About Writers, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

World’s Best Critique Group: A Case Study

– by Christy Moceri

In 2015, I joined a writer’s group that changed my life. We call ourselves the International Writers Syndicate, because one of our members is Canadian and ‘Syndicate’ sounds sinister and mysterious. After four years of steady improvement and one year of co-leadership, this is what I’ve learned.

We Are Intentional
We created our group to become better writers. This may sound obvious, but many writing groups form around a shared interest rather than a shared purpose. In other groups I’ve sampled, motives for participation range from, “I need something to keep me occupied on Tuesday nights,” to “I love hearing what a great writer I am. Please tell me more.”

Once you decide the purpose of your group, and commit to that purpose, decision-making about how to spend that time – and who to spend it with — becomes a lot clearer.

We Are Crafty
In keeping with our goal for continued improvement, we are heavily focused on craft. Lately a number of us have been doing a deep-dive into global structure. The more we study craft together, the more we develop a shared language for communicating about each other’s work. Our explicit, written objective in the critique process is not to impose our personal preferences onto someone else’s work, but rather to help each member clarify the story they are trying to tell and provide tools and techniques that will help them tell that story more effectively. Though we write everything from YA to erotic thriller, we believe that the principles of good storytelling are universal. We honor those principles at every meeting.

We Are Ruthless
Here’s the truth about writer’s groups that nobody wants to hear: The desire to be nice will ride roughshod over your most deeply cherished vision for a group of committed, like-minded writers. Nice will invite anyone through the door, roll out the welcome mat, and allow them to suck your time, energy and resources regardless of their skill, commitment, or cultural fit. Nice will encourage whispered, covert conversations and erode group cohesion. Don’t believe for a second you’re sparing anyone’s feelings by not being direct with them. In the long run, they will only be hurt more.

After a number of frustrating experiences with open membership, we became a closed group, by invitation only. We evaluate for skill level, capacity for improvement, demonstrated ability to give and receive a critique, and tolerance for dirty jokes. Does it suck to tell an otherwise lovely person that they aren’t a good fit for your group? Sure does. You know what sucks more? Devoting precious time and energy to someone who doesn’t share or even comprehend your vision.

We don’t just guard membership with ruthless fervor, we’re also ruthless in the critique process itself. We tell each other what we really think, sometimes loudly. Honesty is our commitment to one another, no matter how much it hurts, because not improving as writers is the worst possible outcome.  We consider this thing sacred, and we’re going to protect it with everything we have.

We Love Each Other
If you care passionately about improving your writing, you will suffer. You will face writing tasks that seem impossible, spend months parched of inspiration, writhe with insecurity, and probably hear feedback that makes you want to pitch your manuscript in the trash and go do something fun. When you are trapped in the gaping maw of the worst this lifestyle has to offer, nothing matters more than having someone to ride out that suffering with you. They will listen to your paranoid 3am text rants and read your five versions of your third act because you will do the same for them. When they are full of fear and trembling, you will tell them they are brave and destined for greatness, dress them for battle, and push them out into the world. Your bond becomes their armor. And you will never feel more powerful.

Visit Christy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100028306160378


11 thoughts on “World’s Best Critique Group: A Case Study

  1. GD Deckard says:

    This is clear insight into what makes a strong, useful critique group. Thanks, Christy! 🙂 Now, I want to read the International Writers Syndicate’s Manual.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    I have been a member of several writers groups. None of them have been helpful for developing craft.

    I took an evening class a bit over a year ago, hoping that the guidance of a writing instructor would help.The instructor didn’t much help. I saw a couple of my classmates improve their writing, but most of the participants were just trying to get out of the house one evening a week, or were too unskilled or uncaring to even spell their words right. We were too nice to tell our partners what we really thought of their efforts, and that limited growth.

    This week I am starting another evening writing course, another venue, another instructor. I’m hoping for better this time.

    Meanwhile, I can see that membership in the International Writers Syndicate would be a lot of work, but with a valuable payoff for its members.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Perry, what you’re describing is what we experienced when we first started attending Meetups. People were at different levels in terms of commitment and seriousness. We were meeting at Barnes and Noble so people would just drop by to socialize, one guy even fell asleep at the table. A few of us just happened to connect really well, and we discussed how frustrated we were with how things were going. Then the old group leader got sick (I mean really sick) and had to step down. We figured it was now or never, and changed everything.

      It has been a lot of work. We do the critiques every other week (2 subs per session, max 10,000 words per submission) but one of the limitations of that style of critique group is the inability to look at long-form fiction as a whole. To that end, in addition to chapter reviews, we’ve committed to beta reading complete novels for each other. That allows us to give more structural and developmental feedback. Fortunately some of us are more productive than others. For this level of commitment you have to really like the people you are spending time with. There’s nothing we’d rather do than hang out. Writing itself is a lot of work, but the time with them is like the reward for working hard. I think that’s why writing groups can be so sustaining – sometimes writing does NOT feel like its own reward. When I can go have a drink with my friends and discuss what a difficult week it’s been, it makes the struggle seem worthwhile.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Perry Palin says:

        Excellent. Members of your group are giving and receiving thoughtful and valuable feedback.

        My hope for my writing classes is that I will learn from the instructor, but also from my classmates. Sometimes I learn what not to do.

        In the meantime, I’m paying a guy a lot of money for a developmental edit of my novel. He’s a good guy, I know him, and I’m happy to have him do this for me. But it’s still costing me a lot of money which might be saved with a group like yours.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “Our explicit, written objective in the critique process is not to impose our personal preferences onto someone else’s work, but rather to help each member clarify the story they are trying to tell and provide tools and techniques that will help them tell that story more effectively. ” – This. This is what true critique is about.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. We have eight including me! We have an old Meetup page we haven’t updated in a while. That’s actually how we got started… but it was not a promising start. We had to really work to get it into shape. I know luck had a lot to do with it, but that’s also where “Intention” comes in. A few of us started talking outside of group and we weren’t getting what we needed from the group as it existed at that time. So when leadership was turned over to one of us, we decided to change it.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I doubt it’s possible for any critique group to be helpful without a commitment to honesty, objectivity, and ruthlessness, but I suspect those characteristics develop only over time as friendship and trust grow.

    Have members of IWS published manuscripts the group has critiqued? Have any of you entered contests and received professional reader feedback? It’s exciting to recognize your own improvements, but it’s encouraging to receive public acknowledgement, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’re at various stages in the publishing process. Some have multiple short stories or novels published (including stories that predate group membership), some are still doing the query thing or working on R&Rs, two received agent/publisher offers this month (!!!) for books we critiqued, and other members are focused more on craft than publication. As for me, I’m a long-time writer on the verge of trying to sell my work for the first time. I had no concept of craft until I joined four years ago… I just ran on instinct, for better or for worse. They helped me iron out so many storytelling issues, such that by the time I actually did get my novel, ‘Killer’ in front of a professional editor, the editor’s feedback was really positive. I’m in Final Revisions Hell at present, but they help with that, too. We had a special brainstorming session tonight for my ending payoff scenes, blackboard and all. Two hours later, I’ve got some fresh ideas to run with.

      Liked by 3 people

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