Got a critique group? Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve been a member of half a dozen different groups–it’s not always easy to find a good one.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for finding and joining your perfect critique group:
Start Where You Are
Critique groups come in many flavors and styles. There are online forum groups, face-to-face groups and even groups that convene over email or telephone or Skype/Facetime. If you’re confused by too many choices, consider where YOU are in your writing skill set. New writer? You might benefit most with a group that simply encourages you to produce writing on a regular basis. Consider the group’s demeanor: do the meetings adhere at least loosely to parliamentary rules? That is, do members give feedback without talking over one another, defending their work or rambling off-topic? Do members respect each other and refrain from personal attacks and generalized feedback? It doesn’t help a writer to say, “I liked it” or “I give it three stars.” Specific critique is usually more helpful. “On page three you begin all the sentences with ‘I’.” And don’t forget: You are the writer, and you can choose which suggestions to follow. Or not. Some critique groups require members to not only write and revise, but actually submit short works to publications. With all this in mind, it’s not always feasible to join a group that meshes perfectly with your needs. Consider joining a group with open enrollment until you can find a group more suited to your work and your temperament.
Seek the Big Picture
Once you have a little critique experience, you’ll know if your group is more focused on overall structure and theme or whether members mostly zero in on copy editing—grammar, spelling and other “nits.” Ideally, you’ll want a group with writers who can do at least a little of both. You won’t get published if your manuscripts are “clean” (that is, copy edited) yet your story or structure is very flawed. Good writers make it their goal to learn the necessary skills to spot structural or story problems—even if they start out by spotting these things in other writers’ work. Understanding story structure (the BIG picture) helps your own writing as well as those you critique. Story, by Robert McKee is a valuable resource, as are many other writing technique books. Commit to reading widely, but especially in your preferred genre. Read current works as well as classics. Pay attention to where on the shelf books are categorized and which books land on bestseller lists. Understanding the big picture will help you become a better writer and a better critiquer.
Finding a Perfect Fit
Just as there are several ways critique groups meet, there are several methods which make for very different critique experiences. If you are writing only for yourself and don’t care about publishing in the traditional sense, a mutual admiration society might serve your needs. In this type of group, feedback is limited to making the writer feel validated in some way. This kind of group helps writers understand the impact of their words—whether they are communicating clearly and whether the writing stirs reader emotions as the writer intended. Everyone applauds and the writer feels good. On the opposite end of critique group spectrum, a group that relishes “tearing writing apart” might be helpful, but only if the members are respectful and the criticism is constructive. A balance of encouragement and helpful suggestions for improvement makes the most sense, however, a group with these qualities might be difficult to locate and join. Like it or not, personalities do play a part in good groups, so don’t be afraid to try out a group for compatibility. Another consideration: some groups use the Iowa Writers Workshop model of critique. In this style, writers hand out hard copies of the work ahead of a meeting, where only feedback is discussed. Another style requires the writer to read aloud the work as members follow along on their hard copies. After the reading, the author is silent while one by one, members provide both verbal and written feedback. If the feedback expressed makes sense to you, use it. Then lose the rest. Finding your perfect group may take some trial and error, but one thing is clear: writers who rely on a critique group tend to be more committed to the craft. They improve more, revise more and are published more than those who write alone.