Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Critique Groups: You Get What You Ask For

What do I want from a Critique Group?

One of the most helpful or hurtful things for a writer is a critique group.  Helpful when the group enables you to learn, to grow, to stretch.  Hurtful when the group either pulls you down into the muck or stalls you out.   I've had a taste of both and am happy to report I now have two critique groups I consider foundations for my ongoing development as a writer.  So what do look for in a critique group?  When do you know it's working for you?  When do you know it's time to gracefully bail out?  Over the next several months, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned about critique groups to date and hopefully stir up some discussion on the topic so we can all learn from each other.

Before we get to those questions, let's look at the most fundamental question you want to ask yourself about any critique group.  What do I want from a critique group? The answer to that question varies based on experience, personality, confidence, and a host of other factors unique to each of us.  If I'm new to the writing business, feeling less than confident (we've all been there) I might want to have a more supportive group which emphasizes positive feedback about what I'm doing well with only limited feedback about what I could improve.  At the other end of the spectrum, if you're a published author who wants to stay a published author, you want the truth, with an emphasis on what needs to be fixed.  Of course most groups fall somewhere in the middle.

One of my groups, let's call this a Hard Core Critique Group, has a commitment to respectfully give high gradient, honest feedback.  We are all committed to upping our game, we know we can write (okay, some days more than others) and we all want to spend our time on what we can do to improve versus getting positive strokes.  This path is not for everyone and I have to say, on occasion, I have to step away, take a few deep breaths and remember why I'm sticking my neck out so far.  In the past I've been in groups near the other end of the spectrum which, at the time, worked for me.  I needed to hear some critique, but I also needed to get some positive reinforcement.  Why?  Because, like most writers I know, I held a dark secret I feared would one day be revealed for all to see -- I'm a fraud!  I can't write!

Take a moment right now to consider what you want in a critique group.  Here are a few possibilities to prime the pump:
  • Support
  • An emphasis on positive feedback
  • Caring community of fellow writers
  • An emphasis on honest, critical feedback
  • Feedback about story arc and plotting
  • Feedback about scenes, descriptions, grammar

Note the last two items.  If I'm looking for big picture feedback around story arc and plotting, I need a group interested in critiquing synopses, story summaries and extended chunks of manuscript (50+ pages)  If I'm more interested in honing my craft one scene at a time (and most critique groups focus on scenes in my experience), then I want a group committed to critiquing 4-5 pages of manuscript at a time.

What do you want from your critique group? Post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Next month I’ll look at what a Critique Group wants from its members.


Big Mike said...

I want one thing, honesty, and its hard for many to provide for fear of hurting the author. I personally select my critique group from those that have been the hardest most honest and it never causes me pain because I choose what to accept or not. Nice thing about having several in the group is that if more than one reports the same issue you know whether you see it or not, readers will so heed the word and carve up your baby.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

True. If everyone stumbles over the same thing you know it needs to come out.

I've been with a group of about 20 for 20 years. There are only two of the original members left and we have gone from an emphasis on poetry and play writing to fiction and now futuristics and memoirs.

They are honest, although we trim our barbs for those members we can never persuade. We have the option of not commenting.

We also do a lot of content editing. We have an even number of men and women, mostly retired or working part time. They have expertise we can draw on.