August 3 – 9: “What do you look for when selecting a critique group?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking writer’s critique groups and we’re joined by ITW Members N. J. Paige, Donald J. Bingle, Joel Gomez-Dossi, Laura Elvebak and James Abel, who will answer the question: “What do you look for when selecting a critique group to help polish your writing?”

 

 

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CODE COVN. J. Paige lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Her favorite motto is “Life is a journey best taken one step at a time.” And one of her favorite pass-time activity is to hike through her local forest, where she gets inspiration from Tree-sprites.

 

 

protocalJames Abel is a pseudonym for a best selling author and Arctic expert, who has covered the region for Smithsonian, Parade, Outside, and Readers Digest Magazines, and this coming summer, for Newsweek. He has appeared on Morning Joe, Dan Rather Reports and Nightline to discuss Arctic issues.

 

 

love-haight+coverDonald J. Bingle, a retired corporate attorney, is the author of four thrillers and about fifty short stories. He was the world’s top-ranked player of classic role-playing game tournaments for fifteen years. Don is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, Humor Writers of America, Gen Con Writers Symposium, Origins Game Fair Library, and St. Charles Writers Group.

 

Lethal Elements CoverWriter Joel Gomez-Dossi came to journalism by way of theater, television, and digital media production. He was a stage manager for several theaters in the Mid and Southwest; a producer for television projects; and a production manager for the Emmy Award-winning PBS science series, Newton’s Apple. Joel has written about film and theater for many regional publications across the country, and penned an entertainment column for the queer press that ran in twelve states. Pursued is his first novel. Joel and his husband live happily ever after in upstate New York.

 

stripteaseLaura Elvebak studied writing at UCLA, USC, Rice, and Beyond Baroque. She has penned several magazine articles, co-wrote, directed and acted in a one-act play, optioned three screenplays, and co-wrote a script for the 48 Hour Film Project. She is the author of the Niki Alexander mysteries, Less Dead and Lost Witness. A standalone, The Flawed Dance, is due from Black Opal Books on July 18, followed by the third Niki Alexander mystery, A Matter of Revenge. She is the treasurer and newsletter editor of the Southwest Chapter of MWA, a member of Sisters-In-Crime, The International Thriller Writers, and The Final Twist Writers.

 

10 Comments
  1. It’s so important to get feedback from the right people when you’re trying to make your writing better. But the big question is, who are the right people? And who are the wrong ones? Also, is joining a group the right way to go? Or will a group mess you up? I’ve been lucky to have terrific readers over the years, individuals, not a group. They are people who a) love my kind of writing, if the writing is good b) Understand, if it is not good, whether the problem is large or small c) Understand ways to fix the problem d) Consider their job to be helping the author find his own voice, not trying to take it over and e) Always are brutally honest, even if that means telling me that a work is awful, so throw it out, James. Give up.

    That’s a tough mix to find even in an individual, and the problem with writing groups is that sometimes the people inside them are the wrong ones for you. They don’t fulfill the requirements above. Or, when they give you input as a group, they contradict each other, or flood you with so much input that when you follow all of their suggestions, you make your work worse. I’ve sat in on some groups where the advice is terrible.

    Bottom line, be picky when it comes to readers, even if that means you don’t have any readers for awhile. Because the wrong readers will mess you up.

    1. Sometimes even contradictory comments can be good, because they can help teach you how to evaluate advice and take some comments without taking all comments. Most professional writers respect comments from their editors and try to make them work, but there can be times when the comment needs to be respectfully rejected, with an explanation as to why. As an author, you need to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff on comments.

      1. I agree with you, Donald, but even the best readers can be “off the mark.” If you get an oddball comment, you can always decide to ignore it. If you start receiving the same kind of comments, it might indicate a need to heed their advice (or at least parts of it).

  2. Though longer than the typical post, this article, previously published by me and Rick Holinger in the SFWA Bulletin (don’t worry–rights have reverted) covers a number of the questions likely to come up in this session.

