Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Critique Groups

I'm sure all you writers out there have heard of and/or participated in a critique group. I've heard some tales of some wonderful groups, but I've also heard some real horror stories. When I was at Life, the Universe and Everything conference (LTUE) in February a couple of New York Times list authors mentioned how destructive they'd found them to be and no longer participated in them.

Late last year, I posted on Brodi Ashton's blog asking about how her critique group had found each other (her group is one of the wonderful ones that meets in person). Well, Robin Weeks who also follows Brodi kindly let me know about her online critique group at David Farland's Writers Forum. Dave is a wonderful supporter of writers as well as a well-known author in his own right. He teaches classes on writing, and I think he's been at all three conferences I've attended in the last nine months. Members of his Writers Forum who were attending LTUE were able to get together at a local restaurant for dinner. It was lots of fun, and I got to meet in person several people I'd conversed with online.

Anyway, when I joined Dave's writer's groups I found there are a number of individual groups based upon genre. I applied to join two of them. One was for the romance genre, since my finished ms is a romantic suspense. This group is not very active right now, but the two ladies there are very supportive.

I also applied to Robin's group for YA fantasy. This is a very active group, and I've learned so much already. As I detailed last fall, I signed up for a college creative writing class ($770 in tuition for 3 credits) hoping to learn more about the craft of writing. I knew within a week this class wasn't what I was looking for and dropped it. I learned more in a month with the Pied Pipers critique group than that class would have taught me.

Critiques can be frustrating. There's no getting around it. But they have to be honest, or they're a waste of time and effort on both sides. The frustration isn't always about how people are critiquing your writing. It's also about figuring out how to make something work in your book. I can have a number of my friends (who aren't writers) be beta readers for me. They can give me input on how the story is working, but they can't necessarily tell me WHY it isn't working. My fellow critique group members can. And their input has been very insightful.

But critiques need to be about what works as well as what doesn't. Sometimes it's too easy to get caught up with finding the errors. As with our children, we need to catch the writer doing it right.

Now, as the writer, I must realize that I can't please everyone, even in my critique group. But I should seriously consider what I'm being told and decide how best to use the input to improve my book--or not. A funny thing happened with my first submission. None of my beta readers had ever had any doubt about the gender of my MC. Yet two of the critiquers in my group got the impression she was a guy and that totally changed how they looked at everything. Considering the number of people who have read the beginning of my book, that's a good 10% of the people who could potentially think my MC was a gay guy. It was an easy fix for me to make, but one I wouldn't have considered without their input.To me, that's priceless.

The things I'm learning from this critique group doesn't t just come from critiques on my writing but on the critiques I read on other members of the groups. I'm learning what I should be looking for, how to be a better critiquer myself. I'm still really new and raw at it.

I know a very talented woman, who's written two books. I've read comments she's made in an online forum, and she's intelligent and writes very well. I imagine that her books are really good. But I'll never get the chance to know because she won't let anyone read them. Anyone.

When my oldest daughter decided to run for student body president in the 6th grade, she made a comment to me that was very profound and wise beyond her years. It's something I wish someone had told me when I was in younger. She said she could never win if she didn't try.

Well, she did try, and she did win. Did I ever mention she's my hero?

How about you? Do you have a critique group? Do you meet in person or online? What's your experience been?


  1. Great post Donna! My ears always prick up when I hear of a critique groups, I have never been apart of one but have always been interested in the concept and think they are a great idea. A writer friend of mine found a critique vital in her writing and said I should find one. I would have to be online as I live in the country. I feel rather envious of people that can get together face to face, lucky them, though the online community are great too. It's just a matter of connecting with the right people. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I have been part of a critique group in the past. We'd meet in person once a month and give feedback to each other. I honestly didn't find it any better than beta readers (which is what I use now). I think the difference between beta readers and critique groups is that the latter is composed of writers and so there tends to be a focus on teaching story-crafting techniques.

