Thursday, February 2, 2012
The Importance of a Good Critique Group
by Beth Groundwater
I have been in a long-standing writing critique group that originally formed at the 1999 Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The group has had between four and six members since its inception, and members have come and gone. I'm now the only original member remaining, but regardless of the make-up of the group, I've ALWAYS received useful feedback on chapters that I've submitted for review.
I'm currently submitting chapters from the manuscript that will become the third mystery in my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series, that I'm calling Cataract Canyon. The group members are once again proving their high value to me, and the manuscript is improving a great deal. Also, over the years, I am sure I have become a much, much better writer because of my association with the group. Different members have brought different skills in areas ranging from plot logic to grammar, portrayal of emotions to fight scenes, and more, and all of those skills have rubbed off on me.
I think it is vitally important for authors to have either a critique group or a few trusted first readers to run our manuscripts through before they go to our editors. We need fresh eyes to read those words and fresh brains to try to decipher those sentences and understand those characters and plot points so mistakes can be found. And there are always mistakes! No matter how carefully I pour over my chapters before submitting them to critique group, they always find things I've missed.
Because of the group members' thorough review, most of those mistakes get fixed before my editor sees them. And that makes me look good for my editor. I know that it's because of my critique group that my manuscripts usually only need light editing before they're published as novels.
One thing I always do, though, and I advise other writers to do with their critique groups or first readers, is to get at least halfway through the first draft of your manuscript before you start submitting chapters for review. This is so you have a firm idea of where you're going with the story and who your characters are before you get feedback. Then you can evaluate suggestions from the group against those firm ideas. You'll have a basis for deciding which suggestions to use and which would derail you from your plan.
Otherwise, if you keep re-writing the first three chapters based on multiple people's opinions (which, unfortunately, I've see writers do), you'll end up with mud. Your unique voice will have been lost. However, making the opposite mistake of going it alone all the way won't help you, either, and could very well prevent you from getting published. If your critique group or first readers aren't working for you, find some others, but don't give up on the concept all together.
There are lots of ways for critique groups to work. Some meet weekly, some meet monthly, many meet twice a month or every two weeks. I prefer groups that meet in person, but I know of very effective groups who operate completely on-line. Some groups are single-genre and some are multi-genre. I've seen both work well, and my group is multi-genre. Then there's size. My personal preference is to keep the group fairly small, so everyone has a chance to submit a chapter or twenty pages for every meeting, and everyone's suggestions can be heard.
Also, I think it's very important to have members of both sexes in the group. I find the feedback I get back from my male partners who say "No man would do/say that" to be extremely helpful. You're going to want both sexes to read your published books, so it's important to have both sexes give you feedback on how they perceive your novel.
The most important criteria is to find a group of fellow writers who you can get along with and work with and whose goal is to help each other improve and publish your manuscripts. You don't want a mutual appreciation society or the opposite, people who stroke their own egos by cutting down others. Constructive criticism has to be the purpose of all feedback in the group.
I know for a fact that I would not be published without my critique group, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I have them!
If you're a writer, what experiences have you had with critique groups, good or bad?