The Art and Necessity of Critique, Part 1:
How to find (or create) a writers’ critique group
If you ever see one of my books that doesn’t mention my two writers’ groups in the acknowledgements, it’s because I didn’t get the acknowledgements turned in to the publisher in time. My writing groups have a profound impact on everything I write, I love them dearly, and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them. But before you run out to search for a writers’ group of your own, there are a couple of things you ought to consider:
Am I ready to be critiqued?
When I first started writing, when I was struggling to develop my own voice and feeling insecure about getting ideas down on paper, I wasn’t yet ready to be critiqued. Before you go looking for critical feedback (as opposed to someone who loves you and thinks that everything you write is brilliant) you need to reach a place where you can look at your work, realize that there are things that could be improved, and that someone else might see them more clearly than you do. You also have to be ready to evaluate comments, accept them when they’re right, but also reject them when they’re wrong.
This is one of the reasons you should always try to get multiple opinions on your work. If you have only one, or a few critiquers, you tend to pay too much attention to their opinions. If you have multiple critiquers, you can listen to them argue—and if they all see the same problem you can be pretty sure that you do have a problem, even if your critiquers disagree on how to solve it. Finally, don’t underrate the value of someone who loves you and loves everything you write—they have their uses.
How do I find the right group?
These days there are endless sources for online critique groups—if that’s what you’re looking for, you can just get on the web and hunt. Personally, I prefer the face-to-face give and take of a group that meets in the flesh. If you’re looking for one of those, any local writer’s organization might be able to put you in touch with fellow writers. I found The Wild Women of the West and a few Great Guys through the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—and the grandly named Denver Science Fiction Writers Guild (there are only five of us) through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop—which sadly, no longer exists. I’ve also heard of people finding/creating writers’ groups out of writing classes, and even on library bulletin boards.
OK, that’s how you find a group, but how do you find the right group?
Oh, well that’s harder. You might have to go through several groups to connect with the right one, and the group that’s right for me might not be the group that’s right for you. But I can tell you some things I think you should look for:
The right blend of support and feedback. A group that does nothing but critique might as well be a business meeting. Part of the purpose of a writer’s group is support; people with whom you can share news, rejoice in triumph, commiserate in failure, and just plain talk shop. On the other hand a writers’ group that offers nothing but support might as well be a social club. The main reason you’re there is to figure out what’s wrong with your work and how to make it right.
You should also look for a group that offers the right blend of truth and necessary tact. If you leave a critique session ready to tear up your story and take up bricklaying, then you’re involved with the wrong group. On the other hand, you should leave with the knowledge of exactly where your story needs improvement, and at least some idea of how to set about it.
And finally, don’t overlook the option of creating a group instead of joining an established one. If you organize it yourself, with a couple of like-minded friends, you probably stand a good chance of getting a group that works for you. There are many practical concerns that a new group has to work out, such as where and how often to meet, whether to read work aloud or submit copies in advance. But that kind of thing is something each group has to decide for itself, and if the group produces the right kind of feedback to help you with your writing, that’s what really matters.
Though I will add one quick point—I’ve encountered a number of groups that insist that all members possess more or less the same level of experience. They have potential members submit a writing sample, or even require professional publication. That’s up to the group, of course, but my feeling is that they’re overlooking the fact that even a beginning writer may still be a skilled reader. And if they’re made welcome, and hang around for a year or two, their writing will probably improve. One of my writing groups is nearing its 20th anniversary, the other is past its 25th—and both these groups welcome anyone who is can give and take criticism without coming apart at the seams.
Coming in Winter ‘03/’04: The Art and Necessity of Critique, Part 2—How to give and take criticism without coming apart at the seams.