If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”
―David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
For writers, criticism can be the most cutting of double-edged swords.
Logically we all know criticism is important. After all, we cannot objectively critique our own work. How else do we find our flaws, shore up the weak spots, and learn to become better writers? Through criticism, we discover our writing blind spots, the inevitable flubs we never think are there, and all our bad writing habits. And whether you’re looking to self-publish or submit your book to a traditional book publisher, those weaknesses can cost you the book deal or sales you’re hoping for.
Emotionally … well, that’s an entirely different matter. We can’t help but react emotionally when faced with constructive criticism. What does this person really know about my writing anyway? Some of us receive feedback stoically before excusing ourselves to weep in a nearby bathroom. Some of us fly into a blind rage, and then no couch cushion is safe from our wrath. Others of us dismiss the criticism outright, decrying it as “just an opinion.” And maybe, after a few hours (or days) of childish petulance, we look over that dreaded feedback again and begrudgingly see truth in it. And thus, we begin to learn. We begin to grow.
Although criticism can be hard to accept, there comes a time in every project’s life when another perspective is essential. We need someone to see the things we can’t see. We each need the opportunity to fix our book manuscript, ideally before a publishing professional sees it—and that, my dear writerly friends, is when a critique group can help you.
What can a critique group do for me?
Getting informed critical feedback from a group of experienced writers of all stripes means getting feedback from people who actually know what they’re talking about. Because let’s face it: most of our friends and family who are our first readers aren’t familiar with the writing and publishing world. And even if they are,can we trust them to be objective and honest? Here’s what a critique group can offer you:
- Objective feedback on both the creative and technical aspects of your writing: You should be getting more than just grammar or punctuation corrections on your submitted work. A good critique group can let you know what’s working and what isn’t, whether that’s the pacing, character development, believability, or faithfulness to your genre. But be warned—oftentimes critique groups look at individual chapters of the book, not the whole manuscript. This means that your group won’t be able to assess the overall structure or character arcs of your work. You may need to team up with someone for that kind of holistic big-picture feedback.
- Accountability: Most groups expect a certain amount of output every time they meet. Requirements vary from group to group, but if you struggle with maintaining a writing routine, having a deadline can help you stay on track.
- Support: It’s nice to be with people who “get it.” A good critique group understands your struggles and will help you find the tools to overcome your writing-related obstacles, from fixing a plot hole to defeating writer’s block to eating healthy lunches while you’re writing.
- Networking: Established authors and publishing professionals often join critique groups, and maybe someone in your group knows someone else who can help you with the next stage of your writing career. But note: first and foremost, it is a critique group. Beyond constructive criticism, no one owes you anything—so proceed with kindness and respect. If you make a useful networking connection, don’t monopolize that person’s time and energy to further your ambitions.
How do I find a critique group?
Most critique groups fall into two categories: in person and online. For many writers, choosing between the two options is entirely a matter of where you live and whether you have access to transportation. Online groups tend to be the better option for authors living in rural areas or small towns with even smaller (or nonexistent) writing communities.
“Online groups deliver rapid-fire feedback to help pinpoint a problem,” writes Kate Reynolds in this Writer’s Digest guide to critique groups. “Some ‘critters’ specialize in grammar and syntax, while others may suggest ways to improve structure. You’ll receive advice on plot, pacing, suspense and characterization. Seasoned writers are usually generous with hints and tips that improve your piece.”
But, cautions Reynolds, there are security risks with online groups. “Perhaps the biggest potential pitfall is computer security—or rather, the lack of security,” she warns. “Although copyright protection is strong in the United States and most other countries, there’s no way to stop someone from plagiarizing and attempting to market your work. There are online literary predators who try to cash in on the vulnerable, and an archive can be a treasure trove for thieves.”
If an online writing critique group interests you, The Write Life lists a number of online groups (some of which require fees).
In-person writing groups can be found in many towns and cities. You can look for posted signs in libraries, coffee shops, and on community notice boards. You can check in with your personal network for recommendations. You can also see what Google suggests. Writer’s Relief has a pretty thorough list of writing groups by state (with a few Canadian ones thrown in for good measure).
