Despite our seemingly constant online interconnectedness, the act of writing—the physical part of sitting down at the computer or notebook and translating ideas into words—is a lonely, isolating endeavor.
(Especially for those who work from home in PJs and stay up all night with the vampires and frequently miss the window of opportunity for showers. *Ahem* not to name names…)
Anyway, flying solo isn’t bad. It’s part of the process, and the alone time is necessary to creating unique and powerful stories. So I say, turn off your phone, ignore your loved ones, embrace the loneliness (and the stinkyness, if you’re so inclined), and write like mad.
But at some point, even if no one else is speaking to you because you’ve ignored them for so long and/or you’ve become olfactorially offensive, you’ve gotta show that manuscript to someone! Even a maniacal literary genius (an unavoidable combination, if you ask me) can’t write forever in a vacuum—not if he wants to be published or gain a readership beyond his dog. Seeking external feedback from writers and other industry professionals is critical to writing (or revising) a good book, and it’s critical to a writer’s longterm growth and development.
One of the best ways to seek that feedback—along with some much-needed moral support—is through writers’ critique groups. In addition to getting objective opinions and (hopefully) helpful advice on your own work, reviewing the work of your peers is a great way to inform and inspire your own writing.
I’m a huge advocate of critique partnerships, either one-on-one, in groups, or through workshops that offer both craft lessons and critiques. In the right hands, a writer can really hone her craft, learning from and supporting her peers and contributing to valuable discussions about writing and literature. In a strong group, the bonds she forms with her fellow writers may even extend beyond her early writing days into the agent search, publication, and beyond.
Conversely, the wrong group can be toxic, rife with jealousy and inertia, stressful, and wholly detrimental to the writing process. It can suck the creative energy from even the strongest writer or worse—discourage her from writing altogether.
Finding a good critique group or partner is a huge challenge, but a worthwhile and totally attainable one. Like the search for a literary agent, doctor, babysitter, or soul mate, you just need to do some homework (i.e. Google stalking, chatting, and reference checking) before jumping into a longterm relationship.
Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions
Whether you’re checking out an online or an in-person group, asking questions like these—either of the group moderator or of individual members—can reveal information about the group or partner’s working style and help determine whether you might be a good match. There are no guarantees for ultimate satisfaction, but the answers to some of these questions might make your initial decision a little easier:
- Is this a general writing group or does it focus on specific genres? Many groups are open to a broad category of writers such as “novelists” or “short story writers,” especially in smaller communities where there simply aren’t as many people. However, reading is subjective, and while an adult historical fiction writer may be able to offer suggestions on the basics of a contemporary YA romantic plot, she might not be familiar with the nuances of today’s popular YA fiction, or she may have preconceived notions about what the category means and how it “should be” written. Many of my YA workshop students have come from general novel workshops where adult fiction writers who don’t read or care for YA are unnecessarily critical or unhelpful, simply because they aren’t qualified to critique young adult fiction. That’s why I recommend finding a group of writers who are experienced in your specific genre or category—and by experienced, I mean writers who not only write in your genre, but who read it avidly. I’m always surprised to meet aspiring writers who simply don’t read (but I’m not surprised that these folks don’t make the best critiquers).
- How does the submission process work? You’ll want to find out how often and how much you’ll be expected or allowed to submit, and whether the group focuses on one member’s submission at a time or encourages a less structured everyone-submit-as-you-can dynamic. Also ask about the expected turn around time for giving and receiving feedback and the format in which feedback is given. Do members bring printed copies to in-person meetings? For online or email groups, do they mark up changes and comments in Word, respond directly in an email, or simply provide a summary of issues and suggested changes? How extensive is the feedback, generally speaking? Then ask yourself: Does this meet my needs? Can I commit to their schedule and format?
- How long have most of the group members been writing? Has anyone been published? Chances are you’ll seek out a group of writers with similar experience levels, where most everyone is on equal footing. However, if possible, look for a group with at least one or two writers who are more advanced than you so that you can learn from their experience, and one or two who are less experienced to offer fresh ideas and perspectives. A mixed group can balance experience, enthusiasm, and creativity nicely. Above all else, keep an open mind—all writers, regardless of experience level or publication credentials—can learn from one another if the environment is nurturing and positive.
- What are the goals of the writers in the group? Writers seeking traditional publication or looking to write as a full time career will have different expectations for and approaches to the writing and critique process than those who are writing as a hobby or for a school project. Look for writers with similar goals—you’ll have a mutual understanding of what’s at stake and what you’re all trying to achieve and you’ll be able to support each other through the various stages of the journey.
- Is there a group facilitator or moderator? Some groups use moderators to coordinate submission schedules and resolve member issues. If not, find out how the group handles situations such as hostile or negative members, scheduling issues, or members that consistently miss deadlines or skip critiques. This is your manuscript we’re talking about—probably your dreams and quite possibly your career as well. The last thing you need is to be stuck with a group that allows toxic or dead-weight members to linger, dragging the rest of the group down with them.
- Can we do a trial period before committing to a long-term relationship? By participating in a round or two of feedback on a trial basis (ideally where you have an opportunity to both submit a piece for critique and to evaluate other members’ writing) you can get a feel for the group dynamic and critiquing skill level before fully diving in.
It’s Not You, It’s Me. And You. Okay, Mostly It’s You.
You might find an ideal critique partner or group that exceeds your every hope and expectation. Congratulations! That’s a great feeling, and you should certainly appreciate it and work hard to keep it that way. But also know that situations can easily change, and the perfect group today can turn sour tomorrow. Group members drop out and new ones join, people’s lives and writing goals change, people get published and move on, people don’t get published and quit writing. Things happen, and maybe the group no longer meets your needs (or you don’t meet their needs).
Whatever the reason, if at any time in the relationship you feel that it’s not a good fit, be honest and end it. Don’t stay in a bad situation out of obligation or inertia, and don’t drag others down if you’re the one who can no longer commit. Part ways quickly and professionally. Some people may feel badly about your departure—they may take things personally, talk behind your back, or act spitefully toward you—but you can’t control that. Again, this is your writing, your dream, possibly the way you make your living. If it’s no longer working for you, move on. Take some time to regroup, reassess, and write. And when you’re ready to jump back in again, look for a new match. There are plenty of writers and groups out there seeking partnerships, and chances are you’ll find a great fit, one in which you can build a mutually beneficial relationship for the length of your project, your journey to publication, or your entire writing life.
Added bonus? Making a new writing buddy may even give you that much-needed reason to change out of your PJs and venture out into the world! Preferably showered! (*Ahem* not to name names…)
I hope you’ll also check out part two in the critique group series: Are You An Ideal Critique Partner? next. In the mean time, if you have any advice or experience on seeking or participating in critique groups, or questions about anything in the article, please share your thoughts in the comments below.
ETA: Also check out Kristen Lamb’s Can Critique Groups Do More Harm Than Good?