Finding the Right Critique Group
Guest Post by Richard Hacker
One of the most helpful or hurtful things for a writer is a critique group. Helpful when the group enables you to learn, to grow, to stretch. Hurtful when the group either pulls you down into the muck or stalls you out. I’ve had a taste of both and am happy to report I now have two critique groups I consider foundations for my ongoing development as a writer. So what do look for in a critique group? When do you know it’s working for you? When do you know it’s time to gracefully bail out?
What do I want from a Critique Group?
Before we get to those questions, let’s look at the most fundamental question you want to ask yourself about any critique group. What do I want from a critique group? The answer to that question varies based on experience, personality, confidence, and a host of other factors unique to each of us. If I’m new to the writing business, feeling less than confident (we’ve all been there) I might want to have a more supportive group which emphasizes positive feedback about what I’m doing well with only limited feedback about what I could improve. At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a published author who wants to stay a published author, you want the truth, with an emphasis on what needs to be fixed. Of course most groups fall somewhere in the middle.
One of my groups, let’s call this a Hard Core Critique Group, has a commitment to respectfully give high gradient, honest feedback. We are all committed to upping our game, we know we can write (okay, some days more than others) and we all want to spend our time on what we can do to improve versus getting positive strokes. This path is not for everyone and I have to say, on occasion, I have to step away, take a few deep breaths and remember why I’m sticking my neck out so far. In the past I’ve been in groups near the other end of the spectrum which, at the time, worked for me. I needed to hear some critique, but I also needed to get some positive reinforcement. Why? Because, like most writers I know, I held a dark secret I feared would one day be revealed for all to see — I’m a fraud! I can’t write!
Take a moment right now to consider what you want in a critique group. Here are a few possibilities to prime the pump:
• An emphasis on positive feedback
• Caring community of fellow writers
• An emphasis on honest, critical feedback
• Feedback about story arc and plotting
• Feedback about scenes, descriptions, grammar
Note the last two items. If I’m looking for big picture feedback around story arc and plotting, I need a group interested in critiquing synopses, story summaries and extended chunks of manuscript (50+ pages) If I’m more interested in honing my craft one scene at a time (and most critique groups focus on scenes in my experience), then I want a group committed to critiquing 4-5 pages of manuscript at a time.
What does a Critique Group want from me?
• Honesty — yes, it’s subjective, but honest feedback stripped of any agendas (see next bullet).
• No agendas — some folks take critique very personally and I’ve witnessed tit for tat exchanges. You say I use “to be” verbs too much, so I’m going to rip you for your lack of commas. If you find yourself using your feedback on a colleague like a blade in a knife fight — stop. Just don’t go there. It betrays the trust of your group and it’s not professional.
• Respect — giving someone critical feedback on their writing has nothing to do with who they are as a person. So nothing is stupid, dumb, pathetic, sad, etc. The assumption being that your colleague’s intent is to put their best work in front of you. One way to give respectful feedback is to say something like, “I felt pulled out by…”(passive tense, a word, lack of description, etc).
• A giving spirit — caring about the critique group members and their artistry by committing to each other’s success. There’s something very powerful about a group of writers saying we’re here to get us all across the line, whether that be querying short stories, getting manuscripts to competitions, or getting published.
How do I know if I’m in the right critique group for me?
• If you’re getting what you said you wanted from a group.
• If you feel challenged and see growth in your craft.
• If you’re moving toward your goals.
Notice, “if it feels right” didn’t make the list. Why? Feeling good and getting what I need are two very different things. Sometimes I can be with a group that feels great — but it’s not a good critique group for me. I’m getting lots of positive feedback and we all love each other, but I haven’t felt stretched or challenged in some time. Which leads me to the next question:
How do I know if I’m in the wrong critique group?
• I don’t feel stretched or challenged.
• I’m not moving forward with my goals.
• I’m not getting what I said I wanted out of a critique group.
• The group is dysfunctional — Note: if it feels like your family squabbling at Thanksgiving, it’s probably dysfunctional.
Once again, “if doesn’t feel right” didn’t make the list. Why? To learn and grow, we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable places. If I really want to be better, I need to be challenged, to be stretched in new ways. And that kind of challenge isn’t always comfortable. Of course, there’s a point where the discomfort outweighs the benefit. If I’m so discombobulated I can’t think straight and my writing is actually suffering, then maybe I’ve gotten in over my head and need to take the critique process down a couple of levels.
Face to Face or Online?
I currently belong to a face-to-face group and an online group and from my experience, I can share a few advantages and disadvantages to each.
• You’re working and networking with local writers.
