Three Cheers for Critique Groups!

When I want to read a good book, I write one.

–Author Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

If you want to write a good book, a critique group will help you. A client, novelist Pam Chun, author of the prize-winning novel The Money Dragon, asked two excellent questions about critique groups that I’ll try to answer in this post and the next one.

First question: How do you know when a critique group is good for you?

The short answer: If you’re receiving feedback and ideas that you can use, learning about craft, and enjoying the process, the group is working.

More than ever, you need feedback on your work to make sure it’s as strong as it needs to be in today’s demanding marketplace. This is equally true whether you want to sell your book or self-publish it, so you won’t have the help of a staff editor. A critique group gives you the chance to learn from what you tell others and they tell you.

Whether you join a group or start one, at first, it’s an experiment. You get a feeling for how best to work together. Effective groups are self-sustaining. They last decades. Groups that don’t deliver for members lose them. Members will not always show up. Not all members will stay with the group. You may have to try more than one group to find the right one for you.

A Working Marriage

Like your relationship with an agent or editor, your relationships with members is a working marriage that has personal and professional aspects to it. You want to enjoy each other’s company, but you also have to be able to help each other. There are three aspects to this:

  • Having members with knowledge, experience, perceptiveness, and creativity
  • Combining truth with charity, starting with virtues of the work being discussed
  • Being reliable about fulfilling one’s responsibilities to the group

Members can

  • offset the solitude of writing
  • be a source of encouragement
  • forge lasting friendships
  • provide information about agents, publishers, promotion, and the industry.

But the relationships between members may also interfere with their ability to tell each other the truth about their work. So members have to balance friendship and objectivity.

Joining or Starting a Group

How carefully your group is organized will help determine how well it will help you. You can do it any way you and other members wish, but you do have to agree on 

  • the kinds of books you discuss
  • the feedback members need such as word choice, plot, character, setting, and structure; the subjectivity of members’ reactions to your work will help you appreciate the conflicting responses your book will generate
  • the criteria for joining: writing experience, the quality of a writing sample, personality, accepting members on a trial basis
  • when, where, and how often you meet
  • the size of the group; some groups have forty members, but the smaller your group, the more often you have the chance to get feedback
  • how the group works:

             * how much of a member’s work you discuss at one meeting

             * how much time you devote to each member’s work

             * how many members’ work you discuss at one meeting

  • how to handle refreshments
  • whether everyone receives a copy of what’s to be critiqued in advance at the previous meeting or it’s emailed so members can mark it up
  • health issues such as smoking and allergies
  • finding a coordinator if you need one
  • how to say no to those not yet ready to join
  • when and how to suggest someone will be better served by another group

Besides giving members feedback on their work as they write, members also have to read completed manuscripts for form and content to help make sure they’re rejection-proof.

In the next post, I’ll give you three ideas that will make your critique group more effective.

I look forward to your questions, especially those I can answer! Meanwhile, keep at it and happy hunting for the critique group you need.

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4 Responses to Three Cheers for Critique Groups!

  1. Thank you for this excellent article on critique groups—especially the checklist for joining or starting a critique group. I’d love your thoughts and recommendations for how to start a group when you’re new in a community. How do you meet writers and advertise that you want to start a group?

    • A good question for a blog. How do you get involved with the literary community when you’ve just arrived. The simple: connect with people connected to books. More to come and thanks for asking.

  2. It’s much more helpful to see work instead of just hear it. An easy fix: give or email members work to be discussed at the next meeting so they can mark it up, discuss it, and give it to the writers.

  3. You’re right. Most people can’t help you, but there will always be many writers who want and need to help each other.

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