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That is a personal question.
Critique groups—or peer writing, writing groups or informal workshops—have been around perhaps as long as writing. But since Peter Elbow’s 1973 book Writing Without Teachers, the “teacher-less” writing classes are the basis of most critique groups today. Here’s a few notes, tips and tweaks to make the crit group you have a more solid one, or to affirm your need to not join one.
WHY JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP?
Writing is a lonely business. Every one in this industry can use a comrade-in-arms, a place to show their work to receive solid, constructive feedback on writing basics, grammar, and punctuation. Intermediate writers can join for story structure, character arc, sagging middles, metaphor, and form. As one advances, one can get into more nebulous aspects of the piece like theme, dramatic arc, style, voice, story and plot feedback, and overall consistency. Once you’re comfortable in where you are as a writer, and you like the group you’re with, find other avenues, be they online or face-to-face meetings, to socialize, grow and get to know one another. It also affords the writer to find an agent, editor, an organization or website to un-kink their project idea they couldn’t find on their own, or churn a simmering plot idea with a simple question, conversation overheard, or even a smell to trigger a scent memory. You. Just. Never. Know.
One can also receive feedback on their work to not just tighten sloppy areas, but to grow a tough skin when the rejections, not-so-nice comments, comments that leave you wondering what the reader read in that, or just confusing, murky comment will come the writer’s way in exposing their work (trust me, it does happen). Critique groups, in theory, are around to help a writer grow in confidence of their skill, craft, expertise, talent, and ability. And best of all: the feedback from established editors and authors that would go for a tidy sum out of pocket costs, are generally free to minimal subscription costs.
The best peer critique groups are those who have in their memberships published authors and editors with green, young writers. Here, you can hone your skill, look more with a critical eye at your work and learn the insider track in what to do and not to do while working on your projects—and how best to offer feedback to those who have you looking at their offerings, too.
WHY NOT JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP?
The general rule went when your favorite grandmother, aunt or mother said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?” Critique groups are a cross-section of life. Those who write well aren’t the best editors and are terrible communicators; conversely, those who edit and critique well are lousy writers and creative types. It’s rare to find the best of both worlds. Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to either develop their editorial side if this is a vocation they see themselves in, or find an editor they trust, have faith in, and are confident this part of the process will help the author’s work shine.
But hurt feelings, personality conflicts and—yes, I’ll say it—writers are in critique groups with a Moses Complex, even if they swear they’re not (meaning what a writer or two offers comes from On High, so you MUST follow said opinions or your work isn’t worthy of the time). If you find yourself in an online or face-to-face peer group with all or any of these aspects in it, you have a choice to stick with it, or find a group more suited for your needs and your works’ solid foundation to build a strong read on.
Another reason not to join a critique group: when amateurs peer review another amateur’s work, it’s a huge waste of time. They wouldn’t know what to do or not to do anymore than you do; you’re there to learn what to build on and what to avoid. They mean well, but it can set your work back ten steps unintentionally. Everyone’s time is precious. So is your work and confidence in its young stages. There's nothing selfish at all in protecting yourself and your work, no matter how awful it could be at the time. Some writers aren’t good critiquers, or don’t care for a specific genre you happen to write. The best thing to do is for this potential reader to mention to the critiquee, is that this genre or style, or plot, etc., isn’t their field of expertise, and therefore, should recues him or herself from offering opinions, suggestions, and comments. If the writer wants them anyway, how they’re received by the writer is solely on them.
It’s also okay you don’t become part of a crit group. The late Ray Bradbury and Katherine Porter didn’t; they sent out their stuff, had it rejected, tried again, and the process went on. There’s nothing written in gospel a writer must join this or that group to hone their craft. Some benefit from it, others who know themselves well enough—or are too household named enough, perhaps—wouldn’t find it a benefit for them because it pulls from their writing time. Or you just want to work with an editor, publisher or an agent. Or you don’t offer helpful, supportive feedback. If you know you enough, you also know well enough what your time is best suited for, and a critique group, no matter how advanced or Big Sister or Big Brother you’d like to be, isn’t for you.