    The best thing I ever did to improve my writing was work as a first-reader (slush-reader) for a small publishing house for a year. I got to see why manuscripts I thought were good, really weren't. I'd recommend that experience to any new writer.

    Great post!

  3. I have many types of critters that I rely on--writers who I show everything from first draft (I'm shameless) to finished product. I have friends who I bounce ideas off of and people I go to when I'm stuck. There is really no portion of my process which is solitary, although I know that this is not the case with other writers. I don't belong to a crit group, but believe that any type of critique situation can work if everyone is respectful and know how to do it constructively. I agree that honesty is a key element. I always love to hear how people write and garner feedback--thanks for the insightful post!

  4. I agree that critique groups can be destructive if you get the wrong kind of group and or feedback. On Monday afternoon at the WIFYR conference, someone mentioned that they ask for just two things from their critique group: "1. Tell me where your mind started to wander. 2. Tell me if something slowed you down/confused you." That's it. He wanted nothing more. I don't think that's such a bad idea. Of course if, in a rush, I spelled 'threw' instead of 'through' I'd like my group to point that out. I think it's good to let them know your expectations. Great post! :)

  5. I've always preferred working one-on-one, but for small sections of work it might be great to get feedback from a large group of people. I can see the appeal of that.

  6. I no longer run critiques with anyone I know on a first name basis. Things seem to flow more smoothly with a couple (and I do mean a small number) of online strangers with similar interests. Bigger groups might work better with more organization, but I tend to get overwhelmed! Overall, though, I feel a trusted stranger is an invaluable source of feedback.

    Also: congrats to your daughter!

  7. I don't have an organized group, but rather several individuals I use as critique partners. One in particular, has become my very best friend. She also writes within my genre and has a lot of experience, as well as being well-educated in the field. She is the single most valuable resource I have as a writer.

    But I also use writers who write outside of my genre because they bring a fresh view to my work. Overall, critique partners have brought my work up to a professional level. I never would have been able to achieve anything without them.

    Having said that, I had 2 partners who were nothing but destructive rather than constructive, but they did make me reconsider parts of my novel that weren't working.

    What I find most interesting now is that a lot of established (published) authors no longer use critique partners for their subsequent novels. They go straight to their agents.

  8. Most of what makes the Pied Pipers so cool is that everyone is so willing to help out. We don't have any bad apples who are just there to dump on everyone. Also, since everyone is working toward publication, we have a benchmark to strive for.

    Non-writer betas have their usefulness, but I ask different questions of writers. Normal betas get the "where did I lose you" questions, but I ask experienced writers to tell me anything and everything they want to about how to improve the story, etc. Without my experienced writer critters, I'd never have really clued in to my WIP's main flaws.

    Thanks for the shout-out! :)

  9. I love getting my critique group's feedback. I used to be so scared to let anyone read my books, but now I love it. Sometimes it's hard to hear something in your book isn't working, but that's what critique groups are for. To help you. To make you a better writer. I don't know where I would be without mine. :)

  10. Donna, I hope you don't mind (sometimes these things come in unmanageable swells) but I'm giving you a Blog on Fire award. I haven't had a lot of time to participate in discussions, but I've noticed that your blog has been just dead-on lately, even more so than normal. When I got the award and had to decide who to pass it to, yours was the first blog I thought of. The award is here:

  11. CJ - I think you've got it right there. You have to find the right people.

    Steven - I'll bet that was a great learning experience, but I don't know how many of us could do it.

    Heather - I agree in having a variety of "critters" (love that!) Professional writers all have their own pet peeves and may be bugged by things the vast majority of readers won't. One of my betas is a coworker. For her it's not about all the technical stuff, so I rely on her a lot when I'm stewing over a critique. Sometimes she completely disagrees with things a critter says or she listens to me as I bounce off ideas for addressing issues addressed by a critique. Who said (only) children were raised by a village. I never realized until I began this journey just how much a collaborative effort a book written by a single author can be.

