Critique groups can be an invaluable resource for writers at all stages of their careers. They can help you see problems in your work that you can't spot yourself, they can help you improve your own work by seeing the mistakes other people make and perhaps most importantly, they provide you with the company of other writers who understand your passions and obsessions.
There are three main types of groups you should consider, large, online organized groups, such as Critters (http://www.critters.org); online forums and mailing lists; or smaller, more intimate critique groups, both online and in-person. I'll discuss the pros and cons of each.
Large groups like Critters can be very helpful. You'll receive a wide range of critiques from writers in all stages of their careers, even professional authors. The site is well run and strictly regulated to keep people from taking advantage of others hard work without doing any of their own. As a member of such a group, you are required to provide at least one critique a week. If you don't keep up your work goes to the bottom of the queue. And your critiques must be long and well thought out, after all, isn't that what you want yourself? The group is free, but you must sign up to join, so you don't have to worry about editors turning you down because you've already been published on the web. Go to Writing-World.com for a list of large critique groups both for novelists and short story writers in a variety of genres.
Other options include email lists. Do a search in Yahoo Groups and you'll find ones for every genre you can imagine, such as screen writing, children's books, science fiction and fantasy and mystery. There are even groups for young people who write or want to write.
You join the group--most are free, some require membership--post your work according to the rules and send it out on a group wide email. Those who wish to respond, will. Critiques are encouraged, but not enforced as they are in places such as Critters. Some of these email lists are for discussion purposes only and if you want something critiqued, you have to post a file to the group's main page and ask for volunteers. Either way, you can get some valuable insight into your work. However, unlike a more structured set up, you'll also get a lot of "I didn't like it" or "I really enjoyed it" kinds of comments which really tell you nothing at all. Try them out and make sure you get into a group that gives you the kind of feedback you're looking for.
Online forums are set up a bit differently. Instead of sending out emails, you post to a forum where people come and read your work. Forums are similar to Critters but not as strictly regulated. You aren't required to post a certain number of return critiques, but if you don't, eventually people will notice and stop reading your work.
Smaller, more personal critique groups are probably the best way to help you improve your writing. Online groups are the most common and for those of you who live in sparsely populated rural areas, the most beneficial. You can be a part of one no matter where you live. You can find online groups from a variety of places, through people you meet at conferences, online classes, larger forums (as mentioned earlier), or by joining writing organizations such as RWA (Romance Writers of America), MWA (Mystery Writers of America) or SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).
Finding a local group in your area isn't as easy, but in my opinion it's well worth the effort. I prefer personal groups because they feed two needs at once, giving you feedback on your work and providing you time with other writers. Writers are mostly a solitary bunch so any chance we have to get together is worthwhile. You can try to locate a group by checking with your local bookstores (independents and the big chains) to see if any groups meet there on a regular basis, or if anyone has left their contact information for people looking for a critique group.
But the best way to find a local group is by joining the local chapter of a large writer's organization. For instance, I joined RWA, not because I write romance (which I don't), but because they had the biggest, most well organized group in my city. And while all the meetings are geared towards romance writers, that doesn't mean you can't learn something. I know I did. Plus I found a fantastic critique group that helped me polish my book and get it ready to send out. I have no idea where I'd be without them.
If you can't find a group you want to join, or you've joined one that didn't suit your purposes, you might want to consider starting a group of your own. You can find people to join your group the same way you found other groups to join, referral from friends, conferences, writing classes, writer's organizations and your local bookstore.
Whether you join another group or start your own, you might want to consider the following advice. It will make your experience that much better.
1) Join or form a group where everyone is at pretty much the same level. Having someone a couple rungs above you is helpful, but you don't want anyone who is too far below everyone else. Until a writer has reached a certain level of experience or expertise, they can't be of much help to anyone. They can't offer you informed opinions on how to improve your work and any suggestions you provide will likely not make any sense to them. Writers at the beginning of their careers tend to think their work is perfect. Beginning writers - and if you are one, read this with an open mind - tend to be very narrow-minded in their approach. They have a hard time seeing a better way to write a particular scene, give their plot more tension or make their characters more compelling. At least in the beginning.
2) Screen people before letting them in. Get samples of their work and have it screened, by everyone if you have a small group or by a membership committee if you have a large group. You want to make sure what she/he writes is something the group feels comfortable critiquing and that they are at a level to be helpful to everyone else.
3) Set up the rules ahead of time and discuss them with everyone so they know what to expect. Work out a schedule. How often will you meet? When? Where? Do you bring work to the meeting and read there, or do you email it to each person in advance? How far in advance?
4) Work out ahead of time what genres you'll accept into your group. Do you want everyone to write the same thing, or are different genres okay? For instance, if you write Science Fiction or Fantasy, do you want to join or start a group of other authors who write only speculative fiction, or do you want to be in a more diversified group, one that accepts romance say, or literary fiction or even non-fiction? What genres do you enjoy reading? What genres wouldn't you touch with a ten-foot pole? If you hate literary fiction for instance, you wouldn't want to be in a group that included literary writers.
5) If you want to join an established group, check them out first. Attend a few sessions to make sure they're a good fit and the level of critiques is something you feel comfortable with. In other words, if what you're looking for is an in depth critique and everyone in the group just says things like, "It was good, I liked it," you know it's not the right group for you.
6) Remember, be positive but honest. Point out the things that need work, but point out the things you like as well. And never overly explain your own work. If someone doesn't understand something it usually means you weren't clear enough. Consider their suggestions and if it makes sense, rewrite.
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Copyright © 2008 Michele Acker
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.