Why You Should Join a Critique Group

Why You Should Join a Critique Group

Six years ago, I moved across the United States, from West Virginia to Colorado.  I didn’t know anyone except my husband.  And I was lonely for my friends back east.  I needed to find a way to connect with new people – preferably ones who cared about the same interests I did.

I found a critique group for fiction authors. That critique group turned out to be exactly what I needed… and then some.

Writers typically have a love-hate relationship to having their work critiqued.  But if you’re looking to improve your writing skills, or even get your book published, a critique group is a great first step on that road to becoming a professional writer.

But just what is a critique group?  Is it a bunch of eccentric old harridans collected around a table?  Cloistered recluses who rip books to shreds while rapping knuckles with a ruler?  Will you sit there shamefully, red-faced and embarrassed, while others look down their nose at you clucking, “Tsk, tsk!”?

Not even close. (Thank God.)

A critique group provides you with willing readers interested in helping your writing and your book be the best it can be. They’re formed of various people with different careers, lifestyles, interests and perceptions – and that’s extremely valuable to you.

The more people your book engages, the more successful it becomes.

Your critique group reads your book and thinks of ways you could improve on it. Some focus on storytelling so your book is persuasively page-turning. Some focus on grammar and better sentence structure. Some enjoy practical information, and they’ll let you know if there’s a hidden gap hiding out.

And, of course, your critique group provides you with much-needed support when you feel like giving up or you’ve found yourself stuck and staring at a blank page. Everyone in the group has been there – they understand what you’re going through (unlike your non-writer friends), and their solutions might be the perfect fit to get you back to slamming out the pages.

Sure, the first time I attended my critique group meeting, I felt strange and awkward. But these people welcomed me and shared at least one interest with me: a love of writing.

And yes, it felt daunting to share my writing with these strangers.  After all, they were about to look for problems in the story I’d worked so hard to create.  What if they didn’t like it?

I was asking these people to find fault with my baby!

But the only way to become a better writer is to know where you can improve so you can learn from your mistakes. You can’t figure this out on your own – you need someone else to read your work and allow them to tell you what’s wrong with it.

We’re all a bit too close to our own work. 

And that’s where your critique group comes in handy. The members of your critique group have made the commitment to provide you with honest feedback at all times (in exchange for your own, of course). They’re not there to rip your work apart or chastise you for not being good enough.

They’re there to point out areas that work for them and those that don’t, while giving suggestions on how you could change something in your book or improve your writing for the better.

They’ll praise your efforts and your writing, absolutely. But no one will heap on compliments that aren’t well-deserved. That’s helpful, because it gives you objective feedback you can trust.

Think about it: How many times in your life have people have told you, “Oh, that’s great!”… and yet you doubt their word? Plenty, I’ll bet – but you’ll never hear white lies like that in a critique group.

You’ll hear genuine opinions, both good and bad. And you know what? You’re under no obligation to take the advice. You don’t have to actually do anything about anyone’s suggestions at all. The final decision on whether to implement any changes or not is YOURS.

After all, it’s your book!

That’s a great benefit: You get to listen to another person’s point of view about your work, and sometimes their ideas spur your own imagination. You may come up with something even better than they did!

In well-developed critique groups, you’ll find the suggestions are sound and the advice is solid – and extremely helpful. You’ll have more options open to you and more resources as you continue your writing work.

You’ll get to help others in the same way too – you’re all  working towards the same goal of being better writers who create better books. And that encouragement might be exactly what you need to succeed.

That’s just my experience with a critique group, of course. Now it’s your turn to tell me about yours: Have you ever been part of a critique group? Did you enjoy it? Was it helpful? Or maybe it was frustrating? Share your stories with me – I want to hear them!

Post by Kari

Kari is a full-time content manager, editor and in-house blogger at Men With Pens. In her spare time, she writes fiction and is working on her first novel.

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  1. The first time I joined a critique group – a bunch of us set a group up through google hangout – I felt naked. My writing felt violated, but it turned out to be a great experience. I was able to see where I was the weakest in my writing. Ego must be put to the side in order to achieve evolution.

    • It can definitely be nerve-wracking to submit for the first time! :) I’m glad you found it a good experience!

      Something that it can take a while to realize or to get used to — it’s not you that they’re critiquing. It’s your writing. And if it’s a good group of people, they’ll try to make that very clear. :)

  2. Finding a great critique group is one of the best things that can happen to an author. My current group is small tight-knit group of women who write various kinds of fiction – and some poetry. Some of us are published; some are not.

    Whenever we submit something to the group, we let them know what we’re looking for. In the latter stages of editing, it could be as simple as punctuation. At other times, it could be more help with the story itself. (Is my heroine too much of a wench to be likable?)

    Since I write 18th century Historical romances, I can’t get away without having horses in my novels. In my latest, they are even secondary characters. I think I’ve been on the back of a horse twice in my life. Thankfully, one of the group members is an avid horsewoman and I’m always asking her whether my critters are behaving as horses should.

    Another member is a nurse. In my last critique, she helped my dead body behave as a dead body should. Thankfully, I have limited experience with those as well!

  3. Hi Kari,

    I took a creative writing course in university, and the best thing I learned in that class was how to give and take criticism. It’s helped with my fiction, but also in my day job as a marketing writer. I’m at the point now where I don’t take much personally — I just want the piece to be better. Sometimes, what you need is that outside viewpoint to see what’s working and what’s not.

