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?


Marian Allen said...

I'm also a member of a long-running critique group, The Southern Indiana Writers. All your points are excellent, and I'm happy to say our group is one of the good ones. Our two primary guides are: 1) Tell us how thorough a critique you want, from "Does this work" to "line edits" 2) Critique the writing, not the writer.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Beth Groundwater said...

Yes, Marian, it is important for both the critiquer and the writer to remember that it's the product that's being critiqued, not the person.

Terry Wright said...

Hi Beth, Critique is a valuable tool for a writer, published or not. But never forget it's all subjective. Sometimes critiquers don't agree with each other. These disagreements can be counter productive, so don't critique the critiquer. And if you're being critiqued, take what works for you and discard what doesn't. Don't bring the same material back twice, less your book becomes the product of the group and not your own work. That 'mud' you're talking about gets very deep and sticky. Best of luck with Cataract Canyon.

Betsy Bitner said...

Hi Beth - I couldn't agree more with your advice to be at least half way through your first draft before submitting chapters for critique. I know from personal experience that I can be too much of a perfectionist when it comes to submitting stuff for critique. So it's easy for me to get derailed by trying to make each chapter perfect instead of just trying to get it all down on paper. And as critique group coordinator for the Guppies (SinC's online chapter) I know a lot of Guppies still working on first drafts who enthusiastically join a critique group but soon get overwhelmed by the all the submitting, editing and resubmitting.

Anonymous said...

As a member and co founder of a large critique group that's been active for 25+ years, I agree with your post. Although we prefer to see the last draft, we will help with first drafts if members request that.
When members of a group begin to be published, then it's a sign the group is working.

Robin Allen said...

I've been in several critique groups, but find that I prefer one or two critique partners rather than a group. They tend to be too social and lose focus quickly.

Regardless of how you get critiqued, I agree that it's important to publishable writing.

GBPool said...

I, too, belong to a critique group. We write variations of mysteries and several other genres, but we are similar in age, so we see things in a similar light. We did find younger folks didn't care about grammar or plot or most things we thought important. But the best thing about the group, I have become far better at editing my own work, so the early drafts are much tighter.

Gloria Alden said...

There are only three of us in my Guppy critique group, but they have been so important to my writing these past two plus years -much more important than my local writers group. I always value their comments and advice.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Terry,
Yes, it's usually best for the one who is being critiqued to keep their mouth shut, unless they don't understand a critique and need to ask a question. The decision of what advice to take or ignore is always the writer's to make, and the writer doesn't have to reveal what that decision is to the group.

Hi Betsy,
Thanks for weighing in, and for giving me a chance to put in a plug for the Guppies (for "the great unpublished") chapter of Sisters in Crime, one of the very best place for aspiring mystery authors to find help, information and support. Here's the website:

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Velda,
I agree that you shouldn't waste the talents of your fellow writers in a critique group on looking at your first draft. NO ONE sees my first drafts other than myself! I always do a lot of editing on my own before submitting a chapter to critique group.

Hi Robin,
I agree that a critique group has to be very focused and to set goals. We limit our "social time" to 15 minutes at the start of a meeting and about 5-10 at the end. The rest of the time is spent reviewing chapters. And, if someone hasn't submitted a chapter for awhile, the rest of us ask, "what's up?" Socializing is for other occasions.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi GB,
Yes, I think everyone who participates in a critique group becomes a better self-editor. You first catch various kinds of errors in other people's work, then you become better at spotting them in your own.

Hi Gloria,
I agree that good critique partners are worth their weight in gold, and the Guppies chapter of SinC is a great place to find compatible critique partners.

The Bad Mom said...

Hi Beth. I don't have a critique group, per se, but a few trusty first readers. I love them! Know what else I love?? The title of your next book!

Beth Groundwater said...

LOL, thanks, Bad Mom! I hope WICKED EDDIES will be a wickedly fun read. ;-)

Susan Oleksiw said...

I've been in a number of groups over the years and learned a lot from all of them. For the last few years I've relied on two very trusted readers who are thorough and honest. They've really pushed me to be a better writer. Thanks for a solid thoughtful post.

Mitzi said...

I was in a critique group many years ago and couldn't keep to the schedule because of having to travel for work. No one was willing to critique by email so I dropped out. I also didn't like that people critiqued but had nothing they'd written - I was never reading their work - they had none.
Not a pleasant experience.
First you have to trust them and not feel they're trying to sabotage you.
I know I sound paranoid but I found out later that it was happening.

Warren Bull said...

I think you need to attend a group for a few times before deciding if it fits your needs. Some groups offer mostly support for writing and little critiquing which is fine if that's what you need. Others are more critical which require members to have a thicker skin. My favorite story about a critique group was at the first meeting of a new group one member agreed to read her work as long as no one said anything to her afterward, The group did not have a second meeting.

NC Weil said...

The critique group I'm in has members who can't drive in during the winter, so they join us via video Skype. This way we can all see and hear each other. It's important for each member to hear others' comments - I find the most useful criticism evolves during discussion of sticky points in a chapter - something you'd never get in a one-on-one critique.
I would never submit part of an unfinished work to my group, because to give the story shape, I have to know how it ends. And if critiquers get bogged down in badly constructed sentences they may miss the big-picture problems. I think that the more finished/polished your work is, the more useful others' critiques will be.
Writers who go it alone with no critiquing are deluding themselves. We can all write better, and others' perspective is essential.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Well said, Beth. My group formed at the end of 2003 from a novel-writing class (and the instructor of that class is now one of our members). I can't imagine trying to write without a good critique group.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Mitzi,
Yes, a bad critique group populated with poison personalities or people with their own agenda unrelated to the group goal of helping every manuscript get published can be a real de-motivator. The best thing to do is leave the group as soon as possible and find another one that's more supportive.

Hi Warren,
Yes, a trial period is very important for both sides, the new writer coming in, and the existing group members. It should be made very clear upfront how long the trial period is, and that permanent group membership is contingent on a group vote of acceptance and the new member's acceptance of the group.

Hi NC,
Since I moved to Breckenridge in December, I've been Skyping in to my Colorado Springs critique group's meetings. It's not as ideal as meeting with them in person, but, as you point out, being able to brainstorm in real-time with the group can result in some really creative solutions to problems.

Thanks, Pat, for your comment. Your group must be a good one, because your books are so good. :)

Heidiwriter said...

I agree. I would not be where I am today if it weren't for my critique groups!

Ann Littlewood said...

My critique group started in 2000 and it's been invaluable. Great post and excellent comments. A few other suggestions:

No reading aloud. It's too slow and most of our readers are, well, readers. Submit chapters by email in advance & print them.

Don't discuss line edits (typos, minor inconsistencies). Just mark up the paper copy. Use group time for the big issues of plot, character, & pacing.

Support each other. Share publishing info. Celebrate successes!

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Heidi,
Thanks for your comment.

Hi Ann,
Those are all great tips for critique groups. Yes, definitely submit chapters ahead of time and only discuss the big issues in the meetings.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I was once in an online critique group on AOL ten years ago and received some good feedback, although some was downright silly from unpublished writers, such as a comment that I was prejudice when I wrote that tall women seemed to gravitate to one another (which is true). Another said that I should clean up my character's grammar. (They were uneducted farmers.) So I agree that you have to choose your critique partners carefully.