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Critique groups, or, how to make your writing less sucky and make cool friends.

Critique groups by G.G. Silverman

When you first start out as a writer, it’s tempting to keep your writing close to the vest and not share it with anyone. I certainly did, for a time. Developing your voice has to happen in a sacred, protected space, where no one will laugh at you for writing space-bunny stories with vampire-sex if they aren’t meant to be funny.

Eventually though, you start feeling more confident about your work, and you’re suddenly eager to share it, because what makes you an author—over being just a writer—is having actual readers. Plus, the longer you’ve isolated yourself to hone your style, the lonelier you can feel, so it becomes imperative to create community, people who support what you’re doing. Most important, the only way to get better at writing is to get constructive feedback. You want to get published, riiiiiiight?

So, now you’re eager to join a critique group, but if you’re not discerning or have a vision for what you’re looking for, I have some bad news for you: floundering is inevitable.

My personal experience with floundering:

I randomly joined whatever critique groups I could find, and ended up burning through three groups over the course of six years before I found The One. These critique group no-nos dragged me down: people’s constant lateness, or hardly showing up at all, people hardly ever turning in work, or enjoying having their own work read but not reciprocating by reading others’, big red Xs scribbled over most of my manuscript without being offered constructive criticism (that’s not feedback, dear, that’s censorship), people’s ceaseless complaining about their husband/wife/kids, treating a writing group as psychotherapy. In general, rude unprofessional behavior.

This is a business, people. Sheesh.

Despite the above, I felt there was a value to critique groups. My work was improving, but I knew I could do more, so I convinced myself to try again, and hoped for better results with the right people. But I also knew I shouldn’t rush into anything. I took my time, thinking long and hard about what I wanted from a group. First and foremost, I wanted professional-minded bad-asses, people who were on track to be published, come hell or high water, and were willing to give as much as they got. Trust me, this mindset is key to having a critique group that doesn’t mess around. Second, being local and seeing each other face-to-face was another requirement of mine. I like to actually leave my writing cave from time to time, you know? Third, but no less important, they shouldn’t mind reading my horror work, because people who aren’t a fan of your genre won’t know how to critique it. Other criteria: they had to be committed to turning in work and meeting frequently, as in, every other week. I wanted to increase my output, and this was the best way to stay accountable. The only way to train for a marathon is to run.

Once I knew what I wanted, I hand-picked a group of people I’d met and clicked with at writer’s workshops and classes (taking workshops is an amazing way to find like-minded people and testing out their critique style), and told them what I was looking for. They were in agreement, and we were off.

It was critical to lay ground rules at the start. We submit up to 5000 words every other week, and though we mark up comments in the document, we structure our meetings to go over them this way: we take turns listing a summary of three things we liked best about a member’s piece, and three things that need refining. (This method was suggested by one of our members, who learned it in her MFA program.) We also hand this summary in with our more detailed comments. And it looks like this:

What I loved:

• list something
• list something
• list something

Things to consider:

• list something
• list something
• list something

 

What I love about our approach is that we focus on our strengths as much as our weaknesses. I often leave meetings feeling better about my work—I am my own worst critic, so I need people to tell me what they love as much as what they think is not working, otherwise, I may very well throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I’m happy to report we’ve been going for almost two years, and our group is a success. While none of us have sold a whole book yet (we’ve got some short pieces out there, though), our work has greatly improved, because we’re all committed, we’re all professional. No drama queens, no therapy. I hope we stay together for a long time, but life happens and it’s understandable if someone needs to move on. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the supportive community I’ve surrounded myself with. And if we somehow manage to grow old together and find ourselves jumping out of helicopters and going on wild capers in the name of a good story, well, score.

But the writing comes first. 😉

P.S. Got any good critique group tips? Leave ‘em here in the comments.

Happy writing!

2 comments on “Critique groups, or, how to make your writing less sucky and make cool friends.

  1. Superb site you have here but I was curious about if you knew
    of any community forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really love to be a part of online community where
    I can get feedback from other experienced people that share the same interest.

    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
    Kudos!

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