Do Writing Critique Groups Help?

Barbara Custer of Night to Dawn writes horror and science fiction.At the Writers’ Coffeehouse meeting last Sunday we had a discussion on critique groups and whether or not they help. Some people felt it best to stick with a group that has professional people such as published writers or editors. Without such member, said some, people may go to a critique group not really expecting to get published.

It was interesting that this topic came up. When I first started writing, the first piece of advice I got was “join a writer’s group.” At the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I found plenty of writer’s groups. Some of them specialized in romance; others in nonfiction. Others preferred a mix of genres and subjects. My main consideration, though, was location and dates.

I started out with a group in Plymouth Meeting, PA. I got some great critiques initially, but we wound up becoming more of a social group. We wound up talking about movies, families, everything but writing. The group split up because of this but we remained friends.

I later moved on to Montgomery County Community College Writers’ group. They hold their meetings every other Thursday. I stayed with that group for several years until my problems with night vision made driving difficult. The college is on Route 202 and Morris road, and both of those streets have poor lighting.

For the last year or so I’ve been going to Bucks County Writers’ group in Warminster. They’ve been holding meetings Monday nights and Thursday afternoons. Editor Rita Breedlove runs the group, and I’ve found her critiques invaluable. Humor goes a long way when you’re delivering critiques. I’ve listed the advantages and disadvantages that I’ve found below.

Advantages

  • You can get instant feedback on material you’ve written. This works especially well with a short story if you’re able to read the entire story in one sitting. A novel critique can work if you read installments to the same people each time. The other members can work as your beta readers.
  • Socialization. Let’s face it, writing is a lonely job. I can sit behind the desk so many hours, and then I got to get up and walk around for a little bit, with “little bit” being the operative phrase. After a few minutes, I’m back at my computer. The prospect of showing up at the next meeting empty-handed motivates me to keep writing.

Disadvantages

  • If you’re working on a novel, and can’t get to sequential meetings, you’ll need to spend time filling people in on what happened in your book since the last reading.
  • Your timetable – if you work a day job, then you can’t get to morning or afternoon meetings. During the winter, a bad snowstorm may prohibit attending the meetings. Sometimes you can work around this by agreeing to have an online critique during the winter. Bucks County has done some online critiques, and I’ve been able to schedule days off to get to a meeting.
  • Other members may disagree with each others’ critiques. When this happens, I go with the majority. If one person tells me I’m a balloon, I smile and go about my business. If two people tell me I’m a balloon, I take pause and listen. If three people tell me I’m a balloon, I grab a ribbon and start floating.

All up, my experiences with Bucks County and the other groups have been great. The critiques have enabled me to get my short stories published. For my novels, the critiques point me in the right direction. After I’ve worked extensively on the book, then I take it to a content editor.

So…do you belong to a critique group? How has it worked for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

About Barbara Custer

Author of: Twilight Healer Steel Rose Life Raft: Earth City of Brotherly Death Close Liaisons Infinite Sight When Blood Reigns Infinite Sight Publisher / Editor of Night to Dawn Books & Magazine
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8 Comments

  1. joseph j patchen

    Luckily my wife is my editor so I get immediate feedback. Unfortunately here in Connecticut writing groups are made up with people oddly suspicious of other people and generally it has not been a good experience. I have some friends via the net who are super to deal with and constructive in their criticism. It is tough though, with the exception of my father non of my family will read anything I write and my friends who are not writers don’t understand what I write and think I should see a psychiatrist. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry you’ve had a rough go with this. It sounds like the Net might be the best place for you to go. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Critters.
      Barbara of the Balloons

  2. I’ve just rejoined a local Wollongong group. I’m not sure how that will go. At the very least being part of the group lets locals know I write and that I am writing.

    • I think this will work really well – get your name out among people. Let me know how it goes.
      Barbara of the Balloons

  3. Barbara:
    Thanks for posting this. The reason I attended the meeting was to get some ideas on just how to proceed with my fictional novel: how to get the goods on whether or not the story develops well, the main characters are sound, the writing style consistent and good (but I’m going for ‘better than good’).
    It’s a lot to ask of someone to take the time to read a few thousand words. I’ve done it, and I, pesonally, don’t want to hand over a crappy first draft and a ‘rough’ outline of a story. (What’s the point?) I’ve received first drafts, and self-published novels, that were embarrasingly bad, so not only did it take time to read through, but now comes the feedback. That takes even more time, because it requires sorting slowly through the story to point out just when, where and how an author made gross plot oversights, underdeveloped characters, poor word choices or sophomoric narrative. And, at the same time, the attributes, thoughtful concepts, good dialogue and snippets of writing that show a glimmer of rhetorical hope must be addressed, all while struggling to finish the damn thing. (I know I’m not the only one with this sentiment, so pardon my directness. As Dot Parker once said, “It isn’t a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”)
    Look, this takes time – a lot of it. Which is why, as I asked at the meeting, “how can I hook up with someone on a level playing field, to critique (struggle with) my work?” Perhaps by a ‘critic match’ of sorts? Just a thought. Or maybe just drive on to a developmental editor.

    • You made some great points – I’ve read (and paid for) some badly written novels. Alas, no writer can see their own mistake. We’re too close to the plot and character to see the problems. So I like to have the work as good as I can get it before taking it to a writer’s group. At Bucks county, we’re allowed a limit of 5 pages. So yes, if you’re working on a book it takes time. Developmental editors are great, but they’re also pricey, so I’d like to see my material gone through by my beta readers before readying it for the editor.
      Barbara of the Balloons

  4. Barbara,
    Good comments. I find that I like two online critique groups, Critters and Critique Circle. I’ve found both helpful. As I said at the recent Writer’s Coffee House, they’re probably best for short stories, rather than novels. I like the idea that you get a bunch of critiques, so you can make a better evaluation of what comments work, if a group of people agree. I’ve also found that in both groups the critiques have been for the most part firm, but kind. A story I sold to Every Day fiction went through Critique Circle and I made changes based upon good comments. I’d also add, as I mentioned at the Coffe House, the Nebula and Hugo awared winning author Ken Liu is a member of Critters.
    I’d still like to find a local critique group, but for now I’m sending and working both of the online groups. The social aspect is lacking, though sometimes you do develop an online friendship with wriiters whose work you admire.

    Ed

    • I appreciate your thoughts. A couple of years ago, when we had a harsh winter, I contemplated joining an online group. If I ever do, I’d go with Critters. I did a lot of my short stories with Montgomery County and then sold them to small magazines.
      Barbara of the Balloons

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