Critique Groups: Ego, Etiquette, and Expectations

Hello, all you budding authors. Have you been shying away from joining a critique group? Maybe you’re apprehensive about showing your work in public. Perhaps you’ve written a chapter, a poem, or a short story, and only your spouse and best friend have read it. Their reaction was likely one of two things.  One, they gushed over it and cheered you on. Two, they were brave enough to offer criticism – bubble-wrapped though, so it wouldn’t hurt your feelings. Either way, they could understand the piece, and they think you’re brilliant, so you don’t think you need a critique group. But the truth is that a personal fan club plus two dollars will only get you a cup of coffee.

In contrast, a writer’s critique group is a powerful tool to have at your disposal. Within that circle of colleagues, your work is examined by other authors acting as beta readers, editors, and above all, experienced mentors. These folks have real editing skills and recognize the finer points of authorship. Yes, you need to learn the art of self-editing. But without other critical eyes, you’re unlikely to refine your work to a publishing-ready level.

So I’ve put together a few tips to help you find and mesh with a good group. I hope it helps soothe your nerves by letting you know what to expect.

1.  Finding a Critique Group

I found my group in minutes through www.meetup.com . If there’s nothing in your area, start one! Or find other authors online and exchange ideas and material. Maybe conduct a meeting with others through Skype. Even if you live in a yurt in the Gobi desert, it can be done. We live in the age of light-speed global communication, and there are simply no excuses.

2.  Your First Meeting

If you’ve found a group, chances are they have a website. Read it! There may be instructions for newcomers. For example, my group’s site states that first-timers shouldn’t bring material for critiquing. Why? Because the work to be read each week is selected the week before.

Nothing makes eyes roll faster (and I have seen this happen) than a newcomer strolling in with twelve copies of a complete manuscript. Upon learning his material wouldn’t be viewed that day, he started handing them out, saying, “Take this home and let me know what you think.” Bad idea, you’re making the wrong first impression.

Your first meeting is a chance to observe, to get a feel for the group’s style, and to start getting to know people.  Ask questions. Find out what genres people bring, how to get on the list to be read, and so forth. Talk and be friendly. People are more willing to help friends than strangers. So a few weeks in, you probably will find someone who’ll take your work home to look over. Just remember to reciprocate if asked.

For my first meeting, I showed up with a red pen and a smile. Since then, I’ve had a ton of my work critiqued, and made some good friends along the way.

3.  How to Take Criticism

If you’ve only heard from your fan club so far, the first honest critique of your work may be a shock. Remember the others are not trying to be cruel, and taking their suggestions will probably improve your work dramatically. And if you listen, you should hear positives among the negatives. “You’re telling and not showing…embedded dialogue…your speaker tags need to be changed…but I like the story line, it’s interesting.”

The first time you get read, your ego will be bruised, but you should not feel like dirt.  If the group is hateful or sarcastic, find a different one. And the reverse is true too – a mutual adoration society does nothing for you.  A good group should strike a balance and offer honest but constructive comments.

During your feedback, keep in mind that there’s usually a lot of material to get through in a session. Arguing over comma placement or other minutiae will slow things to a crawl – and annoy everyone still waiting to be read. On the other hand, if you don’t understand what a tag is, or weasel words, by all means ask the question. Seeking clarification is fine, quibbling is not. Of course your piece is the most wonderful thing ever written, but if others don’t see it that way, just nod and take notes.

When you get home, should you immediately incorporate every single suggestion?  No!  Your group consists of fellow human beings, prone to errors and habits. So you need to look over your notes and decide which criticisms are valid. Criticism on your grammar should certainly be corrected.  But other criticisms may be based on stylistic preferences or pet peeves, and you can take them or leave them. After attending a few sessions you will learn to discern between the two. Again, don’t quibble.  If you don’t agree with someone’s suggestion, say thank you, and don’t incorporate it later.  But when more than one person gives the same criticism – believe them. It probably should be fixed.

4.  Giving Back

What you receive from the others has a substantial dollar value. Even the cheapest freelance editors have a hefty price tag. A serious critique group will provide you editing advice for free. Therefore, you need to give back. When you don’t have anything ready to present, show up to the meeting empty-handed and offer constructive criticism to the others.

If you feel that your editing skills are not good enough to offer a critique – you’re wrong. You know how to read and therefore you know when a sentence (even if it is grammatically correct) has an awkward feel. You are also aware when a particular sentence made you hesitate or when some story information wasn’t clear. Sometimes what authors need is the opinion of a reader, not a fellow author – so even as a newcomer, your advice will be sought.  Give it.

 5.  The Extra Perks

Belonging to a critique group gets you out of your yurt to socialize and meet new people.  Perhaps your group, like mine, will contain a truly diverse mix.  We have men, women, whites, blacks, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, liberals, and conservatives, ranging in age from twenty-five to seventy-five. These diverse backgrounds add to the flavor of the group, and the folks have ideas that never crossed my mind, but which improve my stories immensely. I’ve grown to admire and respect the other members, and have made a number of new friends. You can too.

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