Skills

Not for the Faint-Hearted: Using Critique Groups to Accelerate your Learning

Photo by Kean Kelly
Photo by Kean Kelly

In case you missed it, it’s Nanowrimo (I’m hearing trumpets, triangles and all sorts in my head right now). I’ve been writing my socks off and so far I’m on track. Tough spots are lurking for me around the corner though as I tend to get saggy middle of the month syndrome. Still, for now I am celebrating the fact that I am writing. My head and heart are fully immersed in my story world, my fingers are flying over the keyboard, I am untangling plot knots and getting excited. I even made my own rather rubbish first book cover (apparently, writers are statistically more likely to finish the month as a 50k winner if they upload a cover). What we all know though is that rewriting follows writing, especially fast writing. While I am embracing this seat of your pants ride, there will be plenty to fix come December. I mean, let’s face it, I am throwing words onto a page right now, and I’m lucky they are not throwing themselves right back.

Sitting at our desks, or in bed, or in that field of long grass, with your notebook or laptop, formulating thoughts, writing down those words…is what makes us writers. That is, first and foremost, how we learn what works and what doesn’t in story-telling. But how can we accelerate our learning? Craft-books, reading widely, online and in-person courses, writer blogs, book clubs, first readers, beta-readers (which I blogged about here), mentors, editors, fans all play a part. But what about critique groups? It is hard to judge our own work. Are critique groups – where writers submit their work to their peers for comments – a tool for increased self-awareness as a writer? Have you been brave enough to try one?

If you’ve been hiding your words away in a drawer or on your hard-drive and they are just for you and our loved ones, fair enough. If, however, you have plans for world domination, or say, domination of the publishing/reading world as a starter, it’s probably not the best idea to upload your lifetime’s work to the black hole of the internet without putting it through some robust scrutiny. If you do, you are likely to either end up sinking into the nether regions of the web without a trace, or your potential fans will not so much read your work with hallelujah choirs at their backs so much as devour it in a bloody frenzy, leaving a trail of one star reviews in their trail…(of course, you may be a ready-made writing superstar. There are always exceptions to the rule).

So, are you ready to go into battle Sir Knight and Lady Winalot?

Photo by Jon Jordan
Photo by Jon Jordan

The advantages of critique groups

  • The best critique groups will give you an honest appraisal of your writing. We are all a bit too close to our own work
  • Writing can be a whimsical adventure, but we sometimes need support to stop us stalling before the finish line. For those of you, who like me, enjoy Nano because of the sense of community, critique groups can give you both support and deadlines to keep you moving forward
  • They allow you to use the critique to polish your manuscript before you query
  • If you are open to listening – which is easier said than done when you are laying out your project, your baby, for criticism – critique groups are a great way to benefit from other people’s experiences, saving you time in the long run
  • Any hey, who’s to say your group even has to spoon feed you solutions? The best groups give rise to discussions about your writing, which help stir your imagination and unknot your own problems
  • It’s not just about you. But really it is. You will learn huge amounts by listening to the work of others and by hearing the criticisms they receive

The disadvantages of critique groups

  • They can lay your vulnerabilities bare and be hard for the ego. In fact, I would question whether they are useful if you come away each week with your ego intact
  • The biggest risk for me is damaging your confidence. Don’t risk attending a critique group if you are not ready to hear the criticism and it will affect your mojo. The last thing we want is to scare you away from getting the words down in the first place
  • You know those tried and trusted writing wisdoms?: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, avoid prologues, extensive descriptions, exclamation marks, regional dialect, the list goes on. There is a danger that we all consume the same wisdom and risk losing our originality. Let’s not turn into one giant symbiotic organism. Dare to break the rule, once you know them
  • The critique group only sees part of your work in progress. They cannot see inside your head and embrace your vision nor would you want them to (shhhh, else the magic will escape). For this reason their criticism of your novel is not based on the whole picture. Trust your instinct above theirs
Photo by Daniel Parks
Photo by Daniel Parks

