Critique Groups: Helpful or Harmful?
Not all successful writers are lone wolves. Nor is writing alone necessarily a good idea. Some authors team up to magnify each other’s success through regular feedback and support, such as that famous group led by J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, the Inklings.
If you need feedback on your work, additional brainstorming help, or accountability to keep up your pace, a critique group could help you. However, not all critique groups are created equal, and meeting with the wrong crowd could keep your writing from reaching its potential.
If you’re wondering whether a critique group is good for you, here are some points to consider.
A critique group will pressure you to keep writing and to keep writing well. Writers who work independently run the risk of getting distracted or losing interest in their work before they finish it. If you know you’re going to present your new chapter to your group on Monday, you’ll feel pressure to complete it before then.
Many writers struggle to iron out ideas alone. If you can’t decide on a good ending for your novel or want to know if your basic concept makes sense, a critique group can help you work through those spots easily and save you a lot of time and effort. You might even gain new insights into your writing that you never had before and uncover new possibilities stronger than what you had planned originally over the course of talking about your book with other writers.
Writing gets lonely sometimes, especially if you don’t know other writers. A critique group will give you the opportunity to socialize and get to know other writers in your area, which could lead to lasting and meaningful friendships.
Pools of wisdom.
Meeting with other writers means that you can learn from people with different levels of experience and expertise. Some lessons that might take you years to learn on your own you can learn the easy way simply by talking with someone else who has been able to do it and who already has the success you want to experience.
As well-meaning as a personal critique group might be, the support you get will be subjective. This happens especially when you’re very close to the members. People would rather be kind than honest when looking at your work, and they might choose to overlook areas where you need more work. Even if they try to look at your writing critically and objectively, people who consider themselves your friends will feel inclined to pointless optimism over criticism.
If you join a group, look for writers you can admire and grow with--not writers who are only getting started or who have questionable writing ability. While many groups include writers of different stages, it’s important to remember that not all writers are good writers, and some of the critiques you get might come from questionable viewpoints and sources. If someone tells you to include more description, but if you know she writes far too much purple prose herself, you might want to back away and see what others have to say first.
If the critiques you get from a critique group are either lacking in quality or made more in an effort to be friendly than to help you improve, you won’t progress much. Your quality might grow stagnant or even dip if you work in an echo chamber of compliments and well-meaning, though inept, hobbyists. If this is the case, it’s better to go at it alone or use a service like Scribophile to hone your skills.
If you’re considering joining a local critique group or forming one of your own, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. Give and expect honest, but polite, feedback. A critique group is not and shouldn’t be a mutual fan club. If the man next to you tells you that he felt no connection to your main character, don’t defend the character--accept and consider the criticism. Keep in mind that others have worked hard on their writing, so keep your own criticisms polite and appreciative, but remember that the point of the group is to help everyone improve.
2. Give more than you take. Depending on the size of your group and the frequency of your meetings, you might have to wait to hear back about a chapter you wrote weeks ago. Make sure everyone has time or days to present and for discussion, and consider giving out printed copies of the writing at an earlier meeting so that other group members can have time to look it over and critique it independently.
3. Pay attention to how you feel during sessions. A good group will keep you on your toes--not hating every minute but not too comfortable, either. If you realize that you never feel tense, nervous, or uncomfortable when presenting your writing or receiving criticism, it might be time to find a new group.
Note: It is possible to out-grow a group. The same people who helped you get started are not necessarily those who will have the best feedback when you grow more advanced. Don’t be afraid if you need to branch out and find others who have reached higher heights so that you can continue to grow.
Do you have a critique group? Are you setting one up? Please share the details in the comments section below or join my group for self-publishing fiction writers on Facebook.