Critique groups – when do I join?

I’d like to know your opinion on writers belonging to a critique group and at what phase of writing a manuscript, you think this is, or is not beneficial? I’m more interested in learning your thoughts about being critiqued by a group of professional writers, and at what phase, rather than a group that may not have the necessary expertise.

Great question. The first part asks about what phase of writing a manuscript will yield the most benefit. To me, this isn’t a question of where an author is in terms of completing their manuscript, but rather the talent and experience of the writer. I’ve seen many authors with complete manuscripts who wouldn’t benefit from a crit group because they simply didn’t know enough about writing to appreciate the crits.

For example, if I say, “you have three POV switches in the first chapter and the writing is all tell and no show,” I expect the author to understand what I’m talking about and have the chops to go in with a heat-seeking missle. When an author comes back to me and says, “huh? Whatsa POV switch, and whatzis about tell and show?” I roll my eyes and suggest they take time to learn their craft. Putting metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper does not a writer make. You gotta know what you’re doing.

It’s like the surgical intern whose experience hasn’t gone beyond throwing some stitches into a kid’s head. He can’t be expected to perform heart surgery. He could be surrounded by all the best surgeons in the world to talk him through the surgery, but he still won’t be able to  perform the tasks because he doesn’t know enough.

As to how far along in your manuscript – I think one should be fairly well into it. If you only have three chapters, what needs critiquing, yanno? Whatever sins you’ve created in the beginning will probably be consistent throughout, but at least you have more meat to work with. I suppose the first thing you should ask yourself is what do you hope to accomplish by joining a crit group? Are you there to fix niggly things that have been dogging you for months? Are you afraid your story setup in ch. 2 is dull and lifeless and you need other eyes to give you a different perspective? Define you reasons for being there, and this will keep you focused on the job at hand.

People tire very quickly of holding the hand of someone who doesn’t know enough. It takes a long time to  provide a thoughtful crit, and critters will stop reviewing the author who lacks focus or direction – or enough writing chops.

So the next question is, “how will I know when I’m ready to look for a good crit group?” Simple, you have a solid foundation about writing. You feel confident that you’re ready to be critiqued and will understand the feedback and, most importantly, you’ll recognize a good, solid critique. You’ll have the confidence to know whether the comments are valid, and you’ll know how to go in and fix the problem. Conversely, you’ll know when a critique, while good, may not be appropriate for your manuscript.It’s just as important to know what to ignore as it is what to accept. I’ve seen authors lose their minds over critiques because there are differing opinions, and they try to adopt ALL those changes. Ya can’t do it. Before too long, the work is no longer yours, but a conglomeration of other people’s opinions.

Which crit group?

There are a ton of them out there – lotta junk, lotta great ones. Look for ones with a good reputation. But be mindful; just because a crit group is populated with “professionals” doesn’t mean they are necessarily all that helpful. I’ve heard of some that are brutal to the point of cruelty. Others can be very snobby and operate like the high school popularity contest. Others are fabulous and very helpful.

The good ones have a submission process. For example, I belong to Litopia [owned by British super agent Peter Cox], and I had to submit a piece of my writing to the moderators. They base their selection on the author’s skill – and they’re very good at what they do. If they’re proficient enough, this gives the moderators confidence that the author will be able to understand the crits like a true professional. Because of that, the crits are generally very solid and illuminating. And funnily enough, critiquing others makes you a better a writer as well.

Thanks to GutsyWriter for the great question!

7 Responses to Critique groups – when do I join?

  1. domynoe says:

    The good ones have a submission process.

    These groups tend to look for advanced writers, which doesn’t help the newer writer at all. While there is more risk in more open groups, there also tends to be more variety and, I think, a broader learning experience.

    Dreaming In Ink Writers Workshop has been around for 7 years now and was founded with the goal to help ALL writers at all experience levels. We’ve found the mix of experience levels to be a good thing for all our members. And we don’t charge for membership, at least not money. What we do require is a certain level of participation, but at the same time, we let each writer find his or her own path in their growth.

    Maybe we’ve just been lucky, but we’ve found that bringing in newbie writers to be a blessing. Yes, they have a lot to learn, but they also have a lot to teach us and to remind us. They may not be able to crit with the same focus as another experienced writer, but they can show us how readers will react to our writing, which is just as valuable.