Avoid groups that don’t have an audition, recommends Helen Cassidy Page in “10 Dos and Don’ts of An Effective Writing Critique Group.” “You can’t anticipate whether the chemistry of a group of people will work for you without interacting with them. You want to commit to spending time with people who inspire you, not grate on your nerves week after week. So, your first meeting should always be conditional, on both sides of the story. Be wary of a group so eager for members they don’t ask you to submit pages to see if your work is a fit.” Page also suggests you look for writers who work in similar—or at least compatible—genres, and expect the first few times to be something of a first date.
“A new member can be jarring to an existing group whose members have come to know and trust each other. They need a chance to decide if the chemistry a new member brings is right for them. So recognize that this ‘audition’ is not to put you on the spot. You don’t want personality issues to pop up later because one of you doesn’t like someone else’s laugh.”
How do I know if this isn’t the right critique group for me?
Not every group is going to be the right fit for you. Fortunately, there are some early warning signs that indicate it might be time to move on—or run away as fast as you can.
- If it’s all play and no work: If every meeting is all about food, drink, and gossip—or extensive kvetching about writer’s block—you probably want to find another critique group. “If you find that that marketing cooperative you joined does more drinking than retweeting, it may be time to cut ties,” notes Kathryn Craft in “Leaving a Writer’s Group: 5 Reasons It May Be Time.” “You could try to adjust your expectations and stay—your friends are still sparking joy!—but it won’t work for long. A writer only has so much time in her life, and she needs to surround herself with similarly dedicated colleagues who can help her career.”
- If you’re the best and most experienced writer they have: “I always think of writing groups like a tennis game,” writes Helen Cassidy Page. “You want to play with people who are better than you are and can up your game. Get over any sense of intimidation you may feel at members who have published more than you have, or have written longer and just flat out know more. You will learn from them, from their work and from their critiques of your work. Sticking with a group at or below your level may boost your social life, but it will do little to help you grow as a writer.”
- If you’re writing for them and not for yourself: Group mentality can hugely influence our writing at times. And wanting to hear some positive feedback or please the other writers may result in work that isn’t the right thing for you or your book. Make sure you are working with writers who allow you to be yourself. “I got a big reality check about group critiques when my second novel was accepted by a small press and my manuscript came back bleeding with edits,” writes Anne R. Allen in “Critique Groups: 6 Ways They May Hurt Your Writing . . . and 6 Ways They Can Help.” “As I went through the manuscript doing rewrites, I realized nearly every issue my editor had with my work turned out to be something I’d added or subtracted at the request of various critique groups. I agreed with almost every editorial correction. Actually, much of my editor’s criticism made me feel vindicated. He gave me the courage to ignore a whole lot of what I heard in group critiques after that. In trying to please everybody, I had created a muddled mess.”
- If you have too heavy a workload: One of the challenges of larger groups can be the number of critiques that need to be completed. With so many writers looking for feedback, you may find yourself overloaded with critiques and rarely able to submit your own work. Or you can find yourself with the opposite problem—you need to have material ready for every week, even if you haven’t written it yet. Look for a balance that fits your pace.
- If you find yourself completely discouraged or miserable: Being part of a critique group should be about challenging yourself and making your writing—and your book—better. Sometimes that means eating a few servings of humble pie (because as writers, sometimes our egos can be our own worst enemies), and that can be hard to swallow. But if you find your confidence viciously eroded, it might be time to reconsider whether you’ve found the right group. “Sure there will be times when we are flummoxed and even challenged by an ending that isn’t working,” writes Judy Bodmer in “Dangerous Critique Groups.” “But for the most part, we should feel the group believes in our abilities and is rooting for us to succeed. If instead you leave week after week feeling attacked, discouraged, and ready to donate your computer to your church, maybe it’s not you. Maybe something is wrong with your group.”
If you find yourself in a critique group that isn’t working for you, the trick, says Bodmer, is to make your exit as soon as you can. “This may not be as easy as it sounds for nice people who are afraid of hurting others’ feelings,” she writes. “You could fake your death (just kidding), stop attending, or be honest about why you’re leaving. The latter may help the group to take another look at themselves and make some changes.”
“Most authors I know who are in groups they love had at least one bad experience before they found the group that was right for them.”
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.