Critique groups are like sardines — you either love them or hate them. Me, I love critique groups. Sardines, not so much. I think the love/hate issue with the former depends on whether you’ve ever been in a good one. I don’t know if there is a good sardine.
I’ve been in a few groups. The best have strong leaders with some knowledge of what constitutes good writing and how to go about improving. I’ve gone — one meeting is all it takes — to classes or groups with egocentric asses or clueless idiots as leaders. This doesn’t work for me. Getting together once or twice a month doesn’t work for me, exchanging pages beforehand doesn’t work for me — feels too much like homework. What I do like are read-and-critique groups that meet once a week, with members I can respect. The writer brings pages, usually not more than eight, and five or six are best. A chapter, basically. She may or may not pass out copies.Then she reads and everyone reads along or listens and gives their knee-jerk critiques.
This is amazingly helpful. Some have mocked the critique group, calling it “writing by committee.” It is not that. Be assured, it is always your story and you can tell it in any way you want. However, if you want your writing to improve, to maybe get to that level of traditional publishing, you may want feedback.
The writers who do not want to be critiqued generally believe they are already way too good to allow people to tell them what doesn’t work. This is a big mistake. It stops the progress of their writing. You have to be open to change. You have to be open to getting your butt kicked. It’s for your own good, believe me. Anyway, if you’re going to be any kind of artist, you’d better develop a thick skin. A critique group is a good place to start doing that.
Another great thing about committing to a weekly critique group is that, at least in ours, everyone is required to WRITE. Members can only go a couple of weeks before they are prodded to bring something: a new chapter, a revised chapter, an old or new short story. Knowing that I will have to read a new chapter every week makes me write a new chapter every week. And I get my first feedback on it immediately. I’ve written three complete novels since joining this group. I’ve seen other members finish novels and memoirs. We help each other with queries and synopses. I’ll be reading this blog entry to them. By the time you read it, it will have been improved.
Often when you read articles or blogs by agents and editors, they will tell you that if you’re going to spend any money on your manuscript, use it on a freelance editor. That’s good advice. But a professional editor can be expensive. My critique group serves this purpose nicely. They can weed out the offending grammar and unnecessary adjectives, tell me when my POV or tense changes and notice if the plot is going off the rails. Better still, they know my voice and the way I tell a story.
I still think we should all use an editor, if possible. We want to give that person the best we’ve been able to do with our book, so that hopefully she will not have all that much work to do on it, making it less expensive for us. Having run our manuscript through our critique group helps with that.
If you do get a group together, its a good idea to establish some ground rules. For our group, which we named The North County Writers Bloc, we have guidelines which set up how the meeting will be run. New members are given a copy. None of the rules are carved in stone but it helps to have some order.
You’ll find some critiquers will specialize. In our group we had the man who encouraged starting a chapter with dialogue, someone else who looks to shorten sentences, others specialize in opening up the plot, or finding those pesky passive verbs or pointing out problems with tense or point of view. And often, when others are being critiqued you’ll find you learn something, too.
Here’s what a few members of the North County Writers Bloc had to say about this blog entry:
“Yes, I agree. I’ve completed four novels. For a guy who doesn’t type, that’s pretty good. My stress is my business and it is forgotten when I’m writing. So is this extending my life.”
“I learn from others’ writing styles, vocabularies. It’s great entertainment, having all these stories. Orin ( a recently deceased member, sadly) always changes my beginnings.”
“If I hadn’t found NCWB, I would never have written anything. Let alone anything halfway decent.”