Critique Group = Tough Love

When I first started out as a writer, I often turned to my mom for critiques. She’d pore over my short stories, essays and newspaper articles, each time proclaiming the same thing:

“Nice job.”

She provided no comments about incongruent thoughts, poorly developed characters or dangling participles. She didn’t question the way I wrote dialogue, nor did she circle overused words. I love my mother, but she did me no favors.

In the years since, I’ve been part of several critique groups. Some were feel-good affairs; we shared our work and encouraged each other to write more and submit more. We talked about the stress of deadlines and applauded each other’s ideas. It was all butterflies, happiness and cupcakes (not sure why, but we always ate cupcakes).

Other critique groups produced anxiety-filled, sweat-inducing sessions filled with honest assessments. We read each other’s work, scribbled notes, and pointed out deficiencies. Fellow writers offered comments that felt like gut punches: “Your protagonist is flat.” “Your story really begins in the middle of page 8.” “Your conflict is too weak.” It was awful and wonderful, all at the same time. These were the critique groups that truly improved my writing.

Receiving feedback is crucial if you want to grow as an artist. Similarly, giving feedback helps fortify your thoughts about what makes a story work.

Online critique groups can be beneficial but, for me, in-person critique groups are far superior. When I know my group is meeting on a weekly or bi-weekly or monthly basis, I work hard to pull together writing to share. These are people I know personally and I don’t want to disappoint them by not showing up or – even worse – showing up but not being prepared.

If an in-person critique group sounds intriguing, use these tips to find or assemble one that’s both supportive and productive:

Size matters.

You want a group that’s small enough for everyone to get a chance to share, but large enough that members have something ready for critique on a regular basis. In my opinion, a group with six to eight members is ideal. If you have 10 or more writers, you’ll begin to have problems finding a place to meet or a time that works with everyone’s schedules.

General or genre?

I know many writers who love their mixed-genre critique groups. Romance writers talk about storytelling techniques they learn from mystery writers, and thriller writers are terrific mentors when you need to add suspense to a scene. For me, though, I’ve always preferred a genre-specific critique group. Perhaps this is because I write for children, which is admittedly very different from adult literature or, it may be because I like to talk market trends with others who study my genre. Whether you mix genres or stick with writers of a specific ilk, you’re bound to learn lots if you go into the process with an open mind.

Level up

Groups are generally most productive when their members have similar levels of experience. If a complete newbie joins a group of published writers, she’s likely to feel overwhelmed and, perhaps, inadequate. Conversely, a published author who connects with a group of new writers, will likely find herself in the role of “teacher.” Sharing knowledge is great, but if that experienced writer isn’t getting the feedback she desires, she’ll likely quit.

Ask about Structure

It’s fine if writers want to get together once a month to talk about the struggles of writing and the great books they’ve been reading. But if you’re looking for the kind of constructive criticism that will improve your writing, you need to be discerning when it comes to choosing a critique group. Rule No. 1: Members need to critique each other’s writing.

Ask if groups you’re considering joining have a set structure for their sessions. How often do they meet? For how long? How many members bring work for evaluation each session? Do they read work out loud? If a group organizer can’t answer these questions, there’s a good chance that group is run pretty loosely.

Know exactly what you’re looking for. Can you realistically commit to a group that meets for two hours each week? Is a group that only meets once a month enough to keep you on task? How much time do you have for reading and commenting on other writers’ work?

No Such Thing as Critique Group Monogamy

It is perfectly acceptable to belong to multiple critique groups. Perhaps you want to start with a critique group that leans toward the social side of things. Then, as you gain confidence, you may add another group that’s focused on your genre or plotting or character building. Different writers bring different knowledge and experience to the table – be open to learning from them all.

It’s also important to be willing to move on when you outgrow a group. Or, perhaps, you’ve landed in a group of writers with whom you’ve never really connected; it’s OK to admit it didn’t work out. Keep looking until you find a group of fellow writers that pushes you to the next level of your craft.

Can’t find it? Build it

Finding the perfect group isn’t easy. Bookstores, libraries and writers’ associations can point you in the direction of potential critique groups. But established groups often are at capacity and not accepting new members.

Remember, online critique groups are a great option for a lot of writers. A quick internet search should turn up lots of options. Do your due diligence. Many of these tips regarding in-person groups apply to online groups as well.

Feedback is good. Constructive criticism will improve your writing in ways you can’t even imagine. Take the leap.

Reading about Writing

Stop by most any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of books dedicated to the craft of writing.

There are books about writing memoir, developing memorable characters, creating suspense, and refining your writing practice. There are grammar books, agent and publisher directories, and books filled with story prompts for “reluctant writers,” “modern women,” and “bored writers.”

There are even books about writing about writing.

I’m sure many of these tomes are terrific. But, the fact is, you don’t need most of them.

The best way to become a better writer is to read. I know, every teacher you ever had and every author you ever met probably told you the same thing. That’s because it’s true. To write, you must read. Don’t restrict yourself to the genre in which you’re writing.

The more widely you read, the more you’ll learn. For example, I’ve taken participated in workshops and read books about “Setting the Scene,” but reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder was like a master class on the topic. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, but Meyer’s young adult book, set in futuristic China, had me seeing and believing – with multiple senses – from the opening scene:

Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square.

Meyer expertly uses sensory details to quickly give the reader an idea of who Cinder is and where the story takes place.

Similarly, you can read books and articles about the importance of choosing the right Point of View for your story. Or, you can read and learn from stories that obviously wouldn’t be as powerful if the author had chosen a different POV. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a prime example. The book’s first-person perspective makes protagonist Starr’s pain more raw and relatable. The moments immediately after her friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer take on a horrifying intimacy as seen through Starr’s eyes:

An ear-splitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.

“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.

“No, no, no.”

Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to unearth these sorts of writing lessons. Read with a writer’s eye. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to particular characters and how an author was able to keep you guessing until the very end of a book. Draw inspiration from descriptions of sensational scenery or especially villainous villains.

It’s OK to buy yourself a handful of  “How To” writing books (check my suggestions at the end of this post*), but save the majority of your book-buying cash for good literature and learn from it. Not all readers are good writers, but most every good writer I know reads.

* If you’re ready to invest in a few good writing books, here are three of my favorites:

1)         The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. – I bought this book for a college class and continue to use it 30 years later. Sentence structure, over-used words, unnecessary words, and active voice are among important reminders here.

2)         Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I’ve lost track of how many copies of this book I’ve gifted to friends. This collection of essays is equal parts inspiration and instruction. It speaks to me. I hope it speaks to you.

3)         On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This classic reiterates fundamentals and preaches about eliminating clutter from writing. First issued in 1976, this book has been updated and continues to be a best seller – for good reason.