One of the most important items in a successful critique group is keeping track of time. The moderators of Wordsmiths are terrific at this! We all “obey” the timer almost to the minute and get a tremendous amount of quality work done. Through the years, however, I have been in other groups where there was resistance to time limits or they were not strictly enforced. Often readers did not observe the 10-page maximum for manuscripts.
Many times I’ve heard phrases such as, “I don’t like time limits. Anybody should be free to read as much as they like,” or “Timers a just a nuisance. We should discuss each manuscript as long we want.” I have been in groups where sometimes over an hour was spent on one person’s work! While attitudes such as these may seem helpful and considerate, they are really unfair. If 6-8 members bring something to read, it’s easy to see how the meeting will drag on for hours and members could get very weary (and cranky!) 🙂
And, in truth, it serves no purpose to go over manuscripts with such a “fine-toothed comb.” It’s not necessary to pick apart every sentence. The main idea of a critique group is to give writers an objective viewpoint, to figure out if something isn’t quite right or otherwise doesn’t work.
Certainly sentence fragments, glaring punctuation and grammatical errors, if they are found, can be commented on (in a positive, encouraging way, of course), but otherwise, these small items can simply be marked on the manuscript. More importantly, if everyone tells how they think the story should be written, often changing plot, characters, and sometimes even the main idea, it no longer is the original writer’s work.
Here are some examples: In one group I was in years ago (they mainly wrote for adults) one woman always wanted to change most main characters to a pre-menopausal woman, insisting this would make the story “so hilarious.” In another, a writer wanted every story, even those for small children, to be “sensitive to women’s issues.” A third instance was a member who questioned every detail of setting, whether it be snow in the mountains, the desert of the Southwest, or even the Amish country. He always knew better, claiming he had “been there.”
None of these criticisms, or “suggestions,” helped the writer. They weren’t true to the original intent, used up time and energy, led to arguments (which have no place in a good critique group) and often left the writer dazed and confused.
From my experience in Wordsmiths, I know that limiting what each person reads to 10 pages is important. And, 20 minutes, 30 minutes at the very most, is ample time to discuss and comment on these manuscripts. This gives a writer the feedback she needs without using up copious amounts of time, exhausting members, and/or completely dismantling a manuscript.
If you find your critique group is dragging, try using a timer and sticking to a schedule. It works beautifully for us!
Contributed by Marjorie Flathers