About ten years ago, when the children had grown and were starting families of their own, I decided the time was right to pursue my dream. I wrote a book. I wish I had known about the wonderful support network available to writers in this day and age.
Then a few years later I decided I needed to have some type of formal instruction to help me continue. I took a creative writing class that Community Education offered. In this class I learned about a wonderful concept: ‘A Critique Group’. This is a group of writers who have the same hopes and dreams; they support each other, cry over rejections and cry with happiness over successes. No matter who’s! I wanted to join! Where could I sign up?
At the end of class one night two young people (I say this because I was old enough to be their mother) asked me if I would be interested in joining the critique group they were organizing. I told them I was very interested. That group was my first experience with the concept of critique groups. I learned a lot from that group, good and bad.
Eight months in, I realized I really needed to be involved in a group, but that particular one was not the one. By that time there were five members, two women who wrote romance, and three men, one wrote paranormal, one wrote poetry and one wrote fantasy. While all the writers were good people with the same goal, to be published, there was too much diversity of genres in the group. Most of us did not understand poetry and the poet did not understand romance, or fantasy for that matter. One member had a tendency to over analyze a sentence to the point of redundancy. On top of that, was so harsh the poor recipient of his critique would leave feeling battered and bruised.
We would meet at someone’s home and each would take turns reading out loud. Then the rest of the group would have time afterward to critique or brainstorm ideas. This sounds like a good format for a group. However we got in the habit of bringing food and the first half-hour tended to be socializing, that could sometimes turn into a party instead of focusing on the intent of the gathering. It became harder to pull ourselves back to the seriousness of reading and critiquing our work. As the time dwindled, most weeks only one person had time to read and then receive suggestions. Some felt self-conscious to read their work out loud and would find excuses not to read and only one or two people were constantly reading their work and the others were left out. It was time to move on.
I turned to research, both on the internet and books. I found several wonderful articles on how to form and conduct critique groups. I decided to organize my own. I found some women from the local RWA® who were interested and two from my first group. I also formed an online critique group with four other writers that I met through the National RWA® site.
I wanted to take what I had learned from the first group and combine it with the knowledge that I had found from my research. I sat down and made a list of things that needed to be addressed when critiquing someone’s work. I took pieces of information from the two best sources that I had found in my research and from personal experience. I was certain that reading out loud and meeting at a private home hadn’t been conducive to a critique group.
I came up with a checklist to use and guidelines (*see below) to keep the group focused. The two groups run very similar, although the meetings are a little different. They are invaluable for the information that the group gives to each other. Both groups send, via email, up to 10 pages a week before the meeting. The local group meets at a coffee shop and each person takes a turn to go through the checklist of suggestions and comments for the writers. Being in a public place cuts down on chatting and socializing. We do have fun, but it is easier to stay focused.
Because we email in advance, no one is on the spot to read their work and it takes the stress out of the group. Because we do not take the time to read, everyone has a chance to give their critiques and to hear the critiques on their own work.
The online group is similar with the exception of the meetings. Once a week each member emails their work, then right before the meeting one of the members who is having a hard time on a scene or chapter emails a list of questions to the others. Then on Sunday evening we all log on to a messenger group and chat back and forth. We have the members list of questions in front of us and we brainstorm until we have resolved our issues.
Having someone who not only understands the genre you are writing but loves to read it is priceless. I’ve found that my groups point out things in my work that I never would have found on my own. There are always new ideas being suggested and small minor errors being found. The copy that you as the writer can read over a thousand times and never spot an error, another reader may find at the first glance.
That is not the only benefit of a critique group. Everyone has had different experiences, and members share those with each other. I find myself constantly learning new ways to do things. As I said before, the members of the group are made up of fellow writers; they have the same goals as you do, so each member is a source of encouragement for the other. If one of us goes to a workshop or class and gets valuable information, it is always shared with the group.
In conclusion, I wanted to let everyone who has never joined one to know how beneficial a critique group can be, especially to a new writer. But before you do, do your homework. In order to be beneficial you need to have the right combination.
*Here is some Critique Guidelines I've come up with.
