Thursday, June 9, 2011

Working Within a Critique Group

Critique groups are a good way to get feedback and ideas on how to improve your work. Plus, you get to read other works in progress, as well as offer advice. You not only improve your own writing, you learn by critiquing others.

Sometimes, the group’s rule will be that the person being critiqued should remain quiet and listen, not argue with someone’s suggestion or critique. At some point, though, you can ask questions, get clarification, explain something, or even argue a point. That back and forth is part of the critique.
Absorb what your critique partners are saying. Ask questions or get clarification.

You don’t have to take every piece of advice you get. But do listen to every comment or suggestion. Listen with your mind open, not closed to new ideas. If someone says or suggests something and it makes you grind your teeth, keep in mind that they’re giving you their honest opinion and advice. You may not always agree with them. That’s okay. Listen. Make notes. Go home and review your notes and think about what was said before dismissing any of the suggestions.

No matter how urgent it is to get your manuscript written and critiqued, you must spend time reading and evaluating the work of your critique partners. They need your help as much as you need theirs. If you glide over their work, don’t be surprised when they do it to yours. And if you continue to act as though you are the best writer in the group and your writing should take top priority, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to leave the group. You’re part of a team. The newest writer is just as important as the most seasoned.

A critique group where every member values the writing and advice of the others is a treasure. It may take a while to establish such a cohesive group. It may take discussion and a hammering out of what each person is looking for in the group. Each group is different, but one way they are all alike is that there must be trust. Each person must trust that everyone in the group is working in his/her best interest.
Critique partners want the other partners to succeed. They root for each other. They support each other. Each person’s success is a reason to celebrate.

What about your experiences with critique groups? What would you add?
 Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series:
Automotive Technicians
Computer Gaming

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  1. "Each group is different..."

    That is a major point and I think everyone needs to find the one that fits them. When I was first getting started writing fiction I was part of an online group called Writers Wrule where I found an enormous amount of help, advice and encouragement.

    After that group fell apart a few years ago, I've yet to find another that I feel 'at home' with.

    But still, I will be forever grateful for the time I did get with those wonderfully talented and caring people.

  2. I agree with E.C. — not all critique groups are created equal. Some can be worse than worthless, while others are worth their weight in gold.

    On the other hand, Helen's words are right on. So writer, be discerning. Finding the right group can make a huge difference in the quality of your work — and that of others in the group who will benefit from your comments and suggestions.

  3. I'm looking for a face-to-face group right now (been part of an online group for several months). These are good points. Thank you for them

  4. I prefer the groups where the writer is only allowed to clarify a point, but otherwise doesn't argue or defend their work, for two reasons: 1) it can de-evolve into a circular, unhelpful discussion that sucks time away, and 2) often the comments that make the writer bristle the most are the ones that are the most helpful after the writer has time to think about them.

    I also like the rule of three for a writer, which is not to change what you've written until you've gotten the same comment from at least three people.

  5. I'm blessed with a good critique group--no, a wonderful critique group! The Southern Indiana Writers has (have?) been together for around twenty years, and really do concentrate on making each person's vision as clear and unique as possible.

    Some groups are toxic--they destroy confidence or, maybe worse, built unjustified confidence, or they turn everybody's voice into one voice so that anything written by any member could have been written by any other member.

    A good one that fits YOU is worth its weight in rubies.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  6. This is good, solid advice, Helen. I remember being an invited guest at a small writers' group, where a woman read a rewrite of something. The group's leader turned to her and said, "I thought we told you not to do it that way." What an unhelpful comment!

    I try not to argue with critiques; I think it's much better to smile, say thank you, and then do what seems right. But I respectfully differ with Gayle's "rule of three." What should matter is not how many people tell you something, but whether it ultimately makes sense to you. Critique groups are not democracies, where people vote on what you should do. Accept criticism gracefully, but always remember that the story is yours, not theirs.

