Becky Levine is the author of The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide, coming from Writer's Digest Books in January. You can read more about Becky at her website, www.beckylevine.com.
Obviously, I’m a big believer in the benefits of a critique group. I think a strong group can be one of the biggest gifts you can give to your writing life. This kind of group does not, however, appear out of the blue like magic. Like everything else in life, you’ll need to put some work into it.
There are basically three stages of a critique group:
Finding or starting a group
Learning to critique and to critique together
Growing a group that evolves to support each member’s shifting needs
When you set out to find or start a group, you should identify your own goals first. Are you a mystery writer? Do you want to critique only with writers working in your genre, or are you open to hearing from anyone who works with words? Do you want to work with an online group, or in-person with people who live nearby? And where are you on your writing path—just starting out or with publication directly in your sights? Think about all these things. The bottom line with a critique group is trust and that indefinable “match”, but knowing what you want for your writing will get you closer to finding the right group.
Once you start critiquing, take the time to help each other learn the skills of reading deeply, exploring and explaining your reactions to a story, and delivering a critique in a respectful, helpful manner. Work also, on how to receive a critique—how to really listen to the feedback, give yourself time to process it and see how it may fit into your story. Don’t dismiss the time and energy a critique partner has put into their comments, and ask questions if something isn’t clear. Talk out any problems that come up—you’ve come together to help each other with your writing, and pushing negative feelings down just makes them come back up later...bigger than they were before.
As your group critiques together over time, whether a few months or a few years, be flexible. Everybody’s writing path takes them in a different direction, often one the author didn’t even see coming. If you all came together to work on cozies, someone may shift to police procedurals or decide to dip into a noir series. Two of you may stay content to submit a chapter or two a month; one of you may want to hand their book over in big chunks, even ask the rest of you to read the full manuscript. You’ll want to set aside time for brainstorming, and you can help each other with query letters when the time comes that you’re submitting to agents. When you first start out, you can’t see where your critique group will go. Stay open to changes, accommodate each other’s need whenever you can, and watch the group grow. You’ll be thrilled with where it will take you all.
With care, work, and—yes, a little luck—you can become part of a critique group that teaches you writing and revision skills, supports and motivates you through the ups and downs of the writing life, and that helps you move constantly forward on your own writing path. Is this kind of group worth that work?
Beyond a doubt.