    The Right Rites for Writing Groups

    By
    Richard Holinger and Donald J. Bingle

    Whether you are a novice writer or a seasoned pro, it’s good to have someone to talk to about your craft. Your mother, your spouse, or your significant other may be really supportive of your writing (heck, they may be supporting you financially, too), but they’re probably not the best person to read and critique your writing. For one thing, because of the close personal relationship and a reasonable desire to protect it, they might simply be too easy on you—complimenting everything you do, deserved or not. And, of course, every moment you don’t spend revising and rewriting is a moment you could spend with them. Second, they might not have any interest or background in writing in general, much less the genre in which you are writing. Here’s a good test: If their eyes glaze over when you talk about bookend structures, nested flashbacks, shifting points of view, and/or eliminating exposition by writing in scene, maybe you should be talking to someone else about your writing.

    Finding the right writing group can save the day. Not only will your fellow writers be willing to chat with you about such arcane subjects as those listed above, but they know from personal experience the struggles and the issues that writers face. The question is, “How do you find the right writing group?” What is the best composition of such a group for your needs? What kinds of things do writing groups do? What rites and critiquing procedures are the most effective at helping you make progress in your writing and as a writer? How should group dynamics be handled? What should you do when someone disrupts the positive support and helpful atmosphere of the sessions?

    Where can I find a writing group?

    Your local library may host a writing group or may be able to tell you about groups in town or at other libraries nearby. Local bookstores often will be able to give you the same information or may host groups themselves. Even large chain bookstores often allow such groups to meet on premises. Similarly, local community colleges, universities, and even park districts sponsor such groups. Local governments, such as villages and townships, may have facilities that groups may use free or for a fairly nominal fee. The speakers at local writing seminars or at writing or genre conventions (scifi cons, fantasy filks, and the like) can also have useful information, but if they don’t, just ask the other attendees if they have any advice on the subject. The forwards/acknowledgments sections of locally authored books or articles about home-town authors often include a thank you to a local group in which the author has been a participant.

    Or try joining a book club, also sponsored by many of the same institutions. People who love to read and talk about books often like to write themselves—or know people who do. Don’t be afraid to let people know you’re a writer (You are! You write, don’t you?), and ask if anyone else would be interested in meeting informally to talk about their writing.

    Of course, there is also the Internet, if your Boolean logic is good and you don’t mind sorting through a boatload of information of questionable relevance. And the Net can be used for much more than locating writing groups that meet physically near to where you reside; a wide variety of writing groups giving advice and critiques of posted materials reside in cyberspace, itself. Three cautions to keep in mind when you deal with an online group, however: 1. Anonymous critiques can sometimes be unduly harsh and petty. 2. Even posting a soft copy of your work on password-protected sites can too easily allow it to be lifted and used elsewhere or otherwise impact the confidentiality of what you are writing. 3. Some publishers regard anything posted on the web (at least on non-password-protected sites) to have been published already and will not consider it as a submission.

    If you live in an area where there is a dearth of public resources that might sponsor or promote a writers group, your state may offer an arts council that publishes a directory of poets and writers that includes contact information and what genres they specialize in. Many of these authors would jump at the chance to moderate a writing group for a nominal fee—or even gratis, if given the chance to be part of a writing community and promote their books. State agencies may also offer short term residencies that pay the facilitator at least part of his fee as a grant to teach a creative writing class or moderate a creative writing seminar. The St. Charles Writers Group, sponsored by the St. Charles, Illinois, library, began its fifteen-year-long run as a two-week poetry workshop paid for in part by the Illinois Arts Council as part of their Short-Term Arists Residency (STAR) program.
    In addition, Poets and Writers magazine publishes the “Directory of Writers,” a book that lists hundreds of authors who you may contact to find out if they would be willing to help start or work with your group. These writers typically have extensive publishing records, or have a post-graduate degree in creative writing.

    What kind of group composition works for you?