  7. Ah, there's the rub ... 'reading and evaluating the work of your critique partners' ... big handicap for this dyslexic lone wolf.

  8. It's a lot of work, on both sides of the coin. But I see so much work that's already published, that would have been so much better with some serious first readers and critiques. I don't care how good the author is, or how experienced, more eyes give better end results. I'm always amazed at writers who think they can skip this step - then wonder why they don't make a living at writing.

  9. I used to run a critique group and it was important that each person had an opportunity as the others, kept their work to the required length and everyone gave a lot of strokes as well:)

  10. Just to qualify my previous comment, this pertains to a good crit group, not the aforementioned toxic ones. One has to leave the ego at the door and be able to discern when they don't want to hear the advice or the advice is just plain bad because the critic has an inappropriate motivation. I've also noticed that the very act of critiquing encourages nitpicky behavior, which can make the author feel very insecure. If it's fiction, a certain degree of license is allowed on the part of the writer. Your critique group might forget that.

  11. Don't feel like you have to stay with a group if they're not working for you.

    Barbara, I like face to face groups, too. There are plenty of reasons to go with an online group, though.

    Both great ideas, Gayle.

    That's a good point, Bob. Critique groups are not democracies. People within the group may disagree, but it's up to the one being critiqued to decide what they agree with and what they will do.

  12. My chapter at Chicago-North RWA us a great critique chapter, and is probably why so many of its members have been published.

    I always think what I'm bringing in to read is the best that can be done, but am constantly surprised that it isn't. There's lots to learn at good critique groups.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. Christopher, the groups I prefer don't critique during the session. They take pages home to work on then come back for discussion. That might make it more comfortable and easier for you.

    Dani, you're so right. Even editors are better off asking another editor to look at their material.

    I agree Terri. Sometimes one person may get to move ahead of others if they have a deadline they must meet, but that's for the group to decide. Otherwise, everyone gets a turn and everyone should be contributing.

  14. I should explain that "rule of three" I commented about earlier. I didn't mean to sound like it was a voting process. Sometimes one person will give you a critique that strikes to your core - you know they're right. And sometimes you're just not sure. So if one person gives you a note about your character, you may not give it as much weight as if three people give you the same note.

  15. I belong to two wonderful groups--very supportive and generous in giving gentle, construction critique. I try to encourage new critiquers to always start with what they liked about the piece, and to begin with "I," never "you" and not to speak in negative terms: "I didn't like..."

  16. Excellent advice, Heidi.

    That's true, Gayle. Don't let one person's criticism get you down. Even if it's three or five people, don't get depressed. Ask them not just what is wrong with that scene or chapter, but what they feel you can do to correct it. You'll get ideas. You may try one of them. You may reject them all. But don't fall into a funk and give up.

  17. I need to get on board with a critique group. The BBT sure did help me bring my blog from a real stinker to a pretty good site. Maybe a critique group could do the same with my next book. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  18. This is the BEST post on critique groups!

    I'm currently in my second, and it's night and day different from my last. In a good way. I'm glad I didn't let my first experience keep me from trying again. If anything, the first group showed me what I was really looking for.

    Thanks for the tips of working within the group, because it's important to put forth the same effort that people are giving to you.

  19. Great points, Helen. I have belonged to two great critique groups and found the critiques of other writers' work as helpful as the comments on mine. I had many "aha" moments when hearing a comment about how someone was overdoing the description or writing stilted dialogue.

  20. In my experience, critique groups often get caught up in line editing. But most pieces that come to a group are first drafts. I think it's helpful to simply discuss a piece, to start. What do readers think is the piece's main focus or theme? (More than once, I've been surprised by the perceptions and/or misconceptions of my readers -- which, of course, means that my writing needed clarity.) Were there any areas that were confusing? Did they have questions or areas they would love to have seen expanded? Did the structure work? And so on. And the writer should definitely just sit and listen throughout this, only asking questions for clarification. Otherwise, as others have noted, it can turn into a defense session rather than a critique session.


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