Some writers like critique groups, some think they are a waste of time. I think they can be a valuable resource for a writer, provided you go into them with the right mindset.
1. Join one with a clear idea of what you want to get out of it. What are you looking for in a group? Deep critique? Reader-level reaction? I am a writer who likes feedback, and I like it early in the writing process. In my first group, I had criticism from people from all walks of the writing world—from reader to serious writer. I usually noted on my submission what kind of feedback I was seeking, so I could get the targeting feedback I wanted.
2. Learn what advice to take. One of the hardest things for early writers is knowing whose feedback is valuable. Some writers try to please everyone, and end up destroying their story. I quickly located a core group of people in the group whose advice was always right on, and whose writing I admired. A critique group is also a good place to learn how to take criticism gracefully—a skill every writer should learn.
3. Critique others fairly. A critique group is not all about you—it is a group. Honest critiquing of others’ work is a fantastic way to learn more about the craft, since it is usually easier to spot problems in other people’s work than in your own. You need to pull your weight and critique honestly but not brutally. There is no place in a writing group for venom or poisonous personalities—that brings everyone down instead of lifting them up. If your group is tainted by this type of atmosphere and it cannot be rectified by the group leader, you should leave the group.
4. Make sure the group elevates you as a writer. This does not mean that they all lick your boots and think everything you write is wonderful. An atmosphere like that is comfortable, and nice for your ego, but it does nothing to improve your craft. You need people who can tell you, in a supportive manner, areas you need to work on. You also should have at least some people who are better writers than you are—people who you can emulate and learn from to grow.
5. Know when to leave. There may come a time when you outgrow your group. You need to assess if the group is helping you move forward or holding you back. Certainly don’t leave the friends you made there behind. All writers need a support network, and you may still turn to them for advice from time to time as beta readers. But if the group as a whole no longer meets your needs, if it no longer is pushing you to the next level, then you are better off finding a new group or simply a good crit partner or two. Writers who are trying to get published must put the continued elevation of their craft first, and look at any group they join as a business venture. If you are not getting value out of it, then it is wasted time.
I have been in two critique groups, and I had great experiences in both. I am grateful to everyone in my first critique group for all they taught me, and I still maintain contact with a few of them. I am equally indebted to my new group, and I feel we will be helping each other rise for a long time to come.
What have your experiences with critique groups been like?