    Groups can be of various sizes and can specialize in various kinds of writing. Smaller groups may find it easier to cover more material per writer at a two to four hour session and may find it easier to find an accommodating location (a bookstore, coffee house, buffet restaurant, or even an individual home or apartment). Small groups can more easily limit their membership (e.g., by requiring unanimity for invitations to join or stay after a probationary period) and operate with fewer rules and greater informality. Small groups are, however, more heavily impacted by a single individual’s schedule/availability and may provide fewer sources for cross-fertilization of leads for projects and for socialization. Conversely, larger groups need to limit the length of submissions, find a larger facility to meet in, and require more rules and management. While you can receive a broader range of comments and reactions, it can sometimes be difficult to give every piece submitted and every person critiquing it adequate time and attention. Most groups (other than online) range from four to twenty-five regular members.
    If you write only in one particular genre or produce only one type of written product (e.g., screenplays), it may make sense to seek out a group which specializes in what you do. Some groups, like a college or community college class, focus solely on novels or short stories or poetry or screenplays. Some specialize in children’s books or mysteries or memoirs or science fiction or horror. This specialization can provide high levels of insight within the designated field, but precludes the advantages that can be gained from a group which has diverse writing interests, styles, and genres. While sometimes comments from outside your target demographic may be off the mark, sometimes they can be quite useful. Your potential readership out there in the great wide world may not have as much specialized knowledge in your chosen niche as you do, so you may not always realize when a passage is unclear. Novelists can learn much about dialogue from playwrights and much about lyrical description from poets.

    Don’t forget, too, that you learn as much or more from commenting on other people’s writing as you do from them commenting on yours, so seeing a variety of techniques and styles and genres can lead to unexpected insights. Simply put, you can learn from critiquing others because when things like run-on sentences, unnecessary adverbs, and awkward shifts in point-of-view bother you as you read, you may realize you have similar issues in your own writing. Finally, writers outside your chosen genre may be able to pass on tips and information they come across as to open anthology calls, agents looking for clients, and the like. Don’t limit your networking to people who are in competition with you for the same projects. One sign of a good and healthy writing workshop is how eager the members are to pass along information, such as local readings, contests, etc.

    What logistics are important for meetings?

    Regularity of meeting dates not only allows people to schedule around sessions, even far in advance, but also gets everyone in the group in a regular habit of writing new work, submitting it to the group, and critiquing others’ manuscripts. Frequency of meeting is often dependent on the size and number of items critiqued from session to session. There needs to be enough time between meetings for participants to read and critique everything they receive from others, plus have time to write something themselves to submit, while still keeping their day job and have time for family and friends. But remember, it’s not just the number of submissions to review that matters, it is the length of those submissions. Reviewing four or five submissions of five to seven thousand words each takes just as much time as fifteen submissions of two thousand words or less.

    The location of your meeting should be conducive to frank discussion (critiquing erotica in the children’s section of the local chain bookstore is not generally a good idea), comfortable for the long sessions that may occur, quiet enough that no one needs to shout to be heard, and inexpensive enough not to be a burden on the group or the individuals in it. Tables facilitate the taking of notes and the ability to organize and access documents readily as the discussion moves from submission to submission.

    An optimum time for meetings is between two and three hours. More makes the meeting a chore, itself, and increases the need for liquid refreshment and breaks. Less than that means little is accomplished, especially if there is a social or networking component in addition to any lesson and critiquing. Having a nearby place to go for food or drinks after the meeting can be a way to encourage socializing within the group without eating up much of your meeting time. It also allows those who have more time and want to have discussions of particular submissions in greater depth to do so.
    Should membership in the group be open or closed? While this decision may be dictated by your venue (libraries and other public buildings sometimes require open membership as a condition of being allocated meeting space), it can also have important implications on group dynamics and even the longevity of the group, itself. If your group is going to admit adult material that is R or even X-rated, it would be advisable to limit membership to those over 18 or 21-years-old. If, however, you want to include family members or you want to encourage high school or even elementary school-aged boys and girls, the no-age restriction will invite a distinctly different dialogue and tenor when discussing manuscripts.

    However your group is defined regarding membership will factor in determining its personality. An open membership policy for a group held in the children’s section of a library will alter radically from an over-21 membership meeting at a Starbucks or the local pub. Remember that when you join a group, you either consciously or unconsciously begin writing with them in mind as your audience—or at least one of your audiences. It helps to be connected with a group you both admire and respect, for only such a feeling will produce your best participation and output. Your novel about World War I trench warfare may not be intended for the seventh grader who’s into high school vampire novels. There’s nothing that will decrease your group’s numbers faster than when members feel they have no interest in what other people are writing. We have seen poets leave our group occasionally when they feel overwhelmed with an overabundance of novelists and memoirists.

