Thursday, August 5, 2010

Become a Better Writer Through Critique Groups

Today I want to talk about a subject that for some reason has become too complicated for writers to handle--the critique group. Everyone wants feedback on their work, but the idea of participating in a critique group has become too overwhelming. Among the excuses I hear are:
  • I don't have the time
  • I don't know anyone
  • I don't know how to critique
  • I wasn't happy with my last experience
I understand these issues, having participated in many failed critique circles before.Still, nothing beats having another set of eyes go over your work and its much cheaper than hiring an editor. So, if you don't have thousands of dollars to spend on a professional, critique groups are a great alternative and they can help you become a better writer if you find the right group and honestly assess their feedback.

There are several groups available on the Internet, but I suggest finding writers that you find writers that you connect with on a personal level first. Here are some general tips for starting or finding a critique group:
  1. Be realistic about what kind of time you are willing to commit: Do you only want to swap shorts, or are you willing to share and read a full length novel.
  2. Stick to your genre: I used to think that it wasn't a big deal working with others outside my genre until I realized how many conventions and standards are ignored or misunderstood because of a mis-communication between writers of different genres. It's just easier to work with someone who knows what works and doesn't work and who is aware of the trends and writers you are competing against.
  3. Keep to groups of 3-5 people: Just swapping with one other person is enough to get the ball rolling, but 3-5 gives you many perspectives without a heavy time commitment. I find three to be the best for time reasons.
  4. Use Review Tracker: Review tracker in Word is so easy to use and saves paper so you don't have to print and send full manuscripts. Plus, this way you can work with anyone anywhere in the world. 
  5. Like begets like: Find critique groups that cater to writers of your same caliber. If you are a newbie, stick to a newbie group. If you have been published and studying the art, you may be frustrated working with a young or aspiring group of writers. Keep  that in mind when reviewing groups. 
  6. Loosey goosey with a purpose: If you are starting a critique group or joining an existing one, you want to make sure there are some systems in place but you don't want something so rigid that its uncomfortable or difficult to work with.
  Now I want to talk about etiquette and methods when it comes to critiquing. This is so important. A critique groups should be a supportive environment for writers to learn and grow, not a bashing session. When you are critiquing someone else's work yo should:
  1. Remember its THEIR work, not yours: You should not rewrite their work in your voice or style, or completely overhaul it to the way you would produce it. Each writer has a unique voice, perspective, and style that should be respected at all times. Do point out what works for you as a reader though. Knowing what works is just as important as knowing what one is doing wrong.
  2. Use the "sandwich" approach: Present your comments as "compliment-constructive criticism-compliment." This softens the blow of the critique, because lets face it, we all hope we are perfect and its hard to hear when we are not.
  3. Focus on the big picture: Unless you make a living as a copy-editor, its best to focus on big picture issues when assessing another's work. This means looking at such questions as character development, plot, setting, style, etc instead of nitpicking word choice or grammar.
  4. Critique the work, not the person: It's about the document, not the person writing it so stay focused on the task at hand.
  5. Practice tolerance for differing viewpoints: Not everyone shares the same views on religion, relationships, politics, philosophy, etc. Respect the other person's beliefs and the beliefs of their characters. You don't have to agree with their point of view, just be able to see it unfold visually. If it bothers you that much, find a different critique partner.
Receiving critiques can sometimes be hard, especially for a work yo have put a great deal of time into. To make the process as beneficial and pleasant as it can be, when receiving critiques:
  1. Distance yourself: It's not a critique of you, its an honest opinion about the work in front of you.
  2. Maintain veto power: You don't have to accept every suggestion or change made. It is ultimately your work and should reflect you and be something you are proud of. If you truly want to keep something, then keep it, but do consider their reasons for suggesting changes.
  3. Recognize patterns: If more than one person says the same thing, take notice. If on every critique you hear that your characters are flat, you may have to accept that your characters are flat and strive to correct it. The point here is to improve as a writer.
  4. Respect their opinion: Show the one who critiqued you the same respect you expect by acknowledging and thanking them for their time and feedback. 
  5. Even Steven: This actually goes both ways. If someone takes the time to honestly and thoroughly look at your work, you'd better be willing and able to do the same in return. It's just as frustrating to receive little to no feedback as it is to receive too much, so don't send back one or two comments on fifty pages and think you've done your job when you're receiving more than that in return.
These are just some base guidelines. Becky Levine goes into greater detail on how to give and get critiques in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. It really isn't that complicated, and even if you just create an arrangement with one writer, the rewards are so worth the time.


  1. I'm fortunate to be in two critique groups. Discussion runs from, "I think you need a comma there..." to, "What if you had Mr. X hide in the closet instead of under the bed..." The help I receive is invaluable. Furthermore, we laugh a lot. That's invaluable too. Great post. Thanks.

  2. Shennandoah,

    Thanks so much for mentioning my book. :) Great post--I especially like that you talk about the things the author has to do to make a group work, as well as the critiquer.

  3. Great post, Shen! You know my critique group fears and this really opened my eyes.

  4. Thanks everyone for your wonderful comments. I am actually working with the Writer's League to help get more information and forums going so our members can form critique groups. Stay tuned for that!

    Becky, thanks for commenting! It's not often the author of a suggested title comments on my recommendations:)