Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Critique Groups - Useful or Not-so?

by Raelene Gorlinsky

One of the things our editors very frequently recommend to authors (aspiring or published) is that they participate in a critique group to get feedback on their work. Now, critique groups come in all shapes and sizes, and finding one that matches your needs is not necessarily easy. Nor does everyone agree with the concept - I have heard one very wellknown NY top editor express that she does not feel they are of value to many writers. I disagree. While it is true that some writers don't have the right temperament or needs to fit in a group like this, I think most writers can benefit from them. Not just from the advice on your writing - but by helping you develop a thick skin and learn to deal with criticism. (Nothing is more unprofessional and immature than an author who whines over every bad review - or worse, lashes back with anger.)

Below are some things to consider about being part of a critique group. None of the different options are inherently better or worse, it all depends on what you need at this stage of your writing. The important thing is to understand up front what you are getting into, if you will fit, and if it will benefit you.

~ Do you have the time? In exchange for having people review your WIP, you are making a commitment to read, spend time analyzing, and intelligently comment upon the work of other writers.

~ Is the group online (exchanging files and comments via email) or "live" - getting together in person on a regular basis?

~ Can you offer reasoned, careful, well-explained, unemotional opinions on someone's writing? Just "I don't like it" or "This is wrong" is of no help.

~ Can you gracefully and calmly accept constructive criticism, even if it tears your work apart?

~ Is there a stated mission, or guidelines about how the group functions - how much time must you put in, what types of comments are acceptable, etc? How formal and organized is it? How are difficult or obstructive or unpleasant group members dealt with?

~ Is it a mixed-genre group, or is everyone writing in the same genre?

~ Is the group mainly for socializing and support, or is it firmly no-nonsense professional criticism? Or a bit of both?

~ Is the group just for critiquing WIP, or is it also an opportunity to exchange industry news and tips, share conference experiences, maybe have presentations or workshops?

~ What is the balance of published versus not-yet-published participants? Do you get any feeling that there is resentment or discord between the two types?

I belong to a critique group. We meet in person once a month, generally about five or six people make it each time. It's a mixed group - romance, children's literature, non-fiction. We do a good bit of chatting and socializing - and go out to lunch together after each meeting. But we keep in mind that our main purpose is to read and get feedback on the latest bit of our WIP. The first meeting I attended demonstrated to me the benefit of such a group. I read part of my WIP (a children's picture book), and there were lots of suggestions. I was stunned: "Everything you are telling me are things I as an editor say to authors all the time!" Yep, there's so much you can see in other people's work and just don't recognize in your own.

Some authors prefer a critique "partner" - just one other person with whom they exchange work in progress, whose opinion they value and trust.

So please tell us and your fellow authors reading this blog: Do you belong to a critique group? Is this the first one for you, or do you have prior experience with this? Do you think it is valuable to your writing? How did you find the group? What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of belonging to a critique group?


Joanna Waugh said...

I absolutely agree with you, Raelene. In my particular case, I've been very fortunate in my critique group. Not only do I belong to a terrific group of published and unpublished writers, my critique partner--Cheryl Dragon (a fellow EC author)--is perfect for me. Cheryl writes erotica and psychic paranormal while I write Regency historical. She loves to read Regency, and I like to read erotica, so we aren't competing. Cheryl has been a fantastic resource because she's so familiar with my genre and is the queen of plotting. And I'm a great editor, which is what she needs. It's a fantastic partnership!

Becky Burkheart said...

It is hard to find a good group, but well worth it, IMO. I've been fortunate to have a couple of good groups that are honest with their critique and helpful and creative in fixing the issues. I also have an individual critique partner that I've been with for a long time that gives me different or additional perspective when I need it and a final read once the group has been over something I've working on. For me, that's been the best combination.

Jean Wogaman said...

Raelene - Thanks for your helpful list of questions.

I have just formed a new critique group with some members of my local SCBWI chapter. We are now linked through a Yahoo group and plan to meet in person once a month. A couple of the others have shared manuscripts, but we have yet to pick eachother's work apart. I'm now in the process of figuring out how to criticize kindly.

Most of the others are writing for younger kids than I am. I'm a little bothered about having to adjust my mindset from upper middle grade to early chapter book level, but I suppose I'll get used to it. I'm in the group primarily to develop closer friendships with other writers, so I'm open to having the format go in a variety of directions.

Anonymous said...

Here's the flip side of the coin:

I was a member of a critique group several years ago and had a very bad experience with it. One of the members stole several key plot points from one of my novels and tried to foist them off as her own. She wasn't very smart about it and subbed her work to the very same publisher who had purchased my book from me. When called on it, she tried to say I'd stolen from her. I had nine other people in the group who were willing to come forward and say that had not been the case. To my knowledge, that 'author' has never published anything.

As a result, I stay clear of such groups. I do have two readers who go over my books before I sub them but neither are authors. One is a college professor and the other is a creative writing instructor. They are brutally honest about my books and I trust them completely not to walk off with any portion of my work.

I know many writers need the reenforcement but I find it hinders my writing.

Anonymous said...

Raelene, I have two people who read my work and in exchange I read theirs. We don't meet regularly but handle chapters or pages as they come up. One of my readers is Robin Rotham, so she really understands the romantica genre; another loves to read it and writes contemporary women's fiction.

I do find it valuable. There are times when I've sent chapters to a reader and said something vague like, "This doesn't seem to be working. Ideas?" The feedback has been phenomenal - usually just the right thing to get me on track and writing again. I also find the opportunity to analyze someone else's work helps me think more objectively about my own.

I feel really lucky to have found such a great group.


Anonymous said...

What most writers don't understand is that the primary benefit from a Crit Group doesn't come from receiving crits.

It comes from giving them. When you give critiques on a regular basis, you start seeing those mistakes in your own work -- mistakes that used to be invisible.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on where you are in your writing life. For those just starting out, crit groups are invaluable in helping them learn the craft. But I also think they can do more harm than good by slowing or stopping a writer from really finding and developing their voice because of the pressure to follow "the rules." Use them, but know when it's time to go it alone.

ggwritespoetry said...

I have a critique partner. She is unpublished, but a terrific writer and editor type. She gives me the good and the bad, and I know I can trust her to tell me when it's not working, because, after all, I do tend to be blindly in love and/or too critical of my own work. She puts it in perspective. I'm blessed.

Joseph said...

I submit pieces of material to Critters. The reviewers are a very mixed group, but they represent a wide range of perspectives and you can easily receive 20-30 thoughtful reviews in just a few days/weeks. I highly recommend it.

Marian Perera said...

You said,

Nothing is more unprofessional and immature than an author who whines over every bad review - or worse, lashes back with anger.

Only too true. I recently read an excerpt posted online where the author was asking people to read it and tell her what they thought. I replied that there were a few problems in the excerpt and mentioned what those were.

The author said she felt hurt and angry and disappointed. I've decided that in the future, before responding to any stranger's request to "tell me what you think", I'm going to first ask what they're looking for - honest feedback or congratulations on simply having completed some writing.

Cheryl Reif said...

I've been in a number of different critique groups over the past ten years or so. Some were a waste of time; some were encouraging and educational. It definitely took time--and networking--to find the latter. I also think that people often outgrow critique groups, esp. at the start of their writing lives. A group that's perfect for the beginning might not be perfect once you've gained a little more experience. ~Cheryl