    Great post — one thing I’d add is that it’s important to hone your own critique skills too, to be a useful member of the workshop group. Be as specific as possible when describing what you didn’t like. I also try to refrain from “fixing” the “problem” myself, except to give vague directions — nobody wants you to rewrite it for them. And, as you pointed out, the final decision is with the writer, so don’t be offended if someone doesn’t take your advice.

    ~Graham

    • Oh, oh, oh, definitely! I am so not good at critiquing someone verbally — on paper, I’m a whiz, but to have to tell them in person? I’d rather go do a million other things. But my critique group is teaching me every time I go — just by my being there to watch and listen.

      Your refraining from fixing the problem is particularly interesting — one member of the group would actually specifically request that. I find it interesting that all sorts of writers want different things from their group! (By the way, I agree with you — I want to point out the problems and only give my personal solutions when I’m asked directly :) Otherwise, I think I’m trying to rewrite the story for the other person :) )

  4. This is a great post. I had never heard of a critique group before. I would love to do this. My question is how do you go about finding a group like this? I assume it is not an easy process to find a great group.

    • It _can_ be an easy process — depends on what you’re looking for.

      I would start looking at your local bookstores — I found one of mine at a local Barnes & Noble and sat in for a while. Another I found due to walking out of a bookstore talking to my husband — I ran into the founders of the critique groups I am currently in and we hit it off.

      Check your local libraries too!

  5. I’ve joined an online writing class where i hear there will be honest feedback. I hope so because I’ve been writing for a number of years and feel like I’m getting nowhere. Well, maybe not nowhere. I’ve improved some just through practice. I ask and ask for people’s honest opinions, people whose writing I genuinely admire, and I can’t find one person willing to be brutally honest even when I tell them they can be brutally honest. There are no hoards knocking down my blog’s door waiting to read what I put up next so I know there’s plenty of room for improvement. Maybe doing it online first is good a way to ease myself into the rejection pool. Having someone tell me I suck in front of a group of other people might be just a tad too much for me now. My ego may not like, but my gut wants to hear the truth so I can write like I want to. There’s nothing worse than having a thought in my head and having it come out sounding completely different than I imagined. Thanks for the advice!

    • You definitely sound like you’re on the right track! An online group may be just what you’re looking for, but remember — I’d still take what they say with a grain of salt. If it doesn’t sound right to you, you may want to get a second opinion. With an online group, it’s harder to know who exactly is doing the critiquing or their background.

      Dorci, practice is what is going to make you improve more than anything else. Write, write, and then write some more! The other thing you need to do — read! Read all the books you can get your hands on.

      Let me know how you do with your class! :)

  6. As Shawn asks: how do you go about finding a group like this? that’s what I want to know too :)

    • Jevvv,

      I responded above but I’ll do so here as well — look for writing groups in your local bookstores and your local libraries. That’s probably your best bet :)

      • Thanks Kari!
        I thought I replied immediately below Shawn’s question- it didn’t show anyone else’s comments at that stage ;)

  7. Hi Kari!

    Thanks for the reminder of how important a critique group is. I’ve sort of been in a similar situation though I didn’t move as far away as you did. I’ve found a few groups that are nice, but I haven’t had a lot of time to get together with them and it hasn’t felt like a really good fit. But I’m moving (again!) to a university town where I know there are a few groups that look really good.

    Did anyone mention Meet-up? That’s how I’ve found groups plus Barnes & Noble, as you mentioned.

    Fortunately I got used to getting my work critiqued in college (I majored in English) and doing poetry readings and all that. There was one time I was 100% totally embarrassed: I had to read a short story (in front of a class that wasn’t even creative writing; it was “short story” as in literature so it wasn’t quite as supportive) and I went way over the time limit. Eyes were rolling as I went on and on with my character’s southern accent and finally gave it up so I could read faster…oh boy. But with other serious writers in critique groups I’ve been in (a few writers’ conferences as well) everyone always gives both the good and the not-so-good in constructive, supportive ways that never feel embarrassing.

    I agree that “the only way to become a better writer is to know where you can improve so you can learn from your mistakes.” Exactly. Also the bit about “white lies.” Friends who aren’t writers just aren’t going to give it to you straight :)

    This really got me enthusiastic about finding a good group in my new town! Thanks.

  8. I heart my critique groups, and I second the recommendation to join one. It simply makes the writing life a little less lonely for me. I rarely even bring anything for critiquing, but just reading other people’s work, chatting it up about writing, creativity, etc, is major fuel to keep me going in this career.

  9. NO, I haven’t joined a critique group but I do believe constructive criticism is important.

    As long as the members in the group are complimentary to each others skill set then I could see some benefits.

    Would you recommend using Google+ to manage your group?

  10. A group of friends and I, each with an interest in writing, formed a group several years ago. Many of us were writing content for the web at the time and helped each other while our kids played at the park. It soon turned into something much more and now many of us are pursuing careers in fiction. I would not be where I am today without the help of these dear friends whom I trust implicitly to tell me if something is really good or if stinks of rotten eggs. Nothing is more valuable to a writer than a critique group.

    • That’s awesome, Theresa! I, too, love my local critique group :) They not only help me get my work into shape, but they also help me stick to my goals. Have you had any online critique group experiences?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Why You Should Join a Critique Group via Men With Pens – Writing can be a solitary experience. You sit at your desk, get in the zone, and nothing else matters except the words you are writing. Before you submit your work to journals, agents, or your Web following, it might benefit you to show your work to a much more selective group. Kari of Men With Pens discusses the practicality of joining a critique group. […]

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