A critique group can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a destructive thing if it’s not the right group for you. Some writers choose not to show their work to groups of other people; for some, it is not helpful, but for others, it is an invaluable way of polishing a manuscript until it's ready to send out.
If you’re interested in being in a critique group, one of the best ways is to join the SCBWI, where there are lots of already-established groups around the country. If you’re not in the SCBWI, and there isn’t a critique group near you (you can check online, with local libraries, in bookshops, etc.) you can try setting one up for yourself. If you’re not in an organisation of children’s writers or have links with other children’s writers online, you could put up cards in libraries, bookshops, cafes etc., or put an advert in a local paper or magazine to see if anyone is interested in joining you.
You will need to decide:
 The size of your group and who will be in it (beginners/more established writers)
 How often to meet (this is often every four- to eight- weeks)
 Where to hold the group (in one place or moving between different locations, often each member’s home)
 How to run the group (does everyone bring work each time or do you focus on one person’s work, etc.?)
I am part of the SCBWI and would strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in writing for children. I actually signed up mainly because I had read that you could join a local critique group with fellow SCBWIers if you became a member.
Our critique group has been going strong for about four years now and in case it is useful for other people, I’ll outline what we do and how we’ve changed it over the years to get it in a way that works best for us as a group. There are all sorts of ways to run a group, depending on many different factors including whether you have other opportunities to socialise and talk about writing. We do, which means that we can focus on critiquing at these meetings. Some people prefer to run them more as we used to (bringing manuscripts on the day; open to anyone; anyone, including the author, can chip in) and others choose to focus on one person’s writing each session. Different styles work for different groups.
But however you choose to critique someone's work, remember that it is crucial to treat the author and the work with respect. You are trying to help the author produce the best piece of writing he or she can produce. And it can be very nerve-wracking having your work discussed by others, so be honest but always with integrity (it is about the writing, not you) and respect. And be specific about what you think works well and what may need working on so that the feedback is practical.
The current set-up for our local critique group
 Size of group. Our group is now a closed one (it was originally open to any SCBWI members). There are nine of us who are committed to coming to every session that we are able to come to, so we all know each others’ work and style. We also trust each other completely, which is extremely important in any critique group. Nine people works well for us as we are unlikely to have all of us there but there are always enough of us to have a really useful session. Everyone from the group is serious about getting published whether or not they have already been published. (Note, nine is larger than usual for a critique group; many groups work really well with about five members.)
 How often to meet. We now meet every five weeks where possible. Any more frequently and it was hard to prepare work for each session and any less frequently and it was hard to keep the momentum up. We meet for about five hours –it wasn’t that long when we started but given the size of the group, we can only get through all of our work by making the meetings that long.
 Where to hold the group. Waterstone’s has very kindly allowed us to use space in their shop which is available. This is a central location and being in a more formal environment, rather than in someone’s house, helps us to focus on critiquing.
 How to run the group. Two weeks before we meet, everyone emails their manuscripts to me (up to 2000 words, or a whole picture book text) and I send them out to the group as a single email with all the manuscripts attached. Because it’s a large group, I send out a table of who needs to read each manuscript so that everyone only has to read five manuscripts per session and everyone gets their manuscripts critiqued by five other people. It would be too much to expect everyone to read up to eight manuscripts for each meeting and the meetings would take too long. (If anyone else is in a big group and would like an easy way of working out who reads what so that not everyone has to read everything, please contact me and I’ll send over sample tables to adapt.)
Before the meeting, everyone reads and makes notes on the manuscripts, often using tracking changes on the computer. They then bring these notes on the day (either as hard copy, or on a laptop).
The meeting itself starts promptly at 10am and we divide the time up between each piece of writing (usually about 45 minutes per piece). We go round in a circle starting with the person to the left of the writer. The first few critiquers usually take up more time because later critiquers don’t need to repeat what has already been said. Once each person has spoken (uninterrupted by anyone else), anyone who has anything to add, based on comments they’ve heard speaks again. The writer does not comment on any of the comments. This is for a specific reason (and is based on the Ursula LeGuin method of running critic groups -do read LeGuin’s Steering the Craft; it’s an interesting and useful read): a writer who knows he or she can respond to the comments made may end up concentrating more on how to defend his or her work than really listening to the comments. Also, the writing needs to be strong enough without explanation as this is how it would be read if published.
(There is sometimes a chance at the end for the writer to comment but usually not. For this reason, it can be really useful to arrange less formal meetings, too. Three or four times a year, we meet up for an evening at someone’s house and eat, drink, watch –and then discuss- a children’s movie. We also have other writing events that we arrange or attend, where there is more time to socialise. And we are in very frequent email contact to discuss news and share successes or disappointments.)
Sometimes, the writer has asked in advance for people to comment on certain aspects of their manuscript, but usually not. What is not discussed during a critique is the spelling and typos –these are noted on the script and given back to the writer after the critique. Similarly, we do not repeat what someone else has said, but will mention whether we agree or disagree with other people’s comments. This frees up more time to discuss other issues.