As I have been doing this blog tour, I have been amazed by the questions other writers ask me. One question I get a lot is, “Do you really think critique groups help?” Yes.
Okay, that should be the end of the questions, don’t you think?
But it seems that many writers have had bad experiences with a critique group or two. Or to put it another way, there are a lot of mean and crazy people out there willing to tear their fellow writers and their work apart.
So here, in my (not so) vast and wonderful experience, is what to look for in a critique group.
1. Manners. Any critique group that advertises that it is not for the thin skinned (yes, I’ve seen that put just that way) knows exactly what it’s talking about. Don’t go there. They’re not for the rest of us either. You should not have to grow scales to be able to take critique. Honestly.
2. Sandwich Critiques: I’ve seen this put a couple of different ways, but the gist is this. The critiquer starts by telling the author something good, then tells the author something that needs work, then ends with something else they liked. This is very important. A critique group that practices this, believes in telling you what is good as well as what is not working.
Many of us are uncertain about our work, so when we hear that this or that is wrong, we are apt to want to throw out the whole thing. Hearing that someone loves your description but thinks you should take out the description of the old lady on Third street since she never appears again is helpful. If the whole group says it, you should probably ditch the description of the old lady on Third street. Groups that believe in some form of sandwich critique tend to have writers who grow.
3. Size: Critique groups can be too small, too big, or just right. Size does matter. Meeting with just your writing buddy can be helpful. But sometimes, he or she may be thinking fuzzy and just not getting anything. ther times, everything looks wonderful to her.If there are only two of you, then you can’t get perspective on anything. And what happens when she just can’t make it? On the other hand, a critique group with 12 or more members may be too busy to get to your stuff every week or even every month but you still are putting in the time, without getting any new writing done.
4. Time Requirement: (Closely Related to size) Some groups prefer to read all of the manuscripts before hand and just give critiques during the meeting. This seems to occur with bigger groups. Some groups prefer to read each manuscript and then critique right there in the group. Some groups want the author to read the manuscript out loud and then they critique as it goes along. It’s all preference.
The important thing here is that someone is the gatekeeper. In other words, if you all agree you will only exchange 8 pages and will be out of there by 9:00 p.m., someone needs to make sure that Eager Annie does not sneak in 14 pages making you all stay until midnight. Groups can break up under this one. Some groups I’ve been in have had a timer that they passed from person to person to make sure that no one went over their agreed-on time. Whatever works and keeps people content.
You’ll see other preferences. Some people prefer to stick to just one genre in a critique group. Some like to mix it up. I’ve seen groups where they exclude anyone who is not published. I don’t think the quality of the writing in these groups was necessarily better, but it made them feel good. I do believe in having people submit a bit of their manuscript before they are accepted in a group but I came by this belief the hard way.
One group I was in did not practice that, and a lady joined who wrote in computer code: You know If/Then followed by the arrows and boxes and lines? I never did figure out what she was trying to say. After about 3 weeks of the group telling her she needed to write it out, she quit the group. I think we all offered up prayers of thanks for that.
I have been in groups with beginning writers and published folks and I don’t think you can spot a good critiquer easily. One woman I was in critique with had not only never been published, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to write either. Consequently she wasn’t strong on the terminology of craft but she knew when something stopped her, and by listening to her critiques, I was able to smooth out many a kink in my manuscript. I dedicated book two, Safe House, in part to her memory.
So you can see, I’m a big fan of critique. I know it has helped me grow as a writer And by being a little careful in choosing a group, I believe that it can help you too.