If you’re a writer, do you belong to a critique group? Should you belong to one?
One person I know recommends writers not join critique groups, though she does like critiques at workshops. She fears that writers might get bad advice from others in a group or that writers might lose confidence in their work if they get a negative critique.
I understand her concerns, but I value my critique groups. In today’s market, a manuscript submission must be as close to perfect as possible by the time it reaches an editor’s desk. I know I get too close to my own work to see it clearly. When I describe a scene I know too well, a reader might not be able to picture it. I need to be told it isn’t coming across clearly enough, so I can rewrite it. If my plot isn’t working or my characters aren’t believable, I need to know that, too.
Belonging to a critique group also requires accountability. If a group is waiting each month to hear/read what you’ve written, it helps keep you in the chair and pounding out the words.
You can avoid the pitfalls of a critique group. First, make sure to join a group that’s right for you. The first one I joined many years ago was not the right group, and I stayed with them for only two meetings. I was the only writer for children in the group, and their critiques tended to feel like a pat on the head. I wanted constructive criticism.
The key word there is constructive. There’s no point in offering a critique that isn’t helpful. I also believe a critique should begin with something positive. Telling a writer what’s working is at least as important as telling her what is not.
And when you’re on the receiving end, it’s important to learn whose advice to listen to and whose to ignore. If you write picture books, a novelist’s advice might not be best. If you’ve been writing for decades, perhaps the advice of a newcomer should be taken with a grain of salt. Sort through the comments you get and use only those which you find helpful.
My two critique groups work in different ways. (Both consist of writers for children; both have published and unpublished members.) The first (which I’ve belonged to for more than 20 years) has members read their work aloud before going around the table for critiques. The second (which I’ve been with for nearly 10 years) has members e-mail their work in advance. We receive the e-mailed ms, print a copy, write a critique, and take it to the meeting for group discussion. Occasionally, a member will bring printed copies of a short piece to a meeting to read and discuss.
Both types of critiquing have pros and cons.
Reading aloud has definite time limitations, and novelists in the group can only read a chapter or two a month, which means it can take years to cover a whole novel. That makes it impossible to judge the work on its flow, and keeping the plot straight over time gets tough. To get around that, we often trade complete novels with other members to read and critique one-on-one.
Reading aloud helps to catch those awkward sentences that trip up the tongue, and overused words become obvious, but a trained voice can make a car manual sound like Gone With The Wind, and some important flaws might be missed.
Reading a written copy lets us see the work as an editor sees it, but reading it in advance loses immediacy by the time it’s discussed at the meeting. And printing all those copies really laps up the paper and ink.
At Rich Wallace’s workshops, he often has us read each other’s work aloud. That gives us the advantage of hearing our own work, instead of reading it ourselves. It can be ear-opening.
Over time, I’ve learned how to get the most from my groups. I have the advantage of knowing whose advice is most helpful, and have made many friends who share the love of words.
My groups also share information on workshops. In 1999, a few group members encouraged me to apply for Chautauqua, and I learned about the Highlights Foundation, which introduced me to the Founders Workshops, where I met the Swaggers. A true plus!