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Fundamentals of Fiction, Part III:
Critique Groups and Writers' Groups

by Marg Gilks

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft -- then you can add all the genius you like." -- Phyllis A. Whitney, former Mystery Writers of America Grand Master

While practice is the best way to improve your fiction-writing skills, you won't know whether you're on the right track -- what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong -- unless you get feedback. You have to show your story to others.

At first, while you're still feeling your way, you'll probably show your story to friends and family, who will likely offer you more in the way of encouragement than perceptive observations of the story's strengths and weaknesses. This is fine when your ego is still fragile, but friends and family don't know how a story is created, only whether they like it or not. "I like it" is not a constructive comment, no matter how well-intentioned the reader. People who know nothing about writing can do little to help you improve your writing.

So where can you get constructive feedback? From other writers. And you connect with these other writers through writers' groups and critique groups. You can find writers' and critique groups that meet locally in person, that operate through the postal system, and that utilize the Internet, either by asking members to post stories or read newsletters and conduct discussions at a web site or that deliver newsletters, messages from members, or stories for critique by email.

Writers' groups are like clubs -- they often offer a level of social interaction along with learning opportunities in the form of newsletters, meetings, chat forums, networking, and so on. For new writers, writers' groups can provide interaction with others whose interests match their own, people who don't tire of "talking shop" (and if you've noticed friends and family are reluctant to talk about your new writing interest, you'll probably realize the potential value of such interaction).

Novice writers learn from the advice of more experienced members, or advice in the form of how-to articles published in group newsletters. These same members and resources can warn inexperienced writers away from scams that prey on naïve and isolated writers, or warn novices away from practices detrimental to writers, such as publications that buy all rights to a story, or that pay for a story with "exposure."

Group forums offer a place where new writers -- and more experienced writers -- can commiserate on a rejection or share an "I sold a story!" announcement with those who can truly appreciate the accomplishment. Knowing that published writers experience the same emotions and setbacks in the pursuit of publication helps you feel a little less inadequate to the task when you're just starting out.

Critique groups are usually strictly business. You submit a piece of your writing for advice and criticism specific to that piece. Chat or in-depth discussion takes place elsewhere. While writers' groups help you learn about the business of writing, critique groups are where you hone your writing. This isn't about the writer; it's all about the written work.

Critique groups can benefit you, the new fiction writer, in more ways than the obvious one of having good and bad points pointed out in your own stories. As the strengths and weaknesses in others' work are called to your attention and examined in critiques by experienced members, you'll learn about techniques you can apply to your own writing, and you'll learn more about the elements that go into writing good fiction.

Critiquing others' work can help you improve your own writing. It's often easier to see mistakes in others' work than it is to see what's wrong in your own -- you're too close to your own work to see its flaws. As you learn to recognize weaknesses in others' work, you'll be able to apply your new analytical skills to distance yourself from your own writing, allowing you to recognize and avoid those same weaknesses.

But what can you, the novice, offer when critiquing the work of more experienced writers? Granted, you'll be getting more than you give at first, but the fact is, those who become writers can never again be just readers; they subconsciously examine every book they read for insights into the writing process. You, on the other hand, can still read a story and respond as a reader. Don't underestimate the value of being a true audience for the work of others -- a reader who will strive toward something more than "I liked it."

What should you expect when you submit a story to a critique group? Well, be ready for honest criticism, criticism that will likely hurt the first time, perhaps every time. Some members will deliver that criticism more bluntly than others. You might consider it a disheartening experience, but remember that what you're getting are only opinions, and every group is made up of disparate personalities, each with different tastes. All critiquers are there to improve their writing. They figure that's why you're there, too. So accept the criticisms you agree with, thank everyone who offered a critique, and consider this preparation for the publishing process -- for the time when you'll have a real editor going over your manuscript and asking for changes prior to publication.

Remember, too, that you can ask for only the type of critiques you're ready for, when you submit a story or chapter for critique. Of course you want constructive criticism, but it's okay to ask for opinions on only one aspect of your story -- characterization or dialogue, for example -- if that's what you're having the most trouble with right then. It's also okay to ask critiquers to go a little easy on you at first. Most will respect that; everyone started out as a novice at one time.