1. Every member must submit work
2. Miss only for a good reason
3. Don’t be late
4. Pick a schedule that everyone can make so that no one gets cheated
5. Don’t turn in the same chapter over and over.
6. Don’t invite a guest to join without permission from the other members
How a on-line critique group can operate: (Example)
1. Each person will email 1 or 2 chapters to the other members every Tuesday.
2. Make suggestions on the pages of the document sent to you. (Track Changes is good for this)
3. At the end of the document, add any comments or suggestions about plot etc.
4. Email the critiqued document back the following Monday night.
5. As you critique use your checklist to make sure you hit all the points.
6. Always give positive with the negative.
7. Write on a regular schedule, so you’re not frantically composing the chapter on critique day.
8. Celebrate your successes. Feel proud when a member succeeds, because you helped.
9. Discuss writing techniques. Each member has strengths and weaknesses; each member can learn from the others.
How to Critique:
1. Critique is more than grammar and punctuation.
2. Examples of areas to watch are inconsistencies, character development and growth, motivational problems, repeats, stilted dialogue, purple prose, point of view problems, logic, passive sentence construction, tying up loose ends, telling rather than showing.
3. Write all y our comments on the manuscript, so the author can refer to them later.
4. Although good writing should be recognized along with suggestions for change, a critique group is not a mutual admiration society.
5. Hook – Did it grab you? Did the story fulfill its promise?
6. Conflict - Was it strong? Did the hero/heroine work toward the
resolution? Was it significant enough for you to care if it was resolved?
7. Resolution - Was it satisfying? Was it achieved by the hero/heroine?
8. Characters - Were they interesting and believable? Did you care what
happened to them?
9. Setting - Was it appropriate for the story?
10. Conversation/Dialogue - Was it entertaining and realistic? Did it
move the action of the story along?
11. Plot - Did it make sense? Has it already been done to death?
12. Pace - Did it drag in places? Was it too fast? Did it move evenly?
13. Other - Was there something NEW in this story? Was there a lot of
"telling" and not enough "showing"? Was the concept interesting?
14. Red Flag - Did something confuse you or just totally not make sense?
Presenting a critique:
1. Go through the manuscript page by page. You can learn from someone else’s errors or by hearing another member’s solution to a problem.
2. Emphasize the positive as well as the negative. You may want to put a star beside a good piece of writing. We all need encouragement included in a critique.
3. Don’t go off on tangents. Focus on the manuscript.
4. Be professional. Don’t defend yourself on every point questioned.
5. Keep the discussion short. Don’t waste time and end up shortchanging someone else.
6. If you see a problem in someone’s work, offer a solution.
7. Brainstorm to help the author solve a problem.
8. If the author still disagrees with you after the problem is discussed, go on. The decision to make any change belongs to the author.
9. Remember only criticize the story, never the author.
10. Write a paragraph or two on what you liked about the chapter. Even
if the story seems very bad to you, TRY to find at LEAST one thing the
author didn't do wrong. Saying something nice in the beginning helps to
cushion the blow of the criticism to follow, and it sets up the author to be
predisposed to listen to what you say. If all you have are bad things to
say, the author may feel that you are hostile towards her, perhaps for
personal reasons of your own.
11. Then, write a paragraph or two on each *MAJOR* thing you believe
could be improved. Remember, telling the author what is wrong is only half
the critique; you must be able to suggest what she might do to improve it.
Wrong: I thought the characters were dumb and I didn't like them.
Right: There were many very obvious clues that should have tipped George
to the fact that someone was trying to kill him (list clues). The fact he
couldn't see something that was so obvious to me made him seem stupid.
Either make the clues a lot more subtle or have George know he was in
danger. If he knew and took steps to try and escape, it would heighten the
tension and the villain would have to be cleverer.
Wrong: The part where they were talking in the garden was boring.
Right: The conversation they had in the garden had no story movement. All
they did was talk and the talking didn't produce any real reactions in
either of them or change anything in the story. Its only purpose seemed to
be to tell the readers that there was a rebellion going on (the dreaded
Background Disguised as Conversation trap). I'd suggest dropping it out and
coming up with a more interesting way to tell the readers about the
rebellion. Maybe a wounded soldier rides up and George overhears him gasping
out his story to the gate guard.
Wrong: The ending was obvious.
Right: When he saw the snake in the garden and was so afraid of it that was a dead giveaway as to the end. Having the rustling noises was just overkill. I think if you dropped the snake in the garden, the rustling would become a lot more mysterious and
intriguing, and the ending not so obvious.
Wrong: The whole story was boring. Nothing happened.
Right: It's a lot harder to come up with a "right" for this one. Try to focus on what
elements a story ought to have. If a story is boring, it is probably lacking
in conflict. It may also be that the characters are unlikable, so that
readers don't care what happens to them. It is much better to comment on
specific elements of the story than to give an all-over rating to the story.
- Point of View
- Show versus tell
- Format of the text
- Grammar and spelling
- Write down your impressions as a reader.
- Comments at the end of the chapter, suggestions, etc. What you liked, what needed improvement.
- Give your relevant experiences (optional).