• Trust is more easily established
• Communication — verbal, physical and written– can capture the subtleties in critique feedback.
• Feedback is immediate
• Meetings offer not only feedback, but an opportunity to talk about other challenges with your writing process
• You get to work across genres, unless you live in a community large enough to create genre specific groups
• Honest feedback may be more difficult to give and receive in person.
• Groups can sometimes lose focus, digressing into other matters.
• Personality conflicts more easily arise face to face.
• You may not get the genre specific feedback you need from writers outside of your genre.
• You are restricted by the scheduling of the group meetings.
• A vast pool of writers, genres, skill levels to choose from.
• Honest feedback is often more readily given and received.
• Most online groups function asynchronously, so scheduling is not an issue.
• More time often allowed to consider a critique before offering feedback.
• Offer the possibility of participating in a genre specific group.
• Participants may drop out or be unresponsive without the in-person peer pressure to engage.
• More challenging to build trust with a group of people you have never met in person.
• The feedback process may take days or weeks.
Where do I find a critique group?
I participate in two groups. The online group is
a genre group of five writers on AuthorSalon.com. We are engaged in a rigorous critique process which requires literally hours of time devoted to critiquing each other’s work in detail. Definitely not for everyone. You may also find online groups associated with specific writing conferences and writing associations. In addition, look to genre specific online communities for critique group opportunities.
Face-to-Face groups can be established using online tools, such as meetup.com; posting an announcement in known writer hang outs — bookstores, cafes, libraries; making a request through your local writer’s association and networking. My other critique group, a face-to-face group, is made up of peers I met while attending a certificate program in fiction at the University of Washington.
What is an effective critique process?
The best critique process is the one your specific group agrees to do together. There is no “right” way to critique, only choices.
Number of group members: While two could work, a group of 5-6 allows for sufficient energy and variety of feedback in the group, as well as keeping the momentum moving forward when one or two members have to miss a session due to life.
Length: A scene (3-5 pages), a chapter (5-20 pages), first fifty pages, the entire manuscript. In my experience, most groups tend to critique a short selection, usually a scene within a chapter. Using a shorter selection allows everyone in the group to get some feedback in a reasonable amount of time.
Critique: If you prick us, we will bleed. (Sorry, Shakespeare) So as a rule of thumb, I always strive to give a colleague some feedback about something they did that worked well, then what can be improved. The group should have a conversation about what constitutes appropriate feedback. Some will want to limit critique to one or two items that could be improved. At the other end of the spectrum, a group may want it all. Difficulties arise when a group member crosses an agreed upon line. If the group agrees to limit feedback to two things to be improved and to not focus on punctuation, you do not want to be the member who offers a laundry list of issues and a constant stream of punctuation corrections.
Respect and compassion: Yeah, we’re all professionals here. However, that doesn’t give us the right to self-righteously smack a writer down, no matter our personal opinion about his or her writing. We’re here to get each other across the line and part of that is to treat each other with respect. In addition, drawing on some compassion can be a powerful thing for a group. Even in my hard core just tell me the cold hard truth dammit group, if I sense my peer is a bit sensitive or beaten up today, I’m going to cut her some slack and offer some support. Yes, we agreed to be gladiators in the arena of writing excellence, but if my peer is lying in the dirt with a spear through the chest, I’m going to offer a hand and a word of encouragement. We all get to live to fight another day.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make… Paul McCartney from The End (McCartney/Lennon)
The ultimate goal of an effective critique group is to support you and your peers in the development of your writing careers. Across the life of your career you may at times need more support and at other times need a swift kick in the rear. Only you know what you need, when you need it. So be intentional about your participation in a critique group. Be clear about what you want, be willing to ask for it, be open to finding it and be courageous in moving on when the group no longer meets your needs. Be a respectful, compassionate and honest critique group partner.
Richard Hacker’s novel, Toxic Relationship, released August, 2012 by Champagne Books was a 2011 Writer’s League of Texas (WLT) finalist. He is a member of both the Writers’ League of Texas and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.
After living many years in Texas where he worked as a leadership coach, public speaker and management trainer, he moved with his high school sweetheart to Seattle. While he misses the big skies of Texas, Richard has grown pretty fond of the Pacific Northwest. Along with his wife, Sidney, they hike, kayak and have adventures on his Vespa scooter. His writing partner is a springer spaniel named Jazz, who helps with proofreading and ball fetching.
Dirty Water, the next novel in the Nick Sibelius series, will be released June, 2013. He is currently working on the third book in the series, as well as a young adult fantasy. You can follow him at www.richardhacker.com