Sometimes, writers were exposed to critique groups where members have or had a personal agenda, personally dislike a member or two (or you), they refused to find something nice to say in a well-polished work (or refused to phrase an unpleasant something tactfully to a not-ready-to-publish work), or would dog pile on an author’s work. This shakes a writer’s confidence and is a lose-lose for both parties: this reflects poorly on the moderator’s group or website, the fellow writer might be a published author; and it’s not in their benefit to do this unless they want bad word of mouth to their book sales, and not ever be read in future based on their acerbic, acrid ways; and this shoots the raw, young writer’s confidence down the drain. And nobody wants that. This business isn’t the touchy-feely type and no one likes a crybaby, but there’s room for everyone, and no need for backbiting, drama, spite or maliciousness known from some authors and critique groups—which have discontinued as a result of said egos smashing it into so much proverbial dust. As my Granny said: "You’re grown. Act like it." Great advice.
RULES OF THE ROAD:
If you elect to join a critique group---and there’s no hard and fast rule saying this is what you must do—here’s a few suggestions to make sure your experience goes as smoothly as possible. Think of critique groups a lot like dating: you’ll kiss some frogs, and might face a divorce or two before finding your true Princess or Prince Charming. Or you may never marry (never enroll in a crit group, ever). But in the end, the time and effort in finding what you and your writing seek is worth the effort down the line.
DO find the right group for your genre, temperament, time, commitment, and experience level. If a group takes all genres—from the paranormal to the erotic paranormal and everything in between—go for it. But if a group only takes romance or horror writers, don’t expect solid feedback from a reviewer of that genre to be kind with your Western or YA, even if it has a romantic element to it. Know your genre and story well enough to find it in the best constructive home it deserve. And don’t be afraid to seek a critique group that will challenge you to write and think out of the box. Use your best judgment, instincts, and take the time to make sure you and your work for that group are a solid fit for you.
DON’T get defensive with your work. You’re there to learn and grow. Every idea isn’t gold and everything put out there should see the light of day. This isn’t art on your mom’s fridge from when you were six; this is life. If your stuff’s garbage and if a peer critiquer has to hunt to find the gold in it, chances are, it’s worth deleting, especially if you know a writing weakness of yours won’t get any stronger by you working on it (if you’re strength isn’t in fiction and never will be, stick with what you are strong in, and make it ever stronger).
DON’T suggest a writer write the story how YOU’D write it . . . nor should you, the critiquer, be offended if they don’t take any of your suggestions. Your job is to be helpful, encouraging, supportive, and engaging, not to mother, smother or suffocate. This is the writer’s story, not yours. Let them tell it how it needs telling, even if it goes against every grain of your creative being.
DO be engaging and helpful.
If you’ve suggested every way possible, in the most helpful, engaging, supportive way possible, and the writer comes back with a curt thank you, or finds offense in everything you write and crit, then don’t crit. Instead, read the story with an open mind—maybe, Writer, you’re putting this ornate phrasing because this IM is necessary for the character to grow here or later, etc.—and crit, perhaps, like this, could be received better. Chances are, if you’re being engaging and encouraging, it’ll be well received.
DO ask questions in your crit.
Why? How would the writer know what you, the reader, are thinking? It churns the writer’s thought process, makes them question, object or sustain the writer’s reasons why what is in the story, is in the story, and shows you’re being interactive in the read unlike ever before. When did you, the critiquer, ever get to crit Poe, Twain, Emerson, personally, before Huck Finn, “The Raven,” or Representative Men were published, and interact with these greats? This a definitive moment for you, the reader and the author alike.
Bottom line: you both want a great product to feed the reader’s imaginative mind. Both sides need to respect that process, and trust the other’s intentions behind it.