  2. These groups tend to look for advanced writers, which doesn’t help the newer writer at all.
    Yes, this is true and goes back to my earlier statement about when to join a crit group. It’s very hard to critique a work when the author is still struggling with the basic aspects of writing. How can one effectively critique the storyline when the author doesn’t understand show vs. tell, POV switches, adverb usage, how to use commas, and dialog tags? It becomes an English lesson rather than a crit session.

    There are many great crit groups out there, and writers need to look for the ones that fit their current needs. Once a writer becomes more proficient, they will want tougher in-depth crits.

  3. domynoe says:

    It’s very hard to critique a work when the author is still struggling with the basic aspects of writing. How can one effectively critique the storyline when the author doesn’t understand show vs. tell, POV switches, adverb usage, how to use commas, and dialog tags?

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, because we’ve never had a problem working with our new writers on this kind of stuff. It makes the crits broader in what they’re looking at, yes, but it teaches the new writer while reinforcing the lessons in ourselves. And in the process, they learn it’s all in the revisions and they get the guidance they need to work through them and make a better story.

    I will admit that tech issues (commas and such) do make it harder for me to crit, but we’ve always had other members who can take up that slack. Like I said, maybe DII has been really lucky, but the mix has generally worked for us.

  4. I’m sure writers will definitely give your group a closer look based on the information you’ve offered. That’s what it’s all about, baby! Education.

    Making a decision comes down to the writer’s intent as to what they expect to gain from being a part of a crit group. Personally, I would want a higher level of critiques because I’m at the point in my writing where I need a sharper, more seasoned eye. Others may feel differently. The point of my post was to present options based on perspective. That’s why I’m happy you joined in the conversation.

  5. DOT says:

    I did once belong to a critgroup but the quality of feedback was very iffy.

    One aspect people fail to recognise is there is a cultural difference between different nationalities and different genres, and you never know who you are dealing with on the web.

    What I write – and I am yet an unpublished author but have written professionally all my life – is tailored for a particular audience, so someone who is heavily into sci-fi or whatever isn’t going to get what I am writing and will have no means of judging it effectively or contributing constructively.

    I have chosen to have three people crit my book: they all know me, downside, but they are also all literary people who are not afraid of pointing out my faults; in fact, I have warned them if they cannot find something which is unsatisfying they will receive a visit from a group of unsavoury characters who regard liverlilied whimps as gourmets do foie gras – a treat for breakfast. They are also all intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable about books, upside.

    My advice is, if you are a beginner, write. Then some more. Then some more until you are tired of the written word and your head hurts.

    If you are a writer, have confidence in your ability. Submit your work to people to critique whose opinion you trust and who you know but allow them to be critical – never, ever say ‘Ah! but you don’t get what I am trying to convey’.

    Don’t destroy your confidence or your own critical balance by allowing all and sundry to comment.

  6. Crowe says:

    I think submissions processes have very little to do with how ‘new’ a writer is. At Litopia, we’re looking for signs of promise rather than signs of experience. A new writer with talent can easily produce a good enough piece to be accepted.

    I’ve been a member of two RL writers’ groups and didn’t stay long in either. One was led by a fairly well-known writer who was great in terms of feedback but allowed the group to be marred by one member who brought a slightly revised version of the same dreadful chapter every single week and dominated about half of each session with the damn thing. After 4 weeks of that, I left.

    The second group I joined largely consisted of people using creative writing as therapy. It was more like a counselling session than a writing group, with people presenting very personal tales of woe and bursting into tears and so on. It wasn’t the group for me, that’s for sure 😀

    Litopia rocks, though.

  7. I think submissions processes have very little to do with how ‘new’ a writer is.
    Quite right, Crowie. This is a point I failed to mention, so thank you. Just because a writer is “new” doesn’t mean they can’t write well. These are folks who know enough to understand the critiques. But, again, writing groups scratch all sort of itches and that’s why I think it’s a good idea to define exactly what you’re looking for in a crit group, be it therapy, a collective big shoulder, or hard-hitting crits.

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