We love them, we hate them, we write funny blog posts about them, but the fact is that a good critique group can be a writer’s best friend with literary benefits. For indie authors, a writing group can also be one of your best professional resources. For example, I have one of my group members to thank for connecting me with a top notch copy/line editor who was willing to work within my limited budget.
How do you find a good group? Where do you find a good group? That depends on where you live and/or how comfortable you are with online communities. I like real life, meat-space groups, because a) I like the dynamics of live discussion and b) I spend a lot of too much time alone with my laptop, so I want to see human faces in 3D with surround sound. To find real life groups, I suggest you ask at the local library, book store, or arts center.
I’ve been fortunate enough to belong to three different critique groups, all of which were a perfect fit for me at the time. I’ll let someone else tell you how to find a good group, one that suits you, your genre, and your level of writing skill. I’m here to give you some suggestions to make the best of your group once you’ve found it.
1. Show Up
That sounds obvious, right? But what if you’re not currently working on anything? What if your life is busy and you’d much rather spend that Sunday afternoon catching up on chores or missed episodes of your favourite TV series? What if the muse starts singing ten minutes before you have to leave for the meeting and you absolutely must write down your genius before it slips away?
Look, we all get busy now and then but if you are serious about your writing then you need to be serious about all aspects of the craft. Strong groups are a result of member dedication and there’s as much to be learned from critiquing as there is from accepting feedback from others.
Make group meetings a priority and set a goal not to miss a meeting unless you absolutely cannot be there on the specified date and time.
2. Be Engaged
If you think your fellow group members can’t tell that you read their work the previous evening, during commercial breaks, and scribbled together your notes right before the meeting, don’t kid yourself. Reading for the purpose of critiquing takes time, energy, and focus and that will show in your comments. If you expect a thorough critique, you must return the favour.
I like to read all pieces I critique three times, in this order:
- Read #1 - As a reader, taking in the entire piece without making any notes.
- Read #2 – As a stylistic/structural editor. Time to try and break down what’s working and what’s not and why.
- Read #3 - As a copy/line editor. Details, details, details!
If there are meetings when you genuinely do not have time to give your fellow writers’ work the time you should, be courteous and tell them so. Don’t make it a habit.
3. Keep Learning
In a good writer’s group, you’ll learn lots of new things about the craft and business of writing, but your education should not stop there. You’re part of a collective, and that collective works best when all the members are constantly acquiring new skills and ideas.
A stagnant group—where the learning curve has flattened, and everyone’s heard every nugget of wisdom their fellow members have to offer, and no one bothers to learn anything new outside the group—is a waste of time.
Read books, go to workshops and conferences, watch webinars, take classes, join literary organizations, and never stop acquiring knowledge about your craft. Then, share the best of what you learn with your group. If all or most of your members do this, you’ll create a super-charged learning environment.
4. Be Shameless
This one’s a bit tricky. Over the years, I have gone outside of group meetings to ask my fellow members for advice on everything from how to get an agent to proper comma placement. I am a prolific writer, which means I will submit as many pages for a meeting as I can reasonably get away with. And I almost always submit something. The way I see it, twelve times a year I have the undivided attention of intelligent and insightful professional writers and editors and I am going to make the most of that opportunity, damn it!
But hang on a minute. I’m shameless in my acquisition of knowledge, but I’m not pushy. There’s a big difference. When I say “be shameless” I mean “put aside your ego”, not “put yourself ahead of everyone else”.
When you know you’re asking for a lot, ask politely, and always with the clear understanding that any or all group members can say no. (Accept “no” graciously, by the way, or no one will believe you when you tell them it’s okay to say that). Also, make sure you give back when it’s your turn, even if it means you have to give up your own writing time. And don’t start making demands at your first meeting. Get to know your group and always be respectful with your requests.
5. Thicken That Skin
Honesty can hurt. There are ways to be kind and honest at the same time, and most of your fellow members will strive for that, but I guarantee you will get your feelings bruised at least once, (probably unintentionally), during a critique. The worst thing you can do is dwell on it. Without honesty, a writer’s group is just a bunch of people sitting around, talking in circles, and patting each other on the back.
You cannot get better if you do not learn what you are doing wrong. Group members must know that they can tell you what you are doing wrong without worrying that you’re going to fall to pieces, take it personally, or hold a grudge. Trust me, it’s not personal, and you’re going to be treated far less tenderly by agents, editors, publishers, and readers.
Try to think of writing as a sport. I pick tennis! You want to make it to the US Open? Well, you have to get out on the court, let your coach watch you play, and then listen to her advice. When your tennis coach says, “You’re not bending your knees and following through”, she is not attacking you or belittling you, and she’s not really saying, “Wow, are you ever crappy! Why the hell are you even here? Go home, loser!” No. What she’s doing is pointing out an aspect of your game that needs work in order to make you a better player.
Think of your fellow members as your coaches. Coach = help = GOOD!
5. Know When to Go
Sometimes you’ll outgrow a writer’s group. It happens. I’ve read that you should always be in a group that is slightly above your skill level. I disagree. I think a good way to measure your compatibility with a group is simply by how much you’re learning at every meeting. If three meetings pass and you feel you have learned little or nothing to improve your writing, then it’s probably time to bid a fond farewell, or at least to start looking for a new group.
Be kind when you leave and remember to thank everyone for what they’ve given you. It is a gift.
More resources on writing groups:
Can Critique Groups Do More Harm than Good? ~ Kristen Lamb
The Top 10 Worst Types of Critique Partners ~ Donna Cooner
Finding a good writing group can take time, patience, and persistence. Even then, it may not be your “thing”. But if you do find a good group and want to get the most out of it, be engaged, active, respectful, appreciate what you have, and try to balance honesty with compassion.
“We are not put on this earth to see through one another, we are put on this earth to see one another through.” ~ Gloria Vanderbilt.
Are you in a writer’s group? What have you learned from the experience? Not part of a writer’s group? Why didn’t it work for you?