Friday, April 10, 2009

Critique Groups

If you're a writer who has been working alone, at your computer, on your manuscript, you may reach a point where you begin to wonder if you should have others look at your book.

You may be at the phase where you need a critique group.

Or you may not be.

Before you begin searching for a group, you need to ask yourself if you're ready to hand over your words to others and have them, not just read it, but discuss it, mark up your pages, and tell you what they think you're doing wrong. (And, hopefully, what you're doing right.)

Will you be able to handle that? Can you sit and listen without trying to argue or defend? Can you do that week after week?

Are you ready to read the work of others in your group and give them constructive criticism? A critique group is a two-way process. You take advice; you give advice. Do you have the time to critique the work of others in the group. You can't just get advice on your book, then walk away.

Do you have the time to meet with the group every week or once a month or however often they meet. You're making a commitment when you join a critique group.

Are you ready to share more than just your comments on their writing? In most cases, a critique group ends up being more than just discussion on someone's work. Members share tips and advice on writing. They share information they've found out about agents or conferences. You're joining a tight knit group that helps each other in more areas than just the pages submitted each week.

But most of all, are you ready to take the criticism? These are not your family members or best friends. Their job is to keep it real and give you their best advice. It's not always easy to take.

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  1. Very good points to consider!

    Often a group like this also hands out writing assignments - do you have time to do these as well?

    L. Diane Wolfe

  2. Critique groups are wonderful things when the participants can give good advice and help you help yourself.

    I think the biggest problem for people who have never been in a critique group is developing the ability to critique. It's not all that intuitive, lol. I learned in college, where I focused on creative writing and we have critique sessions guided by professors who essentially taught us to critique. It was invaluable.

    But now, with the advent of the internet, there are groups like (via sfwa, I believe) which provides a forum. New writers can learn a lot from reading others' crits and seeing how others look at writing.

    I had the most marvelous online critique group which included a Writers of the Future winner, several published authors and massive talent overall. It was a great group. But the thing with critique groups is that doing great critiques takes massive amounts of time (for me anyhow) so I had to quit just so I could get my own writing done.

    I'm fortunate that I have a couple friends who can beta read for me. I'll miss my critique group, but it wasn't the best use of my time for me.

  3. At least for me, a critique group has been hard to find. I have a Critique Partner whom I met through a writing class, so we got to know eachother well and are at the same level of writing. We now push one another - we know the stories at hand - and we've both worked as both writers and editors. My issue with online cgs was that you don't know where people are coming from. I had very high expectations that were not met by any group - and by high expectations I mean rip-apart feedback and intelligent insight. I am not sure a seasoned writer would benefit from a crit group w/ beginners, so it's important to find the right fit.

  4. Diane, I've never been in a group that gave out writing assignments. I don't think that would work for me, since doing my own writing is about all I have time for!

  5. Writtenwyrdd, you're so right. Giving a critique is something that needs to be learned. My first critique group was a large, formal group. Instructions were given out to beginners and there was a leader who made sure no one got off track or starting attacking.

    Like you, I now have beta readers.

  6. Some very good thoughts here, Helen. Many times a writer wants feedback on their work but doesn’t want to use their time to give it. Good point you made is it is a TWO way street. I’ve experimented with a few groups. For sure they can suck your time. I also found there are those where it’s all about them and not really helpful because they want the feedback but really don’t want to give you the same. So finding a good fit is important. I now belong to one writing group. Good fit, lots of talent, very close knit. We do share information with the group on what we learn in the publishing process, which is invaluable. We have several published authors as members. I also have a crit partner. I get good constructive feedback when I want it and I do the same for them. One of the good things about joining a group or having a crit partner is getting used to putting your work out there under public scrutiny—that’s scary the first few times you do it. The first time your critique partner or group reads your work. The first bleeding crit you get back is hard, but it does teach you to look at things analytically. Our group gives constructive crits but won’t blow sunshine and butterflies—families do that and everything you write is wonderful to them. J But the problem with sunshine and butterflies is you don’t learn and grow as a writer. A lesson you learn quickly is writing and what constitutes good writing, and how to go about it, is very subjective and often conflicting. This holds true for most aspects of the publishing process.

  7. Amy Sue, if you're looking for a critique group, you might do what a friend and I did when we wanted to start a screenwriting critique group. We put out notice that we were looking to start one, then we interviewed applicants. We met with each one in person, read a sample of their writing, and ended up with a fabulous group that was a mix of produced screenwriters, very talented screenwriters and one new writer who had been through a course on screenwriting.

  8. I've never joined a critique group, but I do have a small select group of people that I count on as my DHR's (designated honest readers). They are all English majors and/or teachers, or professionals in some field of literature, extremely well read in all genres, and have taken a VOW to give me their honest feedback regardless of my feelings. This is no business for the thin-skinned. If a chapter or scene or even an entire ms is just not "getting it" you need to know before embarrassing yourself with a publication.