    What activities are appropriate for a writing group? Obviously, critiquing one another’s work is one of the main purposes for a writing group, along with providing moral support and networking. Other activities and exercises, however, can provide writing instruction and practice and encourage group members. For example, free-writing can be a way to loosen up your writing skills and banish writers bloc. In a free-write, everyone writes for two to five minutes based on a suggested phrase, sentence completion, topic, picture, situation, or other prompt. The goal is to simply start writing and keep going, without planning, editing, or revising, so as to free the creative part of the brain from the limiting, logical side. Then, anyone willing to do so may take turns reading what they have written to the group. While we wouldn’t advise making a steady diet of free-writing, it can be a good exercise, and can teach you about interpreting things in creative and unexpected ways. Giving your mind free range for two or three minutes conjures up thoughts and memories held prisoner to your conscious mind, and proves the dictum of one writer that to find out what you think about something, just write about it. We have seen many products of four-minute free writes turned into poems, short stories, and even the seedling of a novel.

    As long as we are talking about reading aloud what you’ve written, another activity that can be appropriate for a writing group is to have a session where members read from things they have written, not only to the group, but to friends, family, and even the public at large. Not only can this be a good way to help integrate your writing friends and your non-writing friends, but it can be a good opportunity to show others you are a writer. While reading your work aloud to others is, in our view, not the best way to get a comprehensive and detailed critique of your writing (although some groups do that—more on that topic later), participating in a public reading is good practice in developing good public speaking and marketing skills that you will need as a published author, and helps develop your confidence as a writer. As a bonus, reading your work aloud can make you cognizant of awkward phrases, weak punctuation, and other minor defects in your prose and poetry that you might gloss over when reading it silently to yourself.
    Announcements are also a good way to get encouragement and recognition for everything from making your desired word-count for the week, to submitting a story, finding an agent, or getting a work accepted for publication. This segment also focuses attention on sharing leads and networking opportunities, local programs of interest to writers, and helping to bond the members together as a group.

    Particularly if you have a facilitator (either from within or without the group) with a writing degree or professional background (i.e., writing instructor, published author, etc.) willing to take the lead, a lecture, presentation, or group discussion of a topic of interest to writers can give your writing group a component mere critiquing does not alone provide. Topics might include those of interest to group members. If mainly fiction writers, presentations on character arc, plot structure, point of view, publishing information (how to write a query letter, how to find an agent, and so forth), opening hooks, and flashbacks can be not only informative, but can generate discussion and a sharing of best practices.

    If your group does not have a designated leader, try taking turns presenting topics. Doing a little research on the Internet and reading pertinent magazines, such as The Writer and Poets and Writers can be instructive, as well as serve as an opportunity for you to investigate an aspect of writing you might have heard about, but never had the chance to find out much about, like how to write “formal poetry,” or how does “flash fiction” differ from a regular short story.

    Coming up with topics is easy as brainstorming with group members. If stumped for ideas, look at recent copies of writing magazines, such as the ones mentioned above; these are full of articles by professional writers and academics who offer practical how-to instruction and invaluable inspiration for both the novice and experienced writer. Before each meeting, make sure all the members are aware of the topic under consideration so they can either bring their own insights to the table, or they might want to do some research on their own so they can feel more involved.

    Another wonderful way of engaging the group and breaking up what might seem like a routine after a while is to invite a local author or publisher to address your group. Watch the newspapers for readings at bookstores and coffee houses; most authors will be honored and delighted that you asked them to visit your group, especially if you encourage them to bring their books or chapbooks to sell to your members. You can even enlist more members this way by letting local papers know of the visitation, and invite the public to join in.

    What are the right rites for critiquing?

    Some writing groups offer their critiques immediately after the authors read their submissions aloud to the group. While this approach saves paper (no copies needed), the critiques may be colored more by the performance strengths or weaknesses of the reader rather than the integrity of the work itself. We favor a system in which writers submit hard copies of their manuscripts for critique. Manuscripts should be double-spaced (to allow room for comments) in an easy to read font of at least 12 point type. Each submission should be marked at the top with the author’s name, the medium (short story, novel chapter, or whatever) and genre (fantasy, scifi, mystery, memoir, etc.) and any other information needed. Authors should produce and bring with them sufficient copies of their manuscript so that all of the members of the group can take a copy home with them. Then the members can read the submissions at their leisure, in conditions an actual reader of a published work would experience, and mark the draft with everything from line editing corrections (grammar, typos, syntax, etc.) to marginal notations about plot, pace, clarity, implausibility, perspective, voice, and much, much more. Each reviewer signs his name legibly on the marked copy (so there can be follow-up if a suggestion is unclear and so those reviewing are encouraged to be constructive, rather than mean-spirited) and brings it along to the next meeting. At that meeting, each work is then discussed (more on that below), and then the marked copies are passed over to the author for him to review and consider as he works on revising and re-writing his material at home.

