The Value of Critique Groups

THE VALUE OF CRITIQUE GROUPS 
by Miko Johnston
Did you know that Writers in Residence began as a critique group? Gayle, Bonnie, Rosemary, the Jackies and I met monthly to discuss one member’s set of pages. Although we all benefited from the peer review, we grew to enjoy each other’s company and finally accepted that work interfered too much with play. From then on we became a social group, meeting monthly for lunch and conversation. We relegate critiquing to a by request as needed basis (to which we always say yes).
As much as I enjoy getting together with my WinR friends, which now includes Kate and Madeline, I must credit their critiques for my success as a published author. Aside from their helpful comments to me, evaluating their work sharpened my ability to judge my own. Critique groups have been invaluable in my personal life as well. Last year I moved from California to Washington, where I knew no one. After spending over a week alone in my house, I researched local writing groups and found one in my new hometown. The members welcomed me and since then we’ve become good friends.  I also belong to two other groups dedicated to critique – one strictly online, one in-person.
Membership in a writers group can provide support, encouragement and networking opportunities for the independent writer. You’re probably aware of the national organizations that champion a popular genre like romance or mystery. However, if you want to join a critique group, here are some things to consider:
There are two basic types – public and private. Public groups tend to be large organizations like the Ventura County Writers Club, Whidbey Island Writers Association, and the recently defunct Alameda Writers Group.  They hold monthly general meetings featuring a guest speaker and offer various special interest groups – SIGs – geared to a specific genre of writing. You pay an annual membership fee, which entitles you to participate in their SIGs. The group I found in Washington, Just Write, is a unique public group anyone can attend. We gather once a week at a coffeehouse with our notepads or computers and just write for two hours. Afterward, we head to a nearby pub to socialize.
Members of public groups who want more autonomy or have different aspirations often form private groups like WinR. Membership is by invitation only and usually requires a probation period, where the newbie participates in a set number of critiquing sessions before presenting his or her own work.  Some private groups meet in person, where members read their work aloud. Others exchange pages online and email their comments to the author.
Which type of group is better? That depends on what you need. I always recommend public groups for beginners – if you’re interested in writing but haven’t done much, if you’re unsure of what genre suits you, if you’re unsure if you truly want to write. Public group SIGs host a variety of skill levels. You can experiment with different genres to find one you like. You’ll learn a lot very quickly, for you’ll get to read some awful stuff. Since membership tends to fluctuate you’ll interact with many more writers and get a broad diversity of opinions in these groups. Best of all, if you find other members with whom you’re simpatico, you can start your own group.
If you’re well on your way to publishing or have published already, then consider a private group. Working with people you know builds trust and you minimize overexposure of your pre-published manuscripts. There is some debate as to whether it’s better to limit a group to a specific genre. I think that makes sense if you’re working outside mainstream fiction, particularly controversial or quirky sub-genres that traditionalists might not ‘get’. Otherwise seek or form a mixed genre group comprised of writers with a comparable skill level.
Writing is such a solitary endeavor we often get lost in our own head. It helps to connect with like-minded people who can spot the glitches in our work that we sense but can’t quite see.  So does sharing a common goal, whether it’s completing that first novel or getting it published.
Do you, or did you ever, belong to a writers critique group? Share your experiences with us.

11 thoughts on “The Value of Critique Groups”

  1. Miko, thanks for this very cogent summary of the ins and outs of critique groups. Were it not for my very first critique group, which came about through a UCLA Extension writing class, I would never have had the nerve to begin work on Mending Dreams. Your post brought back memories, fond and otherwise, of the AWG SIGs and some of the “awful stuff” we encountered–along with some truly brilliant prose that inspired (and made me jealous.) The SIGs were instrumental in helping me shape the manuscript, and I will always be grateful to them–they led me to the WinRs, and were it not for those brave fellow writers, I don't think I'd have gotten Mending Dreams published. I treasure the friendship and good counsel I've found in critique groups.

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  2. A very good post, Miko! You've laid out the guidelines for critique groups of any experience and genre, and hopefully some of our readers will take your recommendation and join (or form) one.
    I recall your critiques of my own work as being very insightful and helpful. They pointed to core problems in my stories that, if left unfixed, would have doomed their chances of publication. My own critiquing is more on the order of copy editing (I'm such a stickler for details!).
    I like your comment about quirky sub-genres. I remember one fellow in our group who wrote well but his sci-fi stories were filled with such scientific data that I felt helpless to critique them. Until, that is, he confessed that he'd just made it all up!

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  3. As you point out, there are good and bad points to writers' groups, but writers should give one a try just to see for themselves. The broader format group taught us it is better to narrow the scope to people with at least a similar level of skill. We all tired of those who didn't believe in punctuation or style. And we did each learn to critique our own work, which is gold to a writer. And any criticism we might have received made us understand that different eyes and perspectives will be reading our work, so aim for that broader audience without compromising your creativity. Great post.

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  4. Bonnie, I share your appreciation of that early critique group, which led to the formation of WinR. When I first presented A Petal In The Wind to the group, they were quite blunt about the problems in that early manuscript. I may not have liked what I heard, but I did listen and acknowledged they were not only fair, but also correct. Their comments provided me with the guidance I needed to make the story better.

    Jackie, you brought back memories of a mystery you presented to our critique group years ago. Everyone else made insightful comments, but when my turn came, all I could think of was that a fashionable woman wouldn't wear white shoes in winter. But those 'picky little details', as you like to call them, contributed a great deal to the success of our writing.

    And Gayle, you're absolutely right about working with writers who have a shared standard. Sloppy work distracts me; I feel like a teacher grading papers (that's going to be the subject of my next post).

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  5. Miko, well done! This was such a concise explanation of how these different groups work. We were very lucky when we started our own WinR, that has become Writers in Residence. From a UCLA writers' course, I was introduced to Sisters-in-Crime-LA, where I met Gayle Bartos-Poole. It was Gayle that originally asked me to join this new group. (Thank you Gayle) And we all shared the same standards in our work. (Quite picky at times- but worth it!) I admire and enjoy each of their work. So if I received critique that may have been daunting – I knew it came with the best intent. And I agree – it could be the tiniest of details that made all the difference. I learned so much from this very special group of women. And am very proud to remember those first offered pages of 'Petal In The Wind'…. So I encourage other writers to seek out those whose work you appreciate and suggest a way to start your own critique group. It made all the difference for me.
    Great post, Miko. Cheers.

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  6. Your post, Miko, and subsequent comments show not only how valuable your critique group was for your writing development, but also how those experiences have brought you together as friends. Lovely hearing all your comments.

    Excellent and thorough post on critique groups!

    Madeline

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  7. “…we often get lost in our own head.” How true! Great post, Miko. It made the differences in critique groups clear and should help a lot of writers discern the best fit for their writing.

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  8. For me the social aspect has been invaluable, Madeline. Nothing like sitting in a pub, hoisting a pint of wine and sharing stories to build friendships.

    In the past, writers had a platoon of help from agents, editors, publicists, and other professionals. Today, many writers self-publish or work directly with small publishing houses. My writing communities have become a substitute for much of that professional help.

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  9. Reading your post, Miko, makes me realize that I missed out on valuable help. Of course I was aware of the existence of critique groups, but admit that I was not interested in joining one. I could have had a great experience in my writing development as well as made good friends.

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  10. That hasn't prevented you from writing and publishing, though, Alice. And although you didn't join a critique group, you found a writing community to help and support you – Sisters in Crime. I'm sure if you ever need a critique, you can ask one of your 'sisters'. And I count myself as one of the many friends you met through the group.

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