In the Family

Being Part of a Writer’s Critique Group

What is a Writer’s Critique Group?

Today I decided it was high time that I write about writer critique groups. A writer critique group is when a group of writers – usually at least three people, often 5-10 – get together to share their writing. The group usually meets weekly, monthly, or every other week. Sometimes the critique group is part of a bigger writers’ alliance in the local town, and pay includes benefits. Other groups are freely-formed and cost nothing.

When the writers get together, they each critique one another’s pieces. These can be a chapter of your current work-in-progress novel, a short story, a page or more of poetry, etc. A writer critique group can be for non-fiction or fiction, focus on a certain genre, i.e. sci-fi, or cover all genres.

The great thing about a writer critique group is that you get constructive criticism (well, one hopes!) on your writing. Unlike readers who may be family, friends, or non-writers, a writer in your group will actually tell you what’s not working in your story, rather than just the useless platitudes of, “It’s amazing!” that you may receive from your mother.

The reason a writer’s critique membership is important is because it gets not only a second set of eyes on your work, but multiple sets. You get the perspective from readers who are also writers, from different age groups and genders, and from people with varying levels of writing experience and different ideas.

I suggest that you find a group that is not too different in how each of them approach you work. Obviously you want different views, but if you have a professor-type grammar-nazi who pens red all over your work go up against a hippy-style “it’s all good” type who says it’s already perfect, well…this can create tension in the group and leave you confused about what to do with your work. Those two people are just stereotype examples, but my warning is real: sometimes two differing views from two different people leaves you with no idea what to change or not. So, I recommend picking more than two people, just to avoid the small chance of this problem happening to you.

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Finding the Right Critique Group for YOU

It can be tough finding a critique group. I’ve sat in on groups that I was considering joining, and known within one meeting that their group was not for me. How did I know?

Well, there are a few things you must consider:

  • Your genre
  • Your story length and state
  • Yours and others’ critique style

Genre

If you’re writing a fantasy but you join a group that does mostly memoirs, don’t expect to get a lot of useful input back. You may end up feeling like you don’t belong, or that people’s comments are not helpful, or that their comments are helpful but their support of your story is less. This might not happen, of course, but nonetheless – it works best if you pick a group that is working in the same genre as you.

If you’re in a general fiction group, that always works, too. But if you’d really like to focus on say, mystery, it can be fun to join a mystery-only group. This way group discussion can all be about what makes a mystery work – how to carve out the best red herrings, how to not reveal who the murderer is too early, etc.

Your story length and state

Right now I’m in a group that’s mostly working on novels, except for one woman who submits short stories each week. I personally like submitting a chapter and knowing that most of the rest of the group is going to submit chapters. If I were the only one submitting chapters, I’d be a little afraid that the rest of the group tires of reading about the same characters, instead of being fresh like their short submissions.

By story ‘state’, what I mean is, are you working on a rough draft, or going through your third revision? This will affect what amount or style of critique works for you. For example, with a rough draft you’ll want as much input as possible, about many aspects of the story – plot, characters, tension, etc. If it’s a third go-around, you might just want your readers to go through with a focus on, say, plot holes, or grammar.

Yours and others’ critique style

There used to be a man in my current group who would always defend any comment that he received. He would also give a very lengthy few paragraphs, in-person, about what his thoughts were on your story. The result? Too much time was given to his sharings about our stories, and not enough to other members’ thoughts on each piece.

Some writers just want a few bullet points, and that’s enough to get them inspired and know what to do next to move forward. Others want a detailed explanation of what their story needs, so that they can continue. Decide which one is best for you, and try to find a group in a similar vein.

 

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Critiquing Do’s and Do Nots

Here are some common, agreed-upon Do’s and Don’ts of being part of a writer’s critique group:

  • DO share your comments in an efficient manner that does not go over an allotted span of time, say, 5 minutes per each writer’s piece. You want to be sure to give each writer time to share on each other writer’s piece.
  • DO NOT just write what you didn’t like about it. Make sure to add positive comments in.
  • DO think of it more as adding in “What did not work for me”, rather than just “what I didn’t like”.
  • DO share! If something in the story doesn’t work for you, PLEASE share why! Otherwise you’re not helping the writer to improve his/her work.
  • DO say something, even if it’s just, “Great opening! Loved your piece”. Nothing is more useless than a just-returned blank “critiqued” piece.
  • DO accept all other writer’s comments as much as you can with a mild, accepting face. It’s interruptive to exclaim, “Oh, but I loved that name!” or “Glad you liked it!” It interrupts that person’s flow as they are critiquing your piece.
  • DO remember, it is up to you, on your own time, to agree or disagree with their comments. You can choose to ignore a comment they made, or accept them and make any changes they may have suggested.
  • DO NOT defend every bit of your writing. Not only is it annoying, but also silly. If you think your writing is perfect, then why are you even part of a critique group?
  • DO NOT insult an element that is common to someone’s genre, i.e., “I think wizards are stupid” when they’re writing fantasy. Instead, try to rephrase the key idea behind your thought, such as, “I think that you wrote your wizard character in a very cliche way”, or, “I think too many fantasy writers use wizards these days, and you could benefit from doing something else”.
  • DO use a combination of details and summary when critiquing a piece. It helps to know if a particular sentence or word combination doesn’t work, or if you thought something a character did was stupid; it also helps to get a concluding statement at the end of a piece saying what your overall feeling about the piece was.

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Being Part of More than One Critique Group

It’s okay to be part of more than one critique group. Sometimes you just need more eyes on a piece than one group can afford you, or you want to be part of, say, a general fiction group as well as a fantasy-only group. It can really help! For example, if multiple people from each group are telling you that your character Anne confessed her love to Robert too early in the story, then you know that that’s probably an element of your story that needs changing.

Too many critique groups CAN be an issue. Someone in my group just decided to “take a break” from us because she realized she had too many critique groups. It made me feel a little sad, to be honest, that our group got the boot and the others didn’t. Perhaps our group is not as helpful to her as her other groups are.

It can also be difficult to balance getting to each group’s meeting location, and keeping track of time on your calendar, whose piece is whose, etc.

I personally have one group I’m in right now, a general fiction one, mostly novel-focused. I used to be part of a YA-only group. For me, one group is enough. For you though, one group may be great. Just be sure to decide relatively early if you’re going to leave a group or not, otherwise it can be unsettling for a group to suddenly lose a long-standing member. (I know this personally, unfortunately, because when I moved to Florida from California, my YA-only critique group fell apart! So sad, we had a great thing going).

Conclusion

I will probably have more to say about critiquing and critique groups in the future, but I feel I’ve already said a lot here. I hope that I didn’t come off as too bossy! Feel free to ask if anything needs clarification.

The comments I made are not all things all writers will agree with, though many of them seem obvious to experienced writers. I wanted to make sure to share something for newer writers in my blog, and I also wanted to share some personal opinions about critique groups.

I look forward to your thoughts! Happy writing!

Until next time,

Chaitanya

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