THE NEW YORK WRITERS CRITIQUE GROUP
A Not-so-Brief Explanation
(Written in 2013 by Christopher Keelty, updated periodically)
The format for this critique group closely follows a format I encountered as a member of the Philadelphia Writers Group from 2011-2013, and credit is due to Michael Thompson who founded that group, and to Julius DeAngelus, Steve Silbiger, and Gene Pozniak, who were organizers when I joined. They are all very fine writers and quality humans.
The format is similar to what I encountered as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, and allows for an open discussion while encouraging kind, constructive discussion and minimizing chances for argument or defensiveness on the part of the author. I began this group only because I could not find another employing this same format in New York City, and if I failed in doing that research I apologize to anyone I’m slighting.
II. GROUND RULES
Our one unbreakable rule: Every member of this group is treated with respect and equality. We are writers with diverse backgrounds and diverse levels of experience. While work is open to critique, people are not. Your comments, whether during critique or any other time, should be clear and honest but also supportive and kind.
[ADDENDUM FOR THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC]
- For the time being, all meetings are being conducted via Zoom web-conference software. We’ll return to in-person meetings as soon as it’s safe, and we have suitable space. Stay tuned.
- Most of our rules stay the same as below.
- It’s helpful if you learn how Zoom works. In particular, owing to the nature of the platform, we have to ask people to raise their hands and wait their turns to speak. It’s inferior to an open in-person discussion, but it’s also the only way to make a meeting of 15-25 people on Zoom work smoothly.
[OUR USUAL RULES FOR IN-PERSON MEETINGS]
- Be courteous of your fellow authors – please keep table-talk to a minimum and listen when one person is speaking
- When it is your turn to speak, be loud. It’s a big room, there’s often background noise, and as writers many of us are prone to quiet voices. PROJECT so everyone can hear you.
- Come and go as you please, but be courteous to our host venue. Keep things tidy, remove your own trash, and return any furniture to where you found it. If the venue sells food or beverage, please consider buying something to support them–it’s not easy to find free meeting venues, and we want to stay on their good side.
- Treat your fellow writers as peers and artists, not as customers. We are all happy to hear about and celebrate publications, no matter what their format, and we invite you to share news about success. Just remember this group is not intended to sell anything; it’s meant to discuss the craft of writing.
- In all discussions, our purpose is to hear differing opinions and perspectives. We aren’t seeking a consensus, so while you are welcome to express disagreement, we want to avoid back-and-forth argument. Nobody should try to “win.” Express your opinion with confidence, but respect those who express different opinions.
- Similarly, if you are insecure about voicing your thoughts, please do. All voices are welcome–provided you are respectful of your fellow writers.
- Lastly, the group is very democratic and none of these rules is set in stone. If you think something should change, please speak to an organizer (or raise your question at a meeting) and we’ll put it to the group to discuss. Don’t be shy.
III. MEETING FORMAT
[OWING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, OUR CURRENT FORMAT IS SIMILAR, BUT ALTERED TO BETTER SUIT DISCUSSIONS VIA ZOOM. WE SKIP THE TOPIC DISCUSSION AND INTEGRATE A SHORTENED “ICEBREAKER” QUESTION INTO INTRODUCTIONS. WE ALSO LIMIT EACH MEETING TO 3 CRITIQUE SESSIONS, AND KEEP BREAKS TO 5 MINUTES. WE WILL RETURN TO THE BELOW FORMAT WHEN WE GO BACK TO MEETING IN PERSON.]
Meetings are scheduled to last 3 hours, and follow this structure:
Introductions (5-10 minutes)
Writers briefly introduce themselves, including their names, their experience writing, goals, etc. This is a good time to mention any recent or upcoming publications so your fellow writers can congratulate you and feel inspired by your success or to mention recent rejections so we can commiserate and encourage you to keep trying! Please try to be brief.
Brief Overview of “How This Works” (5-10 minutes)
An organizer will give a brief run-down of the information you are reading now, and attend to any “houskeeping” like announcements, votes, etc. A signup sheet will be passed around in case anyone in attendance is not on the Meetup.com group–it is optional.
Topic Discussion (30-45 minutes)
A topic will have been announced before the meeting, and the group has a free-form discussion. Organizers may moderate to keep things moving, but in my experience this has rarely been necessary.
(Possible) Break (10-15 minutes)
As our current meeting space has small bathrooms, we find that everyone going at once doesn’t work. So we often skip the break, and ask people to use the facilities whenever necessary.
Critique Workshops (~25 minutes each)
3-5 pieces of writing will have been distributed before the meeting, and the group will now critique them, following the format detailed below.
To the Bar
After the meeting, a group usually heads to a nearby watering hole to socialize. This is totally optional and informal. All are welcome–you pay your own way.