    One key thing to remember in reacting to readers’ comments is that you are still the author of your project. Consider comments carefully, but choose which suggestions are appropriate for your voice, your story, your characters, your theme, and your target audience. If only one reader suggests a particular revision of your manuscript, say shortening a long flashback, you might question the wisdom of doing so. However, if three or more people all agree the flashback is more of an unnecessary digression rather than what you intended if looked at objectively, then you might do well to do what one writer called “kill your darlings.”

    Because the quality of a writing workshop depends on the participation of its members, all are encouraged to comment on the work being discussed. What members look for in the work before them is not what is done “right” or “wrong,” but what works and what doesn’t, pointing to the manuscript for supporting evidence. To say only positive things about a manuscript helps the author as little as harping on its negatives. In critiquing a manuscript, members should refer to the manuscript, not the author. Instead of saying, “You didn’t start the story well,” one might say, “The story might involve the reader more effectively if the beginning started off with a scene involving conflict between two characters, not a description of the mountains.”

    While the group is discussing a manuscript, we suggest its author does not speak; the idea is to let the author know how the manuscript affected its readers, not for the members to be influenced by the author’s intentions. After the group finishes its discussion of the work, the author may ask questions about the piece that were not addressed, or respond to questions the group has raised. All discussion should focus on the manuscript; an author should avoid giving a personal history of how the piece was written or what his intentions were.

    Members also need to remember that written comments on people’s manuscripts are intended for the private use of the author only. Any public use of praiseworthy critiques that might be used as blurbs on a self-published book constitutes plagiarism unless permission has been asked for and granted.
    Understand that not every member is going to be able to put as much work into critiquing every submission every session as they might like, but as long as everyone makes a legitimate attempt to give as much as they expect to get from others, no one should feel guilty or pressured about their contribution level. Members of the group should not feel guilty showing up for the workshop without a manuscript to critique; often the company of writers is what’s needed for the author, much like any other support group helps the participant feel connected, rather than working in isolation.
    In addition to the mechanics of critiquing, the tone of the critique sessions and the group can be critical to the usefulness of the session. Too simplistic and effusively complimentary, and you get no constructive criticism from the group—you might as well go to your mother for comments. Too nitpicky and harsh (whether motivated by jealously, an effort to show-off, or simple mean-spiritedness) and you may become discouraged, defensive, or resentful. One good idea is to always begin by praising something in the work, no matter how small or large. A perfectly chosen word or phrase or a terrific descriptive passage can set the right tone to temper later critiques about problem areas.

    How do you handle group dynamics and disruptive or confrontational members?

    Keeping a smooth-running writing group is easy if all its members are on the same page, so to speak, when it comes to how much to say, what to say, and how to say it. Inevitably, however, someone will want to take off on a tangent, tell a personal story irrelevant to the group’s business, or just be downright nasty, brutish, and long-winded. In these cases, it helps to have a group leader who everyone agreed has the authority to curtail commentary or even ask the offender not to return to the group if after a few warnings the behavior continues. We suggest doing what’s necessary to cut off inappropriate commentary as respectfully and concisely as possible, by saying something like, “We need to stay on task here. Perhaps at the break or at the end of the meeting you can talk to the author about this matter.” It always helps to reinforce the rules you should lay down initially by saying, “In this group, we try to make our comments as constructive as possible.” After the meeting, speak to the person privately, so as not to embarrass or shame him, and go over the rules for engagement, which we suggest writing down and handing out to all new members.

    One way to encourage cohesiveness is to constantly remind each other how the strength and utility of the group is dependent upon the conviction and commitment of its members. No one leader or facilitator, no matter how knowledgeable, well-read, funny or charismatic, can make a choir out of a bunch of people who don’t want to sing. A group’s success depends on the energy and dedication that each individual brings to bringing the group together.

