have worked for us are:
    1. Be judgment free
    2. Be honest–and use the sandwich feedback good/bad/good comments–honesty frees you up to experiment with your writing because your writing group will tell you if you’re going in a good direction, or not
    3. Be punctual
    4. Agree on what type of editing you will do-line/conceptual
    5. Share information, you are all going to get there, it helps if you keep each other informed on leads etc. that you hear about
    6. Keep it small, 4-5 people is about all you can have if you want a decent discussion and you don’t want to spend all day there.
    7. Have a sense of humor


  4. Allen Taylor

    I think the book is a great idea. If done right, it could spawn a whole new movement of writing groups. Some potential chapters could be:

    1) How to start a writers critique group
    2) How to keep it going once it’s off the ground
    3) Encouraging participation of new members
    4) Ethics: How poets can help each other; I wrote a blog post on this topic not long ago at my blog
    5) Establishing the rules and sticking to them
    6) Should your group be a generic group or focus on a particular school of thought?
    7) Getting a poetic education (learning and using the language of poetics and the history of poetry to aid others)
    8) Where should you meet?
    9) How to accept negative criticism and turn it into inspiration and motivation

    Of course, this is not exhaustive, but I do see a market for such a book. Kudo’s to the WM team.

  5. Roxanne

    I recently joined 2 online ones. Urbis and JPic Forum for Writers. I just started participating as a reviewer on Urbis but I’ve only checked submission calls on JPIC.

    I’ve been a member of Riverside Poets since 2003 but unfortunately my current workschedule conflicts with the weekly workshop meeting. The group is led my Arthur Bitterman and meets Thursday evenings at The Riverside Branch of the New York Public Library. We collaborate on an annual group chapbook length anthology that Arthur edits and ofter give public readings as a group. An offshoot of this group is now meeting at David Elsasser’s apartment on Wednesdays and this works better with my work schedule. I hope to start participating in the Wednesday workshop starting this fall.

    Prior to joining Riverside I took several writing courses at Gotham Writers. In addition to in-class instruction, writing assignments and homework these course offered opportunities for work to be presented in class and critiqued by classmates

    I find that having my work reviewed and critiqued to be extremely beneficial and and I also learn alot from reading and editing others.

    I strive for clarity in my own writing so I find it quite revealing to hear how other interpret and react to my words.

    Not exactly sure how interested I’d be in buying a book on this topic. Might be interesting to follow a face to face workshop like Arthur’s for a 6 mos to year and film a documentary. Just to see the collaborative creative process in action.

    As far as guidance for starting a workshop…seems most can figure out how to do this on their own. But since I’ve seen just about everything For Dummies, why not.

  6. Shawn

    I work with critique groups fairly regularly, although this does have a variable group of people, which I like for the variety of perspectives and insights. I think a book like that would mainly work in a setting that met regularly and had more structure, since it appears to be akin to a textbook.

  7. Susan Bell

    I run the local writers’ group here in Spruce Pine, NC. I have to say that if not for this group, many of us wouldn’t be writing as much as we are. We make a point of being polite with our critiques, we have tons of fun & laughs at our meetings and more importantly we support each other.

    I would love a book on writing groups. We can always use some advice/guidelines on how to do things. Maybe even idea for group writing exercises. It would be great for those who want to start up groups to have something to reference. I know when I restarted our group (It had disbanded many years ago.) I could have used something like that.

  8. Anindita Sengupta

    I’m part of a writers’ group in Bangalore, India, and I think it’s great because a) it allows you to see your work from a different perspective, understand what’s working for other people or not and b) because of the sense of community it fosters. I think a book on critiquing is a good idea because people are often unsure of how to give or receive feedback and a few guidelines would help such groups get started off.

  9. Denise Low

    Great idea. I’ve participated in both academic and civilian writers groups throughout my writing career. Academics has pretty well tuned the workshop format–although there are variations. However, social writers groups can become unmanageable without ground rules. They also serve various purposes. Clarifying purpose and boundaries is a good idea. Denise Low

  10. Russell Ragsdale

    A much published poet friend asked me about groups and I shared a couple of them with him. He was looking to shift his style and his market. We all understand that the unwritten law of many of the blogs is that you don’t give negative or harsh criticism. If you want to have someone give you the straight skinny, you need to find a reputable group where that is accepted.

