Benefits of critique groups

Donna Bowman Bratton

Donna Bowman Bratton

My friend and fellow blogger Donna Bowman Bratton last week ran a series of posts about the benefits of critique groups and how to make the most of them. For her posts, Donna interviewed a bunch of writers inlcuding yours truly! (Yes, that’s me.)

Among the questions we answered were: What are the biggest challenges of critiquing someone else’s manuscript? What are the biggest challenges of having your own manuscript critiqued? How do you handle situations when you, as the author, disagree with the feedback? And others. And in the answers, there’s lots of great information and advice.

Part 1 features P.J. Hoover (“It’s okay to accept the feedback, say thank you, and choose not to use it”) and Meredith Davis (critique group “pushes me to allow my work to morph and change”).

Part 2 features Emily Kristin Anderson (“You’ve got to respect what your crit partners are writing — respect their style and their vision — in order to take it apart and help them put it back together.”) and Lindsey Lane (“Part of how a critique group functions for me is that their comments help me deepen my commitment to the manuscript”).

And Part 3 features Shelley Ann Jackson (“You can’t improve your writing without letting people read it.”), Cynthia Levinson (“Vague directions like ‘try heightening the language here’ or ‘show don’t tell’ aren’t nearly so helpful as ‘how about gash instead of cut’.”) and me (“Getting feedback helps me know if I’m on the right track with my story, if what I intend is coming across.”).

Click through to Donna’s blog for more great insight.

Write On!

Critique like you mean it

Manuscript update: Three fellow writers have very graciously agreed to read my latest revision, which I finished yesterday. Thank you, to them. Once they’re done, I’ll do one more read-through, going through their notes and fixing anything else I see, then I think it will be ready to send out. So next week’s goal will be to get a good query letter written.

I’ve written before about the benefits of being part of a critique group. There’s the camaraderie, the support in an otherwise lonely activity, the comfort in being with others in the same boat as you, and, of course, there’s the critique itself.

That last one is the most important benefit of a critique group, but only if the members are really critiquing.

Good critiquing is priceless, but good critiquing isn’t always pretty. By that, I don’t mean writers should be nasty about their criticism. We all want to strive for constructive criticism. But what I mean is that identifying flaws is a part of good critiquing.

Andrea Brown Literary agent Mary Kole has a great post on her Kidlit.com blog today about the need to grow a thicker skin. She points out that some critique groups meet only to hear how wonderful each others’ writing is. I like to hear good news as much as the next guy, but as Kole says, no one learns if they’re not told what they have to work on.

Now, sure, some critique group members are going to have less experience than others and might not be able to pick up on problems as easily as more experienced members. But that’s why it’s good to be in a critique group with members with all different levels of experience.

But even less experienced writers are readers — or should be if they’re writing books — and as readers, they should be able to contribute criticism as much as any book fan.

The important thing is that critiquers critique. If you’re part of a critique group, you’re making a pact to help others make their writing better, and to do that, you have to point out where they’re going wrong. If you don’t, you’re wasting their time and yours.

On the part of the critiquee, it’s important to just listen and write notes when getting your critique. Don’t let emotion, pride, stop you from listening. And don’t let emotion let you take the critiques for anything other than what they are: someone else’s opinion. Some of the notes you get are going to help you make your work better, some won’t. As the creator of the work, you can make the decision of which is which when you go over your notes later.

It’s always tough to hear people criticize your work, but without that criticism — constructive criticism — your work will never get better. No writer can see every flaw in their own work by themselves — that’s why there are editors. And if an unpublished writer can’t listen to the opinions of others, digest them and figure out which will make their work better, they’re going to have a hard time being published, because published writers work side by side with editors — who give their own educated, knowledgeable, experienced criticisms.

Oh, and by the way, when I say that critiquers are doing their job when they point out the flaws, I don’t mean critiquers shouldn’t point out the good parts too. We all need encouragement as much as we need to know how to improve. The best critiquers are those who can find both good and bad things to say about another’s work, and saying the good first is always a great way to help someone grow.

Got any other critiquing tips? Tell us in the comments.

Also, I’ve had some great questions about ghostwriting submitted for my interview with writer Laura Cross. If you haven’t entered one yet, check out my ghostwriting post for the details and enter your question for a chance to win a PDF copy of Laura’s book, Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to Become Successfully Published.

Write On!

Families and writing

Done today: preparing

Revision remaining: 169 pages (entire book)

Daily pages needed to be finished by end of November: 3.4

My revision is still getting off to a slow start, but I finished the preparation Holly Lisle suggests in her One-Pass Manuscript Revision, so tomorrow I should begin going through pages. I’ll let you know how it comes along.

Today I’m participating in a mass blogging! WOW Women On Writing has gathered a group of blogging buddies to write about family relationships. Why family relationships? We’re celebrating the release of Therese Walsh‘s debut novel today. The Last Will of Moira Leahy (Random House, October 13, 2009) is about a mysterious journey that helps a woman learn more about herself and her twin, whom she lost when they were teenagers. Visit The Muffin to read what Therese has to say about family relationships and view the list of all my blogging buddies. And make sure you visit Therese’s website to find out more about the author.

So, in celebration of this book launch, I’m writing about families and writing.