    What are the downsides of a writing group? Though the downsides are few, they need to be addressed and acknowledged. First, the time you spend reading and critiquing other people’s work takes away time you can (should?) be spending on your work. Even though analyzing other people’s manuscripts can be instructive, sharpening the attention you pay to problems in your own writing, the fact is that you’re using the logical/critical part of your mind, not exercising the creative/imaginative part so crucial to original composition.

    Second, listening to people criticize what you thought was second only to Tolstoy, Salinger or Grisham may deflate your ego to the point you stop writing. If you tend to be overly sensitive to others’ opinions of your work, you need to frequent a group that offers mostly praise and encouragement, and shun groups that to you might seem needlessly negative.

    Third, if the group requires payment for making copies, for paying a facilitator, or for meeting space, costs might tend to add up and prove prohibitive. In fact, you may already be paying for postage and for mailing in submissions, for books and/or magazines on writing, for a professional proofreader or typist, or any other number of expenses. Be sure to ask when first inquiring about the group if any costs are incurred by group members.
    Where can I get more information? The most valuable information regarding where to find or how to join a writing group has been covered in the section, “Where can I find a Writing Group?” earlier in this essay. However, if those avenues lead to a dead end, that is, if no group materializes from a search of your local libraries, community colleges, park districts, local bookstores or national chain bookstores or state-sponsored programs, you’re still left with the Internet. It may take several trials and errors before connecting with a group that meets your needs, but you certainly won’t complain you can’t find any. Adding specifics to your search (e.g., “Writing group for children’s books” or “Writing group for detective novels”) can help winnow down the hits, but even a simple Google search for “writers groups online” leads immediately to http://www.squidoo.com/onlinewritersgroupsreview, a site which lists and reviews various kinds of online sites, with handy links to the sites. While we can’t say whether such reviews are accurate or inaccurate, this example does show how much you can quickly find about online sites. Just remember to carefully research the reputation of and details about online groups just like you would research material for your writing, itself. Beware of online scams—red flags include high-fee contests, requests for too much personal information, guarantees of publication, and the like.
    Finally, The Writing Group Book, an anthology edited by Lisa Rosenthal (Chicago Review Press, 2003), is an invaluable resource book. National and international writers cover every aspect of the writing group process with practical, informational, and inspirational essays, from “Sailing the Cyber-Seas” to “Moving Beyond Meetings: Having Fun and Adding Quality with Group Events.”

    Conclusion:

    You are an adult. If your writing group does not provide what you need to get from it, there’s no reason to go. It’s an activity that is directed at keeping you writing and keeping you connected, not an end of itself, so beware of letting the group (or an addiction to multiple writing groups) sap energy and time away from productive writing. A writing group should teach you useful things, encourage you to write, and provide networking opportunities and useful leads, as well as support your growth and morale. It should be beneficial and fun—more like a trip to the zoo and less like a trip to the dentist. If your first writing group doesn’t provide you with what you want or need to get out of the experience, try another and another until you find one that is just right for you. Sooner or later, you’ll find one whose personality is a fit for yours.

    Richard Holinger’s writing has received three Pushcart Prize Award nominations. His poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and book reviews have been published in several literary periodicals, including The Iowa Review, WHR, Other Voices, ACM, Cream City Review and The Southern Review. Degrees include a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Illinois at Chicago. He received an Illinois Arts Council Artists Grant for poetry. He teaches English at Marmion Academy, a college prep school in Aurora, writes a bi-monthly newspaper column, and is founder and facilitator of the St. Charles Writers Group, St. Charles, Illinois.

    Donald J. Bingle is the author of more than fifty short stories and five books in the science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, mystery, steampunk, romance, memoir, and comedy genres. He is a member of SFWA, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, the International Thriller Writers, the GenCon Writers Symposium and the St. Charles Writers Group. His latest solo book, Frame Shop, is about murder in a suburban writers’ group. See more at http://www.donaldjbingle.com.

  3. First, a disclosure: Right now, I don’t belong to a critique group, with the possible exception of belonging to my readers, because they’re never afraid to express their thoughts. When I have “shopped” for groups to join, however, I’ve tried to consider one golden rule. All members of a writers group must be simpatico, with the individual members of the group getting along with the group as a whole.

