5 Reasons to Join a Critique Group

Part of what I do at my company is offer editing services for authors. I often get manuscripts that are simply not ready for editing, and that would cost the author a small fortune for me to tear apart and put back together so that the manuscript is at least coherent. I tell them so. I tell them: what you should do is put this through a critique group first—you’ll make fabulous improvements—and then come back to me for editing if you want.

I’ve been recommending critique groups for about 10 years now, and in that time have had only two authors join. Everyone else either still wants me to edit, or goes away looking for another editor who will tell them their work is ready for editing.

So here are some good reasons to join a critique group:

  1. It doesn’t cost you anything. Well, that’s not quite true: it will cost you time and energy, as you’re expected to critique others’ work as well as receiving critiques yourself. But see #5, below. And the money you save can be better used when your book is ready for editing—and/or should you decide to self-publish, when you’ll need to hire all sorts of people like cover designers, layout people, and so on.
  2. You can do it in person. Many writers prefer the weekly meetings that keep them focused and give them deadlines. Check for local critique groups through your chapter of the National Writers Union (you do belong, right?), at your local library, or check out this partial list.
  3. You can do it online. If you’re not near a group, or prefer to have an assortment of critiques from all over the world, then online groups are terrific. The one I recommend is the Internet Writing Workshop, where you can participate in interesting discussions about the writing life as well as join critique groups for nearly any genre you can imagine.
  4. Critiquing others’ work improves your own. I can’t say this strongly enough. Reading others’ work with an eye to whether or not it “works” will give you that eye when you come back to your own work. Not to mention the karma points!
  5. You know you’re not alone. Writing is one of the loneliest activities on the planet. You create alone. You write alone. You read alone. And that’s all well and good, but when you receive your 48th straight rejection, it’s good to have people with whom to share it. People who understand. (And they’ll be your biggest supporters when you finally get that acceptance, too!)

So there you have it: five great reasons to join a critique group. Why not do it today? And then you’ll be … beyond the elements of style!

How to Critique Others’ Writing

Today’s blog post is by my esteemed colleague and friend, Carter Jefferson.

The number one rule for critiques is derived from one you may have heard before: Critique as you would be critiqued. You wouldn’t want people telling you your story is no damn good, so don’t do it to other people, no matter what.

The first thing to say about a piece is what you liked about it–the idea, a character, the plot, a glittering piece of writing, whatever. Find something you liked, and mention it.

Don’t say only “I liked it!” or “It’s beautiful!” Figure out what made it good or bad, if you can, and talk about that.

Tell the writer whether you liked the story as a whole or not. Did it move you? Make you laugh? Make you cry? Leave you cold? Overall, what stood out, good or bad? Whether you liked the story or not, what could be done to improve it?

Talk about the writing style. Was the style too flowery, or too pedestrian? Too cute? Were the sentences overlong, or too short? Were they all similar, so they became monotonous?

What about the structure? Do the parts of the story follow in the right order? Did you learn something way down that you should have known sooner? Does the story go at breakneck speed, leaving you breathless? Or is it just too slow? Was the piece overwritten–that is, should it be cut? Where? What’s not necessary? What actually detracts? Was it too short? Did you need more information about something?

How did the characters strike you? Did you like the hero, hate the villain? How about nuances? Did the characters seem alive? How could the writer have made you feel more deeply with the characters?

Does the setting seem real? Can you feel the place? Settings matter.

You can do a line-by-line critique if you want; you don’t have to, but it’s good to show examples of things you think need to be improved.

A good critique takes time and thought. Remember, that’s what you want your stories to get–give it to those of others.

When someone critiques one of your pieces, say thank you nicely, even if you think the critique was stupid–you’ve at least learned how stupid people will view it. Take the good suggestions, and ignore the not so good. If nobody likes it, it needs work. If half love the piece and half hate it, that’s fine, for tastes differ. Don’t feel bad if there’s plenty
wrong with it; nothing’s perfect, and you can make it better. If a critique hurts, that’s okay; you’ll survive. Nobody has a thick skin, even those who say they do.

Want to learn more? Carter Jefferson’s wisdom is accessible at his website. He lives in Boston and has been a reporter and copy editor on a metropolitan daily, a Navy officer, a professor of history, and a family therapist. He started writing professionally when he was 15 on a local ethnic newspaper, and has never stopped. Officially retired, he now writes fiction, memoirs, and essays for e-zines, and teaches creative writing to the senior set at U.Mass./Boston.

So check out his work, and then you’ll be … beyond the elements of style!