IV. CRITIQUE FORMAT
For critiques to work best, this format should be somewhat rigidly applied–particularly the rule about the author being “dead.” The amount of time taken will vary by piece, and the Moderator and group organizers should allow as much time as necessary to have a meaningful discussion, but also keep things moving along and avoid harping on one point.
- The meeting organizer will ask for and appoint a Moderator, who will run the critique (there should be one Moderator for each piece of writing)
- The Moderator will introduce the author and the title of the piece
- The author will be given a brief (1-2 minute) opportunity to preface the critique with any comment he or she chooses; this might be to explain that the piece is part of a longer narrative, or for any other purpose the author chooses.
- The author is ceremonially (and figuratively) “killed.” From this point on the author is dead; no one in the group may address the author directly for any reason, and the author may not speak for any reason. Discussion happens among the group, and the author may only take notes.
- POSITIVE COMMENTS: The group discusses the things they really liked about the work, what they thought worked well, and what they admired. At each step, people may initially be shy or unsure of their comments, and the Moderator should allow a bit of time and try to draw out some comments to get things flowing. If comments become repetitive, however, the Moderator should move things along.
- CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM: The group discusses the things they didn’t think worked as well, what they didn’t like, and what they thought could be improved. Note that this is the place for larger conceptual issues, not spelling or grammar errors; that comes later. The Moderator and everyone in the group should remember they are criticizing the piece, not the author. Somewhat frequently, members of the group may disagree and a debate may begin; the Moderator should allow this to continue only as long as it is productive, and then suggest the group move on.
- NITPICKS: If time allows, the group has an opportunity to voice small detailed criticisms, like improper use of punctuation or factual errors. Where possible these should be communicated privately between the reviewer and the author instead.
- The Moderator brings the author back to life, to a round of applause from the group–this person has just submitted themselves to a critique, which takes courage. Not only that, they have created a piece of writing, which in itself is an achievement.
- The author has a brief opportunity to respond to the group in whatever way they wish. This is a good opportunity to answer any burning questions the group raised, to thank the group for comments, and to ask any clarifying questions about the criticism received. The author should avoid any urge to be defensive or respond to individual criticisms.
- The critique ends with another round of applause. If members of the group have brought written comments for the author, they are passed in to the author to review and consider.
V. HOW TO SUBMIT YOUR WORK
VI. FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: WHY DON’T PEOPLE JUST BRING THEIR WRITING AND READ IT TO THE GROUP?
This is an approach some groups use, and it’s a perfectly legitimate format. However, it doesn’t allow the same kind of time for readers to digest and consider a piece of work before critiquing it. Also, it means your work is not experienced on the page, but in your spoken voice–which is not the way your intended audience will experience it.
Q: HOW DO YOU CHOOSE FROM THE PIECES YOU RECEIVE?
In general it’s first-come, first-serve, so submitting early is a good strategy. However we do move new authors, who have not been critiqued yet, to the front of the queue. An author who has attended lots of meetings and submits for the first time will go to the front of the line, while an author who submits frequently will get lower priority.
Q: WHAT KIND OF WRITING DO YOU ACCEPT?
Scripts, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, lyrics–if you can send it along in electronic format, we’ll accept it. One of the strengths of a group like this is diversity of perspectives; you’ll be read and reviewed by all kinds of writers with different tastes and experience levels. That might mean your sci-fi novel or stage play won’t get the same level of expert analysis that it would in a more specific science fiction group, but you’ll also gain insights other groups might not afford. The one thing I’d suggest you consider is whether the piece is “ready.” If you already know there are things you want to change, there’s a good chance the group is only going to tell you what you already know–so get the piece as close as possible to “final” before submitting.
Q: CAN I CHOOSE TO READ MY WORK ALOUD IF I WANT TO?
If it’s short, sure. Poetry and scripts lend themselves especially well to this. I’ve even seen small scenes from scripts performed by multiple readers. If it’s a longer piece, we really won’t have time. Bear in mind, too, that the critique you receive will mostly be based on the written page and not on your performance.
Q: CAN I PROMOTE MY RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOK TO THE GROUP?
This is a frequent question at Writers Groups, and the answer is “kind of.” While your fellow writers are happy to celebrate your achievement, we’re here to talk about the craft, not to be your customers. Please do announce your recent publication, show off your book, and feel free to drop a quick plug for “how you can buy.” But remember we are your peers, so please don’t come to a meeting just to sell your product. It’s disrespectful and makes you look bad. Bear in mind we are all writers, so many of us have a similar drive to sell our books–and while we want to support you, there are only so many hours (and dollars) we can devote to reading.
Respectfully, if your main interest is selling your book, then I’d suggest you find a book club or other group of readers–not a group of writers. However if you’re joining us to talk writing, and help others improve their craft, please don’t hesitate to show us your work.