    No recommendation of this kind would be complete without a warning of the type of experience that Monique so graciously shared with us. One needs to examine the threads on a variety of poems (which you are usually allowed to do) before leaping in the pool. You must be comfortable with who is there and what is being said before you submit your stuff. Often times you are required to be a critic a few times (a good idea, I think) before you can put one of your poems under the lense.

    Our poor, sensitive poetic egos are precious property and must be kept healthy. Ultimately, that responsibility is, and remains, ours alone. Look before you leap is my motto with these groups and, when asked for advice, that is what I always share.

    There are some reputable groups out there but to avoid the kind of problem Monique brought up, it is best to check them out and be really sure you are ready for that kind of thing. If you need a little friendly (constructive) criticism, sometimes it is just best to turn to a poet friend. Poetry, however is a lonely business and these groups exist because not everyone has a poet friend, unfortunately.

  11. LindaSW

    Critique groups. Indispensible. As long as every member abides to brutal honesty.

    I am so fortunate, so blessed to have such a group – the Nudge-Nudge Collective. We ‘found’ each other on the Writers Digest forum (look for the thread Time to Organize Time under Goal Posts – this thread’s had almost 12,000 views). After more than a year of critting each other’s novel excerpts, we wanted to push harder, to read larger excerpts, than what was allowed on the WD.

    Using google groups, we’ve been at it now for about 1.5 years. All six of us have read and critted VERY THOROUGHLY everyone’s novel at least once. We’ve done the line edits, as well as the globals – story arc, characterization, dialogue, POV, tense. It’s like boot camp – and receiving multiple edits within a week or two makes you, the writer, really question scenes and wording, really forces you to make difficult choices – or to stick to yout story.

    At this point, most of us are beginning to market. We also run shorts, query letters, and synopses past each other. One other member and I have ‘met in the flesh’, which was a phenomenal experience.

    My first novel, which is now being courted by a small press publisher, would still be a mangled mess without the NNC.

    I also belong to a small poetry group (on-line) and a local group of mostly poets and essayists.

    I’ll be happy to blog on this topic in the next few days. I’ll post the link when I do. There are definite do’s and don’t’s in running a crit group, but I think the first rule is to write and read and comment without those white gloves. There is always a way to deliver tough news diplomatically – we are writers, after all!

    Peace, Linda

  12. Sheryl Kay Oder

    Oops. I forgot to mention our group is an online group. We have become friends, and all but one of us has met each other even though we are spread out all over the country.

  13. H. Palmer Hall

    I do teach classes in creative writing–mostly poetry classes–and doubt that I would use the book in my classes. What I would and could use? A really good DVD showing an outstanding workshop group in action. That production would show decent students supporting and encouraging each other and not trying to score points by knocking other students’ work. Perhaps the production could show a single student from inspiration to getting the poem down on the page and then through revision and on to the writing workshop…with luck it could show the final revision of the poem and the submission process. Maybe even publication in a web lit mag or something, I don’t know if WD has gotten into this kind of media yet, but it’s a project I would purchase for my class and should be useful for other classes.
    Thanks much,
    –H. Palmer Hall
    St. Mary’s University

  14. Sheryl Kay Oder

    I have never been part of a group which critiques each other, but I have been part of a Journal Club arising out of a journal-writing class. After almost ten years, however, most people have lost interest in weekly topics.
    It is that group with which I have shared much of my recent poetry.

    One of the members still writes a regular weekly journal entry. I have started writing a travel journal each time I travel. Recently I have added pictures to that journal. One of our gals started a side freelance part-time career of writing for various newspapers or magazines. It is our group which sparked her interest. Another of our gals is now in a novel-writing group.

    Even though I do not write a poem a week, I am glad to be a part of this writing group. It encourages me to keep on writing.

    I like the suggestion of giving guidelines for different kinds of critique groups. A bad experience does not mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  15. Joannie Stangeland

    I’ve been a part of a writing group since 1992 (we did have a five year gap around the turn of the century).

    But I don’t think that’s the right question. It isn’t how many people are in writing groups, but what do they need that a book could give them? My group meets to critique poems, and while I’d be interested in hearing about what might compel me to buy a book, I don’t know what that would be.

    Some groups meet to write, so a book of prompts might be helpful, but I think there are quite a few out there already (not to mention prompts on poets’ blogs and websites).

    Are people in groups your audience for this project, or is your audience really the people who would like to be in a writing group but haven’t been able to find one or start one locally or online? In that case, you want to find out how many people share that need and what you can provide in a book that will fill that need.

