Excerpted from The Writer’s Craft Newsletter
Paid editing and critique services have their advantages, however one of the best things you can do for your writing career is get into a good critique group. You may have to try out a few before you find one that is the right fit for you, but it is well worth the effort.
With the right critique group you can learn exponentially, shaving years off the learning curve.
It takes some skill and effort to learn to step back from your own writing and ask yourself why something doesn’t work. A critique done by a sympathetic friend and/or writer can more quickly flag the problem and that act alone will teach you a great deal.
Face-to-Face or On-line Groups?
Meet local writers. Make friends with similar interests with whom you informally share experiences in the real world. In this day of cyberspace, it is nice to get away from the computer and actually exchange ideas with some real people.
Get firsthand reactions and instant feedback from those reading your work. You can actually watch the audience react to your story—do they fidget at the bottom of the third page; are they deeply engrossed during the fight scene? You can only get these insights from reading to a group.
Meetings are a great place to discuss problems you are having with your manuscript or raise writing issues in general.
You usually experience a wide variety of styles and genres. Face-to-face groups are usually less specialized because there simply aren’t enough writers of any one genre to make a group.
Criticism can be harder to take face-to-face. It is difficult to hear criticism of your work and it is hard to fight the urge to argue.
The lack of specialization can be a problem if you need specific input from other writers who understand the genre.
There is little choice as you are limited by the caliber of writers in the area or what type of group is available
A personality conflict is harder to deal with face-to-face. Comments can seem a lot more personal.
Meetings are scheduled events and not pliable to your own timetable.
Depending on how the meetings are run, you receive oral feedback immediately following your reading with no chance for the reader to reconsider their critique.
As there might only be time for one or two people to read at a meeting, you could go a couple of months between readings of your own work.
Communicate with writers from all over the world. You can make some lasting friendships with writers from your on-line critique group. Then one day you can travel to meet with established friends.
On-line groups can be more specialized, gearing themselves to a particular genre or target audience.
You can fit the critique work into your own schedule, doing it when you have time to concentrate on it. And you get a thorough, detailed written critique because the other person is not as rushed.
You may get more honest feedback in an on-line environment as the relationship is comfortably distant. Your critique partner is reacting only to your writing, not your looks or your personality.
You can come and go through several groups while choosing the one that works best for you.
You don’t really get to know all the people in your group and there is always some fear of others stealing your work —usually an unfounded fear of beginning writers—but possible none the less.
You have to wait for your critiques, sometimes for a week or more and if someone is totally off base or misreads your story, there is no opportunity to correct them so the critique may not be as valuable as it could be.
You sometimes get so involved with your career online that you do most of your socializing on the computer with someone on the other side of the globe. It is easy to become recluse if this is the only socializing you do. You have to remind yourself to get out and talk to real people once in a while. I find this very true for me as I have small children and don’t get out often.
While the right critique group can advance your writing in giant leaps, the wrong group can severely damage your tender confidence. Like any meaningful relationship where you are being vulnerable and hoping to grow and develop, the group must meet those needs. So how do you choose a group?
There are a number of questions you can ask before you begin. Assess your comfort with the answers before committing to join.
If it is a face-to-face group, how often do they meet? How long are meetings? How are critiques handled at meetings?
Do you submit manuscripts ahead of time so that the other members have a chance to review them at their leisure? Or do you only critique what is read/heard during the meeting?
How many people are in the group? Are they beginners, experienced or both?
Does everyone critique all submissions? How long do you have to critique a submission and how many per week are you required to critique?
How often are you required to submit something and what word length is expected?
Do the participants support and encourage each other even when delivering that sometimes painful criticism? No pain, no gain, right?
Once you find a group that fits into your schedule, try it out. People come and go in groups all the time. Sometimes, you hit on a good combination of people and you stay in one group for months or even years. Other times, there is someone in the group that you clash with or the group is at a different level than you are (either way too advanced, or way too beginner for you).
When that happens, just move on to another group.
Eventually, you’ll find one that works. You may find, as I did, that you pick up a couple of friends from each group who you keep in touch with and occasionally (or more often) exchange manuscripts on a more informal basis.