Writers’ Critique Groups

I just had the great pleasure of visiting my old writer’s critique group, a few people who became dear friends over the five years I was part of the group. It seems a good time to revisit the importance of peer feedback:

My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. Then I sent my newborn tome to agents and publishers, certain they’d coo with delight and sign me up with a fat advance. The result: Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…

“What went wrong?” silly, starry-eyed me asked, a clueless look on my face. Little did I know (literally).

I discovered the answer to that question when I joined a writers’ critique group. With tender support and pointed criticism, my peers taught me that my baby was far from beautiful. Apparently, I was determined to describe every character’s point of view in every scene. Among other lame verbs, I found “was” extremely handy. I overwrote with reams of tedious detail; I could sink an insomniac into a coma. This embarrassing confession encompasses only a teeny-weeny sliver of my writing transgressions, but you get the idea. My baby was a toad.

The good news? After two years with my critique group, the toddler emerged transformed. I landed a publisher and the rest is history. I know now that well-informed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining my craft, and joining a critique group was the smartest step I took in my writing career. Without hesitation, I advise all new writers to find one or start your own.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike and finding the right group is like finding the right therapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow. Some groups are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to write in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer in a group of military sci-fi writers.
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged or angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

Structure varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I’m a strong proponent of in-person feedback where it’s easy to elaborate on comments, ask/answer questions, and take advantage of group brainstorming and discussion.

However a group is structured, there will be norms related to timing, length of submissions, and how critiques are returned to the authors. My critique group met twice a month for approximately three hours. We emailed submissions and received critiques between meetings. During our meetings, we elaborated on our critiques and answered questions for the author. (Set time limits if meetings run over. Don’t skip someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking.” Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns in for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A critique of an early draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, and believability of action and emotion. For a later draft, the critique may focus on word choice, phrasing, grammar, and/or punctuation. Remember, a critique group does not eliminate the need for careful editing prior to submission or publication.

Giving Feedback

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. Critique groups, on the other hand, should offer a balance of support and criticism. Writing is personal, and when a writer shares his work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

When we critique another person’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. We are cognizant of our personal preferences and writing style and separate these from our critiques. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective, and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly-crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths they can build on.

A note of encouragement: When I joined my critique group, none of us were published. Five years later, we all were! Happy Writing!

Take Your Criticism and Love It!

Take your criticism

For five years, I had the great fortune to be a member of a dedicated Writer’s Critique Group. During that time, I line by line edited approximately 1,920,000 combined words for my four critique partners, and they each critiqued about 780,000 words for me. That’s a lot of words. 

And did I ever learn a lot about writing!

Of course, the positive feedback was nice, and it was delightful to know when things were going well. But the real joy, the most valuable feedback was the constructive criticism. I craved the ugly, gritty details. I wanted to be nitpicked and challenged. I longed to improve and grow as a writer, and to accomplish that, I needed to know everything I was doing wrong. Each correction, negative comment, and suggestion was a precious gift that someone cared enough (about me) to write down and share.

As writers, we are usually too close to our books to be objective. We are infatuated with our characters and intimate with our stories. We know far more than we’ve put to paper, and therefore, our viewpoint is skewed. We don’t have the “fresh” perspective on plot, character, and pacing that other authors (and readers) can bring to a book.

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Then there are the technical aspects of structuring sentences and paragraphs in interesting ways, making verbs pop, deepening point of view, showing versus telling, slashing filler words, killing redundancy and tightening. Until someone points out the weaknesses in our work, until we see it applied directly to our prose, it’s hard to comprehend.

Apparently, I couldn’t write a sentence without the word “that.” That was an invisible word that I never noticed until that was pointed out to me. That was eye-opening and that was a word that I now cull to the extent that I can. 🙂 UGH. Thank you to the wonderful writer who opened my eyes to “that!”

Now, I’m not talking about nasty comments or broad sweeping statements. Those don’t encourage growth and aren’t worth the words. I’m also not suggesting that anyone provide an unsoliticted critique of someone’s blog post! I’m talking about private, constructive feedback with contextual examples, the goal being to teach the craft, support one another, and improve our stories.

I’d suggest that every serious writer seek out criticism.  Join a local writer’s group, find critique partners online, pay for an in-depth edit of your first three chapters if it’s all you can afford. Ask for tough love, soak it up, love it, and painstakingly apply the principles to your whole book.

When I started out, my writing was crap. I was clueless. I took my criticism and loved it. I still do.

zombie-499199_960_720WARNING: This only applies to writing. Critiques of my bland cooking, lackadaisical housekeeping, and unfashionable attire will earn you “the look.”

Happy Writing!