Posted by: Kerry Gans | February 7, 2012

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Critique Groups

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?

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Responses

  1. Kerry, all good advice. I was in a critique group briefly, but honestly it took up too much time for the benefits – for me. I would be willing to try again but prefer beta readers and developmental editors over critique groups. I think the key is finding people who do know how to critique well – otherwise its a waste of time. Having someone not like the piece on personal preference of the topic/genre is not helpful – as they should critique on the craft of it instead. Glad to know you have positive experiences!

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    • Donna – Crit groups are not for everyone. Every writer has his or her own needs and process. My current group is actually only 3 of us, so it is more like a crit-partner setup. It allows us to focus on novel-length works in a reasonable amount of time. I do think that a (good) crit group early on in your writing career can be a huge plus, but I also think that most writers, if they continue to grow, move on to needing more focused feedback from beta readers and crit partners.

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  2. I learned all of these points from the first group I attended. When I started there were a dozen or more and had been more in the past. By the time I left there were five to eight with only about three reading.

    Donna – I agree. My current group is only four with a fifth recently attending. We’d like to get a couple more but we’re happy with the what we have now if that doesn’t happen.

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  3. These are all great points. I think sometimes people don’t apply themselves enough on #1 BEFORE they join a group. They know they want a group, and happily grab onto the first one they find. But is it right for them? Will they get the feedback they need? Will they provide that for others? You can’t be sure if you haven’t figured out exactly what you are looking for. I like the idea of, once in the group, letting the readers know exactly what you’re looking for.

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    • Thanks, Patrick. I found that if I didn’t specify what I was most interested in, I got a lot of very vague critiques that didn’t help me at all. And yes, not all groups are created equal, so you need to find the right match for you.

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  4. Kerry – thanks for posting this. I think #2 is an especially valuable piece of advice. Not all critiques are created equal. It’s difficult, especially as a burgeoning writer, to know who to listen to and who to tune out. But it’s precisely at that point in the writing process that you need to be highly selective.

    I have found that working with a writing partner is more benefiical for me personally than working with a group. She and I meet once a month, and we’re totally focused on one another’s manuscripts. We also know each other’s work and foibles fairly initmately, so that’s a solution some writers may want to consider as an alternative to the group approach.

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    • Michelle – I always liked the group feedback early in the process, when I was still figuring out character, voice, and the big picture stuff. Once I got further into the writing, I do prefer one-on-one or selective readers for high quality feedback. But having a writing partner is certainly a viable option–groups don’t work for everyone’s process.

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  5. Great post. All good points. Knowing when to leave can be difficult to determine. But, it can be critical to an author’s growth. Also, learning to use your critque of other works to find weaknesses in your own work is a lesson well learned.

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    • Thanks, Dennis. I can’t tell you how often, especially in the early years, I would write a critique, then go back to my own work and see the same darn thing popping off the page at me! It’s great practice for self-editing.

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  6. […] 5 Tips for Getting the Most From Critique Groups from The Author Chronicles: “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.” Bonus Video: Video Clips taken from Bob Mayer‘s Writing Workshops – http://www.bobmayer.org/Video_Clips.html Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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