    That being said, I will sometimes follow my gut if I disagree with a particular criticism. I take it into consideration and make a decision on what's best for what I'm trying to accomplish with the work.

    Great topic today. :)

  9. Sia, it is hard to find the right group, but it sounds like you've done it. You're so right about the first bleeding crit. I feel the thing to do is open it, see the red everywhere and close it. Wait an hour or so, then look at the pages again. Once you read through the comments, set it aside again. Give it time to settle, time for you to think. Don't make any quick decisions -- "this person who wrote this is an idiot" nor "I'm a horrible writer."

  10. It is good to listen to your gut, Marvin. You're right. If only one of your readers is saying to change something, then you have to decide if you trust them and if you believe you need to go with your gut. If all of your readers disagree with you, then you probably should think a long time before leaving it the way you wrote it. But, no matter what anyone says, it's your book. It'll have your name on it, so you have to believe in it.

  11. Good post today, Helen. I've been in extremely useful writers groups. Right now, I'm not for reasons of time. I teach exercise classes in the evenings and that cuts into my ability to be in groups.

    Also, in the groups I've been in, I've noticed a tendency to lose perspective over other's writing over time. It's as if though we all start writing each other's work as well. Has anybody else noticed this?

    This is when "blind readers" come in handy.

  12. I joined a critique group on AOL some years ago. I got some very good advice as well as some potentially destructive chatter from pre-writers, who weren't qualified to give writing advice. So you have to choose your critique partners carefully. I would love to join a group of good published writers. Even Mary Higgins Clark is a member of a group that meets at her apartment. :)


  13. I participated in critiques for years--online and "live." I did get good advice, but often found that while folks could say what wasn't working, they couldn't say WHY. This makes for frustrating hit-and-miss revision. Also, twenty people have twenty different opinions, so revising for all was impossible.

    I did take these experiences with me into my writing career. I fly solo for the most part, and the test readers I occasionally use are professional editors or authors. There's always more to learn!

    My best teacher right now is my job as acquisitions editor. I've become much more comprehensive in grasping the "Whys" to the "Whats" in what's not working in a story. I hope this in turn tightens my own writing. We'll see!


  14. Conda, I know what you mean about a group losing perspective. I was in a group for years, but finally left. That move was a year or two overdue.

  15. That would be a good group, Jean. If you find or create one, let us know how it works for you.

  16. Lisa, your job has got to be a great teaching job for you, as well as a real eye-opener. I haven't a clue about your daily schedule or commitments, but it sounds (from the outside) like a great job.

  17. Helen,

    When I first started writing, I belonged to the local chapter of the Romance Writers of America. The organization tried to organize critique groups but wasn't very successful. So at one meeting, I asked the people at my table if they wanted to start our own group.

    We formed a group of four, and it was an amazing success, especially considering the random way we came together. Each of us had different talents and skills, and we complemented each other. We were all about the same stage in our writing, and we liked each other and each other's work.

    I'm not sure if I would have ever been published without that group. One of the most important benefits to me was the discipline of needing to have a chapter every week. I never wanted to show up empty-handed when everyone else brought a new chapter.

    The other three eventually quit writing and the group dissolved. We had lunch together last week, and we're talking about forming the group again as we all miss it and the others miss writing.

    Lillie Ammann
    A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

  18. Lillie, I had forgotten that about critique groups (haven't been in one in a while) - it forces you to write and be ready for each meeting.

  19. Hi, Helen!

    Great post. I belong to a critique group where I can watch and learn for now.

    It's called Forward Motion at and it's great.


  20. I used to be in a critique group years ago. I found it very useful. We eventually drifted apart.

    Now I have some beta readers that are gracious enough to read for me. As much as I value them they tend to find all the grammar and spelling mistakes, but don't really critique. Later, in general conversation, I might draw out a valuable comment and think, "Why didn't you tell me that before!"

    I do have some that give it to me straight, but most still seem to be afraid of hurting my feelings even though I tell them it's OK to cut it to ribbons.

    Still, ALL comments are welcome, even if it's just a grammar catch. And if you ask pointed questions after they've read it you can figure out that something obviously didn't work if you get answers you don't expect.

    I do get good critiques over at Editor Unleashed when I post there. Some of the folks over there are very good at critiques. You have to sign in to post or comment. I have not had time to do critiques of late, so don't post right now. After all, it is a two way street.

  21. This is one of the things I miss the most about university. I took some writing intensive, critique focused courses for my major, and after I graduated, it was really hard to find a solid group of critiquers as thorough and honest as my college classmates. I actually have a small online writers group I work with, but sadly, we've scattered this last year and there are only about 2 of us left. I love the whole process of critique, the give and take, and getting down to the bare bones of not just the editing, but the stories. Great post. I enjoyed it.


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