When I started getting serious about writing, the thought of having my work critiqued sounded about as fun as driving a nail through my tongue while doing the Maquerena. But, anyone pursuing publication knows that the path to seeing your book in print is lined with many suggestions for improvement. I knew I had a lot to learn, so I signed up for a class on novel writing, read my work aloud, squeezed my eyes shut and went into the brace-for-impact position (In my head. I’m not that mental.) and listened to what my instructor and classmates had to say.
Since then, I’ve taken several more classes, attended a few conferences, and read a bunch of books on craft. I’m part of two critique groups – one that meets every other week and one online. We’ve learned and grown together, and their feedback has made me a much better writer. Not every writer is a part of a group like this, but all of us need someone to give us feedback. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Finding a Group
My first critique group formed in an introduction to novel writing class, and I have to say, I got pretty lucky. The six of us all started at similar levels – some ahead of others as far as skills, but all of us working on our first novels. We’ve meshed together very well, and until recently, when one member decided to drop out due to a pregnancy and wanting to put writing aside for a bit, we’ve stuck together over three years now. My second group formed at a writers’ conference – a group of us really hit it off and were again in the same place – all unpublished but with great drive to improve our craft and become published. My first group gets together every two weeks, my second group is done via an online forum where we post and critique monthly. Coincidentally, both groups have 6 members – a pretty ideal size: enough that you get a good amount of feedback, but not so much that you are overwhelmed – both by feedback received and feedback that must be given.
There are other places to find critique partners. I love AbsoluteWrite.com, a forum for writers of all skill levels, from multi-published authors to newbies. I’ve gone here for help from seasoned veterans of the field on some of my work. On this site, as well as a few others, you can find beta readers and critique partners.
I advise getting to know your potential critique partners before forming a group. Get to know their writing style, how they critique, what they hope to get out of writing. It’s important that everyone is committed to a regular writing practice, to improving their craft, and to showing up to the meetings. But it’s also important to be somewhat flexible with this – cracking the whip too hard can lead to resentment and loss of members, while having no structure whatsoever can also result in a group falling apart. Agree in advance with your group or partner what expectations and guidelines you’d like to follow – don’t assume that everyone has the same ideas as you do about how to go about format, etc. You might be on different time tables toward submission for publication, or – as is the case with some of my critique partners – there may be a few for whom publication is not the end game. It helps if members of the group have similar goals, but it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker if they don’t. As long as you can understand and support each other in the goals you’ve each set, it can work. But regardless, surround yourself with talented writers who are capable of insightful feedback. A good critique group pushes your writing to higher and higher levels, and should never hold you back. That said – if you start to feel like your writers’ group is not meeting your needs, it may be time to find a new one.
Before letting anyone critique your work, understand your own writing goals. Critique groups are meant for those who want to improve their craft. Are you looking for smiles and praise? Don’t join a critique group. Instead, show your writing to friends and family – they are much more likely to give you the validation you seek. Do you really want to be published? Seek out critique partners who understand the industry and have studied the craft of writing. Work with people who have studied the craft – through classes, reference books and magazines, novels, conferences, etc. And study these things yourself. There’s a lot of great information out there that can help you to become a better writer.
•Start with what works. We all need to know what we are doing well – not just for an ego boost (though we all need that from time to time), but so we don’t end up scrapping what actually worked in our scenes.
•Don’t feel like you HAVE to have a criticism. Too often we feel like we have to find something wrong. If you don’t find anything wrong and think it works as is, say so.
•Be respectful. I’m a firm believer that even the toughest of messages can be delivered in a diplomatic way. You may feel like flinging a piece across the room in frustration, but avoid doing so. Remember that your writing partners, like you, have poured a lot of heart into their work and are trusting you with it. A group can fall apart rapidly when even one member turns nasty.
•Be very specific. Instead of saying you didn’t like it, or it was boring, give concrete examples.
•Ask questions to stimulate discussion. Things like: Where do you expect to go from here with this? Is this a throwaway character or will she return? What do you envision as the arc for this character? What in this character’s background made them react in this way? Having an understanding of the writer’s intentions will help you help them.
•If you are all working on novels, try to remember the scenes you’ve already read. This can be very hard to do, especially when you have been reading scenes from the same novel for months, or even years. If you can’t remember something, ask. It will help you give feedback on the overall plotline, character development, etc.
•You will be tempted to write other people’s books. I’ve gotten some great ideas from group brainstorms on my stuff. Some of our best moments have come from fantasizing directions for each other. But remember to respect what the writer is trying to accomplish, and realize your solution might lead the writer astray. (For example, the writer is intending a light-hearted comedy and you feel it would be better to have a deep, belly-gazing moment for the main character.) Try to point out the problem without pigeonholing the writer into a solution. If you do end up brainstorming together, don’t insist that your way is the only way.
•Listen to what the others have to say. This is the most important thing to do. Try not to get defensive about your work. You can learn a lot by allowing your critique partners to discuss what they’ve read. Sometimes they will all agree, sometimes they’ll argue. Sit back, listen, and take notes. When their discussion slows, then ask some questions to clarify why they might have had the reactions or thoughts that they did. No need to fight them on it or scramble to justify – just hear them out. If they don’t get it, or if they saw something problematic, chances are other readers will too. I’ll never forget a late night critique session at a conference where a writer stomped – yes, she actually stomped – out of a room when another writer started asking her questions about the overall character arc. She felt the main character didn’t need to have an arc, because that wasn’t real life. Hmmm. You won’t progress much as a writer if you remain closed off to feedback.
•On that note, leave your ego at the door. Don’t take things personally, remember this is all about pounding your work into its best possible form.
•Look for patterns – do your critique partners frequently call you out on certain things? For example, do you tend to write dialogue where every character sounds the same? Or forget to get inside the head of your POV character in crucial moments? Bury the reader in adjectives and adverbs?
•Know what you are looking for in a critique. Are you concerned that the story line is confusing, that your main character’s motivations aren’t clear, or that your dialogue is stilted? Ask your partners to comment on that specifically. Do you just want a general reaction? Let ‘em rip.
•Let your work sit after getting your critique – don’t immediately try to incorporate all of their suggestions. Allow time to give you some perspective and detach from the panic that can often strike after a critique session (the “Omigod I’ve done it all wrong and must fix it now!”)(Or worse, the “screw them. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”).
•Don’t submit too early. Unless you really need help on direction, I advise submitting only work that you feel is reasonably polished (trust me, your writing group will thank you for that) and that you have some idea what your intentions are. That said, don’t become so attached to what you’ve already written that you won’t be open to a great idea generated in group.
•Remember that it is ultimately your work. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to change. When you get to know your critique partners, you’ll discover their strengths and weaknesses as both writers and critiquers. Keep this in mind when reviewing their comments. And if there is a consensus on anything – pay attention!
•Don’t over workshop. Your fellow writers will feel compelled to find something to criticize. It’s in our nature. There isn’t a scene out there that couldn’t be changed in some way. But know when you’ve reached the point that the critiques aren’t making it better, they are just changing it.
My critique groups have been the source of much joy, a little pain, but mostly a lot of fun. What better way to spend time than with others who share your passion and want to help you reach your goals?