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Speculative Fiction Writing

The Milford System

The Milford System is a great writing group critique process. Here’s an explanation of how it works and some tips for using it successfully.

The Milford System is a tried and tested way of running creative writing critique groups. It’s the system we use for our critique groups at Manchester Speculative Fiction.

How the Milford System Works

It’s a relatively simple process. The fundamental point is there’s minimal discussion and no arguing. Everybody gets their turn to speak and respects the other attendees’ turn.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The authors distribute their work.
    • We use Dropbox, but some groups use group chat, social media or email.
  2. Everyone reads all the pieces in advance and prepares their critique.
  3. At the meeting, the attendees sit around a table and one by one deliver their critique without interruption (other than the moderator).
  4. The author makes notes of the points made.
  5. Once the attendees have finished critiquing the piece, the author responds without interruption (other than the moderator).

Pros and Cons of the Milford System

Advantages

  • Reduced conflict.
    • Because there’s no discussion, there’s no opportunity for critiques to devolve into arguments.
  • It’s all about the writing.
    • Some other critique systems involve the author reading their piece out on the night. The problem with this is it emphasises the author’s performance skills, not their writing.
  • In-depth critique.
    • On-the-night critiques can be more of an instant reaction than a detailed analysis.
  • Reduced groupthink and social pressure.
    • Everyone contributes their critique.
    • The group listens to, and respects, everyone’s opinion.
      • No one feels intimidated by the more confident attendees.
    • Because people analyse the piece before the meeting, other people’s critiques don’t influence their response.
    • Other writing critique systems can end up with everyone agreeing with whoever has the strongest personality.

Disadvantages

  • Reading and critiquing all the pieces before the meeting is more work.
    • You can’t just turn up on the night, listen to the readings, and make a few spontaneous comments.
  • There’s nowhere to hide.
    • Everyone who attends delivers a critique.
    • If you submit a piece, you can’t rely on your performance skills, status, or charisma to carry your piece through.
  • It can get boring.
    • It can take a while to get round the group, and there’s no interaction.
    • This can be mitigated by holding attendees’ critiques to a time limit, three minutes each, for example.
    • The moderator can also encourage people not to get bogged down in nit-picks and typos.
  • It can get repetitive.
    • The author doesn’t need to hear the same point ad nauseam.
    • The moderator should encourage people to just note they agree, rather than go through the same point again.
  • It’s hard to listen to criticism.
    • This isn’t really a disadvantage of the Milford System, but of all writing critique groups. Some people find having their work critiqued painful. See our tips on how to respond constructively to critique.

Tips for Running a Milford System Critique Group

  • Have a moderator.
    • The role of the moderator is to keep the meeting on track.
  • Don’t go through every single typo.
    • The moderator should encourage people to be concise if they’re rambling.
    • All attendees should hand over an annotated copy of each author’s submission with typos and minor edits.
  • Critiques should be constructive and focussed on helping the author of the piece improve it. 
    • The moderator should intervene if a critique is too negative.
  • Critiques should discuss the literary merit of the piece.
    • The moderator should intervene if a critique focuses on political differences, personal animosity, or anything other than the piece itself.
    • In particular, the moderator should intervene to stop any arguments.
  • Occasionally, people get upset.
    • The moderator should intervene if the critique is getting too much for the author. If necessary, the group should abandon the critique of the author’s work.
  • It’s best if attendees submit work for critique, not just critique other people’s work.
    • This reminds people how being critiqued feels, which helps them to make their critiques constructive.
    • The official Milford system makes this a hard-and-fast rule: you can’t critique unless you submit. Manchester Speculative Fiction just encourages people to submit work.
  • Socialise afterwards.
    • This helps the group trust each other and mitigates any personal resentment.

Conclusion: It Works

There are other ways of running a writing critique group, but the Milford System is the one that works for us. We recommend it.

Questions?

If you have questions about running a writing group using the Milford System, or you’d like to come along to our Manchester writing group, please contact us.

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By Graeme Shimmin

Graeme Shimmin has been a member of the Manchester Speculative Fiction Writing Group since 2012 and edited its first two anthologies. His novels have won, or been listed for, multiple prizes including the Terry Pratchett Prize, YouWriteOn Book of the Year and Arthur C. Clarke Award.