Having support from family and friends as a writer is priceless. Writing is wonderful, uplifting, inspiring and brings lots of joy. But it also can be solitary, frustrating and lead to lots of self-doubt. Unless we’re writing with a partner — something I’ve never done — we’re often the only ones creating the story, deciding on the words, developing the characters and plot. If we don’t have anyone else to talk to about the book, any problems that arise have to be solved by us as we’re the only ones who know all the ins and outs that are necessary. And if we can’t figure out all these things by ourselves, and make them into a product that’s publishable, we face frustration and can easily doubt our abilities.

Those are the times when we need supportive voices around us, voices that confirm that we’re not wasting our time, encourage us to keep going, help us wade through all the story ideas and figure out the best versions of the plot.

I’m very blessed to have a husband who does just that. When I was struggling to finish my first novel, he encouraged to stick with it. When I typed The End, he insisted we go out to dinner to celebrate. When I’d finished the revision, he spent an afternoon reading it and giving me feedback. (Thankfully, he loved it. 🙂 ) And now, as I go through the agent submission process with my first novel and revise my second novel, my husband continues to support me, and I’m very grateful.

Another great source of support is critique groups, where we find writer just like us. If you aren’t participating in a critique group right now, go and find one. I highly recommend it.

Who’s your biggest writing supporter?

And, check back on Nov. 13 for an interview with Therese Walsh.

Write On!

How to find critique groups

In my last post, Sandra asked how to find critique groups. So, here’s a quick rundown.

I write for children, so I found my critique group through the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, of which I’m a member. If you write or illustrate for children and you’re not a member of SCBWI, I highly recommend joining. It’s a great group, with fantastic conferences and supportive, friendly members. Writing can be a lonely pasttime and having like-minded people around who you can share with is priceless. SCBWI has regional chapters that have volunteer-run critique groups in various areas. SCBWI also will help people connect with other local writers to form new critique groups.

SCBWI also has an online manuscript critique group in its message boards, where writers can upload their work and whoever’s online can read and offer feedback. The drawback to this approach, rather than an in-person group, is that some writing might not get much feedback, while others could get a lot. I’m not sure why that is, but a couple of the pieces I put up had readers (it shows how many people looked at the page), but not many of them left notes.

If you’re not in a group such as the SCBWI, there are plenty of resources online, but you can also check your local bookstores. Face-to-face crtique groups are often held in bookstores once or twice a month, and they’re often listed in the bookstore’s events. A number of people have shown up to our critique group because they heard about the meeting through the bookstore, not through SCBWI.

A bookstore is always a great place to find local writers. If you can’t find a critique group in your area, you can start one. Ask the bookstore manager if they’d mind you putting up a sign asking local writers if they’d like to join a critique group. (First ask if the manager would mind you holding the group there if you can get it started.) I think most writers are hungry for connections to others who can understand what they’re going through when they write, hungry for people they can bounce ideas off of, share their work with and get support and encouragement on the days inspiration might not be flowing as well as they’d like. Put up a sign at your local bookstore and I’ll bet you’ll have a number of writers respond. It’s also good for networking locally.

As well as the online manuscript critique on the SCBWI message board, the world wide web has lots of other online critique groups. Before I joined SCBWI, I searched Yahoo Groups and found a bunch on children’s writing, even more on fiction writing and even more on just writing. Online, just as in an in-person group, try them out and see if they fit you. If not, move on to another group. From my last post, you want people who are at least as experienced as you but preferably some who are more so you can grow. And you want people who know how to critique, not insult. People tend to be a bit looser online, hiding behind the anonymity of a screenname. But … let me say that again … BUT, only a few people are like that. There are plenty of good online groups out there. So if you find you’re not comfortable with the first one you try, try another one, and another one, until you find a group you’re comfortable with.

Where to find these online groups? I already mentioned Yahoo, but there’s also Google’s groups service. Another option is simply plugging “writer’s critique groups” or just “critique groups” into Google, Ask.com or your other favorite search engine. As well as groups, you’ll find articles on how to start and manage a critique group and how to critique effectively (something you can pass around to members as they join).

Here’s a few pages I found in a Google search. I’m not recommending them, as I haven’t read them thoroughly, but I have skimmed them and they seem like good places to start:

Fiction Factor (for all fiction writers) article on Five Considerations Before Joining a Critique Group. Extends the information in my earlier post.

Underdown.org article on Writer’s Critique Groups and Where to Find Them. At first glance, looks like a comprehensive list with lots of links. Talks about children’s book writing, but could be useful for all writers.

Writing-World.com list of links on Critique Groups and Discussion Groups. Links to articles as well as online groups for horror writers, sci-fi writers, romance writers and everything in between. Plus, links to great sites such as Predators and Editor as well as contests.

Critters Writers Workshop. I hadn’t heard of this group before, but it’s an online community/critique group for sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, run by the vice president of Science Fiction Writers of America. Membership is required (to the workshop, not SFWA), but it looks like it’s free.

Short Story Group. Online community/critique group for short story and poetry writers.

And, finally, CritiqueGroups.com. Another online community/critique groups site. Membership is required, but it’s free.

Do you know of any others?

If you try any of these, let us know how it goes.

Write On!