    Critique groups should have a common core, and its members should enjoy writing and reading the same kinds of novels and stories. If you find the members of a group don’t share the same tastes, don’t hesitate to pack up your toys and find another group to play with.

    A group’s size also has a lot to do with its feeling of oneness. Very often, when a critique group becomes too large, one of two things happens. Either people clams up, feeling they don’t have adequate time to express their thoughts, or they allow a couple of the other participants to hog all the time.

    If you can, try to find a group whose members are writers of varying experience. Beginning writers have good ideas, too. Also, find a group that will challenge you to be your best without being onerous. You probably don’t want people scold you over a single dangling participle, unless you’re a grammar masochist.

    Finally, read everything you can. I’ve found the best way to learn about writing is to read other books.

    And did I mention to have fun, too? Nothing is worthwhile unless you have fun!

  4. Get used to the fact that your writing is not perfect, and you need the help of others.

    When looking for a Critique group, I think one of the first questions to ask yourself is: where do I need the most help? So for example, if you need the most help with editing or editing techniques, then perhaps joining a group with a few English teachers on board, or maybe someone who’s in the profession directly may be a good move.In other words, there should be others who are well versed in the art of editing.
    I would suggest joining a group that will help you improve your weakest links. Also, some groups will ask that you only submit one or just a few pages to critique. personally, I don’t like that. I don’t think it helps very much because it is difficult to give a honest critique or a full one, if you’ve only read a small portion of the story.
    Lastly, join a group with people who are honestly there to offer help, as they will also receive help, and not just there to talk up or promote their writings.

  5. I belong to two critique groups that meet every week. They are my most valuable ingredients to becoming published. I wouldn’t submit anything to an agent or publisher without having them read it first. One of the main things to look for is compatibility. Do you respect each other and their writing? Did they join to have one piece critique and then never to show up again? Consistency is vital. Every member of the group should be there because they want to improve their writing and are willing to help others. It’s not one-sided where you get all the benefits and not give back. Besides, you learn as much by critiquing others as you do getting critiqued.
    I’ve been with my two groups for over fifteen years. One group writes only mysteries. Several are published. The second group is a mix but they offer a different perspective. There are rules. We read our submissions aloud and everyone gets a copy. There should be a time limit for feedback. Don’t dwell on one point for a long time. Try to offer a solution for the critique.
    Lastly, attend even when you don’t have something to read. Your fellow members need you.

  6. Well, it looks like of the group here, I’m the one most wary of getting into a situation where the comments on your work are coming from people who are unqualified to make them, or trying to make your work like theirs. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that the comment makers aren’t far better human beings than I am, just that when it comes to criticizing writing, they may not be the best for you. My personal experience with writing “groups” has been that comments are uneven, or contradictory, and possibly damaging. But I do believe that good readers are crucial. So let me throw in one more possibility. Good readers don’t necessarily have to be fellow writers. They can also be fans of your genre, who love to read the kind of story that you write. They may not be able to produce it. But they may be wonderful at analyzing it. They know when something doesn’t work. They’re big fans when something does. Don’t discount people you know who are readers, not writers.

    Also, listen to the little quiet voice in your head when that voice tells you that a critic doesn’t know what they are talking about. That small voice is usually right. It’s the writers’ best friend. It’s hard to hear, especially when it tells you that something you just wrote may stink. But it is often the wisest member of your group, however that group may have come to be.
    All good writers hear the little voice. It’s your instinct. If you don’t have it, woe is you. If you do, let it guide you.

    1. Having good instincts is essential, both when writing and when evaluating the comments of others. Non-writing readers can be great; after all, most books target readers, not writers. A cadre of willing and helpful beta readers is a great resource for a writer.

      On the other hand, it can be tough to find readers willing to critique a project as it is being produced, rather than once it is completely written (though rewrites may remain to be done). And, an experienced writer can talk to you about meandering p.o.v., book-end structure, nested flashbacks, three act vs. five act structure, unreliable narrators, how to misdirect meta-readers re your reveals, and attribution locations and alternatives.

      Best to have both.

  7. Perhaps I’m not as wary as you, James. However, I like your advice to “listen to the little quiet voice in your head when that voice tells you that a critic doesn’t know what they are talking about.” Every book and story is a reflection of the writer.

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