Making the most of a critique group

  • Avoid disheartening misfires by choosing the right group to start with. Find writers with diverse backgrounds, careers and interests but with knowledge of the genre you are writing for
  • Don’t slack. If you have committed to bring work to the group regularly, shelve the excuses and deliver
  • Be generous in critiquing the work of others, but avoid providing solutions unless explicitly asked. You are not a co-author. You are there to light the way.
  • Avoid false praise and give constructive criticism without being personal
  • Make your own mind up on which points you will take on board for your edits. You don’t have to accept all the criticism (but don’t defend yourself at the group as your sessions will never end). If you find you are going home with no changes at all, you will probably find you are not being entirely honest with yourself. Write down the comments you receive so you can digest them in your own time.
  • Agree in advance how much time each member of the group will have to avoid Mr I Am Everything dominating the evening, you getting frustrated and/or feelings being hurt when you have to cut him down. Death by committee is no fun.
  • If you don’t click with a group or the advice is not delivered constructively, don’t hang around. Find a new one or set up your own (Nanowrimo forums are great for building friendships. What are you waiting for?)
  • The last thing you need is for your critique group to be a time suck. If it is not working, leave the group as politely as possible or use Skype as a way to connect without the commute

Setting up a group

Finding a local critique group was fairly easy back on my old haunting ground in London. But what if you are unable to find an existing critique group where you are and you fancy setting up your own? Here is what you need to think about:

  • Setting membership rules: who is the group open to?; who decides who is allowed to join?; how will you handle a member who is disruptive, dominant or overly critical?; how big is the group allowed to be (given you have limited time)?
  • Practicalities of a critique group: how often and where will you meet?; will the stories be read in advance or on the night in question (as a rule of thumb you are more likely to get better feedback if you read the stories in advance)?; how will the manuscripts be delivered and how long can they be?; appoint a time-keeper.
  • Critique guidelines: Line-editing is probably not a good use of a critique group’s time; clarifications of critiques allowed, but defending your story from a critique in an active session can lead to an emotional clash that takes up valuable time
  • Create a crib sheet of what is useful feedback. The writer in question may ask the group to focus on certain areas when circulating the story. For example, if s/he is after a big picture analysis, you might be asked if the characters behaved consistently and believably, if the story works for the target readership, whether the pacing kept you interested. If s/he is after a detailed analysis, you might be asked if the title is arresting or if you stumbled over any phrasing or imagery.

So what do you think? Would you try a critique group? There is a reason why admissions panels to many acclaimed writing programmes subject candidates’ writing to strong criticism before deciding whether to accept them onto the course. They are testing reactions to their challenges, whether you can defend your ideas and are open to learning. The question is, have you got the stomach for it?

12 thoughts on “Not for the Faint-Hearted: Using Critique Groups to Accelerate your Learning

    1. Cheers for stopping by David. Good point about the cost. It’s definitely a more affordable way to go about refining work, certainly smoothing it out before getting to the editor stage. I’d love a mentor too. One day :)

    1. Hi, I really enjoyed your post, especially the points about remaining humble but strong, and mixing up marked up critique pages to make it harder to determine who is doing the critiquing. Yes, agree entirely that we have to own our own work. Though I do sometimes wonder if we should credit editors more for their hand in changing works quite substantially. Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

  1. Great post Nillu. Definitely food for thought and a great balance for both the pros and cons. I suppose whether you choose to go for a critique group depends on whether you have a growth mind set or a fixed mind set. I guess if improvement is your goal you have to have a growth mind set and not be battered down by any criticism, but see it as a chance for growth.I like very much your point about avoiding us all becoming formulaic. That’s what is happening in teaching! God forbid should it begin happening in writing too!

    1. Thanks for stopping by JB. You’re right, the emphasis on growth is key here. Originality shouldn’t have to be tempered and I’d hate for us to all be churning out the same sort of masterpieces. Highly unlikely, but I have to say that a Stepford Wives critique group is my idea of hell! n

  2. Indeed a very nice perspective.

    Yes, critiques play an important role in refining our writing, they also act as check and control on us, we have the tendency to go overboard while on the flow. When we are in the that zone of writing, we just keeping churning out the thoughts into words…we should allow it be like that. The moment we put an anchor to the flow, we loose the plot. It takes time and thinking to revert back to the free flow of writing…

    Rightly, pointed out that all of us consume the same wisdom and we fear the result will remain the same and we might deprive ourselves of our originality. Sometime break the rule is the right rule to follow, otherwise creativity could become the causality…

    Wonderful post. Happy Writing!!!

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