Perhaps the best thing about being a member of a critique group is that you can ask members to critique a piece of your writing not just once, but several times as you act on their suggestions and work to improve the story. Just as anyone who has seen the eyes of friends and family glaze over at mention of writing will appreciate the benefits of joining a group of their confederates, anyone who has had a friend or family member refuse to read a story a second time will appreciate this aspect of critique groups.

Consider several things when you're choosing a group to join.

  • What are the demographics of the group? Although some critique groups limit membership to experienced writers, ideally a group should be made up of writers of all skill levels. If you join a critique group made up entirely of beginning writers, it will be like the blind leading the blind -- there will be no experienced members who can help guide novices in their growth as writers. Join a group of experienced writers as the sole novice, and you may find members are impatient with your lack of expertise -- again, you learn little. A good mix of skill levels means you will feel comfortable at all levels of your growth as a writer. You will always benefit from the advice of someone with more experience than you -- and there will be opportunities for you to help someone with less experience.

  • Is the group limited to a certain genre, or open to all genres? If you write genre fiction, you will likely find more benefit in a group specializing in writing of that genre. Each genre has certain conventions that those outside of it will not be familiar with. Send your science fiction story to a general fiction group, and the response may range from misunderstanding to outright disdain. You'll hardly learn anything there.

  • What system does the group use to cycle members' work for critique, and how will this affect you? Depending on the size of the group, you may find yourself with a heavy workload of critiques in return for receiving feedback on only one of your stories every few weeks; conversely, you may find the demand for story submissions is too frequent for you to keep up. Frequency for both critiques and submissions ranges widely from group to group. For instance:

    • One critique group I belonged to required members to critique at least one of five stories emailed to them every week; my story joined the queue and I waited six weeks for my turn to come up.

    • The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy (http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/; formerly the Del Rey Digital Writing Workshop), requires each of its several hundred members to critique three to four posted stories before being allowed to post their own (with a posting limit of three stories or chapters); they then wait for random critiques from other members.

  • To pay or not to pay? Many online groups, with little or no overhead, are free. Whether or not you pay depends on what you feel you're getting in return. One writer is comfortable paying the $40/year Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy membership because she gets lots of feedback; the opportunity to meet with other writers for face to face discussion of your work may make the membership dues charged by a local group to cover rental of meeting space worthwhile, as well.

Sending your work out for critique takes courage; the feedback you receive can seem harsh. But it's the only way you'll know whether you're improving as a writer, and it's the most constructive proving ground for your story before you submit it for publication.

Be brave.

Read the Entire "Fundamentals of Fiction" Series!

Part I: "I've Got an Idea!"
You've got an idea -- but how do you turn it into a story?

Part II: Read, Read, Read!
If you want to write, you need to read -- and read, and read, and read! Here's why...

Part III: Critique Groups and Writers' Groups
How do you know if you're "good enough"? Feedback from a critique group can help!

Part IV: Writers Write!
Facing that blank screen can be intimidating. Here's how to get past the fear.

Part V: Learning How: Courses, Workshops and Tutors
For in-depth learning and feedback, nothing beats a good writing course.

Part VI: Learning the Lingo
Deciphering writers' guidelines -- and all the other terms associated with writing and selling fiction.

Part VII: Being Realistic
Before you mail out that story you just finished, be sure you know how the market works -- and whether you're ready for it!

Part VIII: Finding Markets for Your Fiction
It's not just about sending out your best writing; it's also about finding the best market.

Part IX: Writing Etiquette
Understanding some basic courtesies will smooth your writing path!

Part X: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders
Cliches, lazy language, adverbitis, and characters who check themselves out in a mirror are just a few amateur errors that will send your story to the reject pile.

Related Articles:

The Benefit of Critique Groups, by Michele Acker
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/groups.shtml

Critiquing Poetry (Including Your Own), by Gwyneth Box
http://www.writing-world.com/poetry/crit.shtml

Giving and Receiving Critiques, by Dawn Copeman
http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/dawn09.shtml

How Online Critiquing Can Help Your Writing, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/critique.shtml

Processing Feedback, by Joni Cole
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/feedback.shtml

Critique Group Links and Information
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

Copyright © 2002 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.

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