    Kelly - those are the kinds of things I ask of my beta readers. I like the ones that Orson Scott Card users for what he calls his Wise Readers. He wants to know the things you mention but also if there are any places where it doesn't make sense or where the reader think "Yeah, right."

    L.G. - it's definitely about what works for each writer ... and what options are available. I just have so much to read and my critique group is WAY less expensive than useless college courses.

    M. Horton - thanks about my daughter. I have found that friends and family are often too worried about hurting my feelings to be honest with me. And I need honesty.

    Nancy - I wonder if some of that comes from confidence in your craft. I know other professional writers who still have at least one other set of eyes check out their work.

    Robin - you said it. My betas are like people listening to a piece of music. They can tell you they liked it. Or didn't like it. Or if there were parts that bugged, but they can't necessarily point out flaws that could get you rejected by an agent.

    Chantele - I couldn't agree more. Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees (to be cliche).

    Margo - You sweetheart! Thank you!

  12. Good stuff Donna. Really got me thinking. I have a single female crit partner and an online email style crit group of 4 men. I really don't know what to say. I'm so new I'm just feeling my way right now.

    I think Pied Pipers is an interesting concept though and might just make my way over there. I trust things coming from Robin and yourself.

  13. Hey! Great post. I love my critique group. We are all so different that I get information on so many levels it really helps me fill in gaps and clarify my writing. I think the hard part is not letting others change the voice of your story. By the way, My book, Watched is both a print and ebook available at both amazon and barnes and Noble. I think it's on sale at B& N right now.

  14. Well dang, Shelly. Come on down! But I feel your pain. I'm so new at this, too.

    Cindy - Glad to hear that. I'll have to check it out with my Nook later. Be sure to check this blog tomorrow. You especially will be interested ...
    *grins evilly*

  15. I belong to an amazing LDS women's critique group for about 18 years now. They are amazing. Like you, I took a creative writing class (required for my English degree). What a waste of time. I learned more from my ANWA critique group than any of the writing classes I've taken. I also have a fellow ANWA member who is my critique partner. I feel safe here. I can ask for a brutal critique and they will give it, gently. I have watched so many beginning writers hone their craft and go and publish amazing pieces.

    Thanks for the post Donna!

  16. Nice post! I'm happy for you, having found the Pied Pipers. :) That's huge.

    I love my critique group. We meet in person. I feel so fortunate to have found my critique partners. They make me a better writer!

  17. P.S. - Congrats to your daughter. She sounds very wise. :)

  18. Congrats to your daughter! Terrific that she learned and applied that truth so early in life. Best to her!

    I don't have a group. It's been hard finding one here where I live. I found one group that focuses on poetry, and I'll go there for kicks every now and then. Wishing I COULD find a local group for my fiction, though.

  19. There was a writing group in my hometown a lot time ago. I'm not sure if it's still together or not. If you're in college, it's a lot easier to have a good group! :D So right now I'm lucky.

  20. Betsy - I'm learning that a critique group that helps you grow is such a gift. I didn't realize just how much I was missing.

    Dawn - it would really be fun to meet in person. Do you take turns reading aloud what each of you have written? My closest experience to something like that is my Bootcamp critique session at the Storymaker conference in May. It lasted a very long time.

    Bryce - I wish you well with your search.

    Ashley - think you're right. Several of the critique groups I've heard of began as friends getting together.

  21. Hi Donna, This is a good post. Critique groups are good for beginning writer, especially. What I learned form my first group was invaluable. I went in with a finished product and started posting chapters. I don't know how long I stuck it out, but I let the group ruin my story--I take the blame for that, and some people shouldn't write critiques at all. I went on the write another book, then another, both without benefit of critiques. I did okay, but my first book, the one I took to the critique group, is still unfinished and looks nothing like it started out to be. I'll get to it, but, actually, I've kind of lost faith in it. Again, it's my own fault, but it was a valuable experience.


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