    (Maybe the best way to connect with your audience isn’t through a book, or maybe it’s a combination of a book plus other things, like an online directory, a sort of match.com for poets.)

    Just my thoughts.

  16. Devon Brenner

    I’ve thought of joining such a group or forming one or even just giving feedback to friends, but beyond "I like it" or "I don’t like it" or "do it my way" I don’t know what to say, in response, to poems. So yes, I think such a book would be a valuable resource.

  17. Connie

    Monique’s example of the discouraged writer is exactly why there needs to be a book on critique groups. I would particulary like to see research showing what actually works and what doesn’t. I think a lot of time groups go overboard on critiquing when a listening ear and encouragement go along way.

    I’d also like to see examples of groups who are producing publihed writers, and not winding up simply as a social event.

    I would defintely purchase a book of that sort. I am involved in a group (Soutwest Christian Writers Association) in the Four Corners area that starts groups in the small towns, while holding area-wide events during the year.

    We also provide our members opportunities to speak so they’ll be ready when their books sell.

  18. Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit)

    I guess I have this to offer to your queries, Robert and Jane:

    1. I love participating in supportive, yet not delusional critique groups where a variety of writers showcase their talent and are ready for the good and bad criticism that comes there way, while keeping in mind that they do not have to take every comment as gospel.

    2. I currently am not in a writing group or workshop due to scheduling conflicts.

    3. I would be interested in this book depending upon what topics are covered and the actual substance of the work.

  19. Cati Porter

    I’ve been involved a poetry critique for nearly nine years now and choosing to join it was definitely a life-changing decision. Before the group I had only a handful of poetry publications to my name. Now I have a book, a chapbook, am an associate poetry editor for one journal, and founding and editor-in-chief of another.

    Over the years I have been involved in other sorts of critique groups, too, single day poetry workshops, multi day poetry workshops, the paid-for online variety, as well as blog-oriented ones like Poetry Thursday and Read Write Poem.

    I regularly give readings, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked how one can go about finding a critique group. I know of several in our area that meet at various places — coffee houses, bookstores, libraries — but my first suggestion to them is always to find like-minded individuals and to start their own.

    A book on critique groups — how to start one, and maybe a directory listing known established critique groups that accept new members on a rolling basis, would be a great tool for those who want to learn more about poetry but don’t know where to turn. Also, I do think that even those who are in established critique groups could find it valuable, especially if it laid out multiple techniques for critiquing and hosting tips.

    I don’t think you would need to include any new exercises; there are so many out there already. Rather, what I would like to see is a listing of recommended guides for different skill levels.

    Hope this is helpful!

    Cati Porter

  20. Pearl

    Hi Robert and Jane

    Let’s see. I’m in 1 class, 4 writers circle groups and 2 online workshop groups (not including group blogs), simultaneously.

    Of who I am with, S is 3 groups, 2 of them other non-overlapping writer circles.

    At a different group, M is in 2 of the same groups plus another 1.

    L is in 1 other circle that neither S, M nor I are in.

    C is in 3 groups, 2 writing groups that overlap with none of these other people.

    As is, that’s 4 people and 13 groups of anywhere from 3-10 members each, the group membership shifting but stable groups ranging from 1-15 years. Meetings can be anywhere from weekly or monthly to a couple times a year.

    I know of 6 other groups locally not covered by these folks, but a couple lean to fiction.

    Poetry is a religion I guess. For where two or three are gathered in my name I will be there. Matthew 18:20

    Face to face workshopping only works with 4 or 6 people max. Any more and it’s hard to give everyone air time. Online, asynchronous needs a bigger quorum to keep going I think.

    What would a book cover? How to customize criticism to the level the writer can absorb? Making ground rules? What food to serve? A new collection of firestarter exercises?

    Often they are roundtable consensus of like minds, not a leader so much as people who mentor, facilitating with their more studied or articulate perspective. Except for special occasion weekend workshops with a clear leader.

  21. monique

    I’m not sure. I don’t think that I would. I know of others who would, so I’m no help here really.

    I personally hate critique groups. People can be very negative. It can be, at times, too easy to criticize negatively ( and therefore damage) someone else’s writing.

    I know of a friend who, even though herself a brilliant writer, was severely depressed after having been not nicely criticized in just such a group (by a crap writer BTW, who just happened to have a NAME).

    It took her ages to get her confidence back.