Do You Belong to a Writers' Critique Group?

I’ve been talking a lot about criticism lately—both of the solicited and unsolicited variety—and I may have given the impression I’m against critique groups.

I am anything but. Good critique groups are the easiest (and cheapest) way for newbies to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up agents’ and publishers’ desks. Skilled writers, too, can benefit from group feedback before they send that story or novel off into the unforgiving marketplace. I’ve read that even Amy Tan still runs her work by her critique group for feedback and suggestions.

I personally belong to a fantastic group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re all veteran critiquers with long history together. Critiquing is a craft, just like any other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After fourteen years together, these folks are pros.

But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. Group-think can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord Of The Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.

And you can’t be sure the advice is worth heeding. As journalist Jim Bishop said, “A good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.” For my tips on bad advice to ignore, click here.

If a group seems overly negative, or gushes with unhelpful praise, don’t waste your time. Ditto if they don’t read or “get” your genre—or are way above or below your own level of expertise. And if anybody in the group appears to be power tripping, and/or enforcing arbitrary rules for their own sake—run. Very fast.

But your work will benefit if you find the right critiquers, whether online or in person. Best of all, a supportive group of fellow writers can supply empathetic shoulders to cry on through the inevitable periods of rejection and disappointment on the uphill climb to publication. (They're also a comfort if you get catapulted back down.)

I left my critique group for a time when I joined the ranks of “professional writers”—at my editor’s insistence. Soon after I signed my first publishing contract he said, “Nobody edits your work but me. Don’t let a bunch of amateurs dull the edginess of your stuff.” I was a professional author with an advance to prove it. I didn’t need no stinking critique groups.

But a few years later my publishers went belly-up, as so many independent presses do, and I begged to be accepted back into my group.

I admit I couldn’t face going back right away. I’d spent three heady years traveling half way around the world for book tours, getting some nice reviews, and being sought after as an editor and speaker. When I thought of going back, it felt like the classic nightmare captured in the film Peggy Sue Got Married: the one where you’re mysteriously transported back to high school and can’t remember a damn thing about algebra.

But I soon realized that working in a vacuum was a major mistake. Without my editor, I didn’t know if I was saying what I thought I was saying, or if the humor was falling as flat as the champagne left over from my last book launch.

My British editor wasn’t wrong. A group of amateurs of varying skills can easily homogenize your work and dull your edge. And if you take all their criticisms to heart and act on them, your final draft will wind up sounding as if it’s written by committee.

The trick is to listen to your gut first and feedback second, always. And if a comment feels hurtful rather than useful, smile sweetly, say “duly noted” and don’t give the criticism another thought.

What about you? Are most of you in critique groups? If not, how do you get the feedback you need?

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