I love my writing group.
If you’re looking for a support group or a write-in (where you meet people in a café or library and write next to each other in theoretical silence), you can join those anytime. They exist to get you to the point where you have something ready for critique. In May 2016, I joined a critique group. All of the articles and podcasts I found said it was a good idea, but as introvert with a mad case of impostor syndrome, I really didn’t want to. I waited and looked up groups and after months of being nervous, I finally applied to one. They accepted me, and it took two weeks to muster up the courage to attend a meeting. Over two years later, I’m glad I took the leap. The writers I’ve befriended in The Hourlings, a critique group, have helped me and listened to me, and I’ve become a better writer and editor for it. This post explains how to get the most out of being in a critique group.
1. You’ve written at least one entire story from beginning to end.
Before you can get your story critiqued, you have to write it. A finished story, even a few thousand words long, is worth a million abandoned first pages. It doesn’t have to be the next Hugo winner, it just needs to be complete. My critique group doesn’t admit people who don’t provide a writing sample, because we are a critique group, not a support group.
If you’re writing a novel length work, that’s a little different. You could wait until you’ve finished a draft and find beta readers. You might want to have the first several chapters written, and the rest of the story outlined, even if it’s in the barest of terms (for those pantsers out there).
2. You are willing to proofread your story at least once for major issues before submitting for review.*
This one is definitely my personal preference. I like to proofread a story one or twice for structure, flow, and typos, because I want feedback on the best possible version of my story I can produce. This is how I get the most out of a critique. I’ve done all I can, so instead of hearing about mistakes I knew were in the story, I learn about things I hadn’t even considered. As for typos, they’ll always be there, but if there are so many it’s a distraction, your readers may have trouble focusing on the story.
*Critique groups will have different guidelines. Be courteous to others and familiarize yourself with them before attending your first meeting. Mine allows brainstorming, outlines, and first drafts, but your group may have specific requirements.
3. You recognize that your writing can improve.
Some writers think that they are writing gods. If you think you have nothing to learn, don’t join a critique group. Create a fan page for yourself. When you submit for critique, the people will deliver. Sometimes, it’s hard to hear. You feel like your story is crap and you’ll never become a writer. Good news: the pain means it’s working. If you’ve proofread your story and gotten it to the best you can, the feedback will help take your story beyond what you could do on your own.
Different writers in my group have different areas of expertise, and they have helped me see problems that are in my blind spot. They’ve also shown me where some of my blind spots are so I can check there in the future.
If people say you characters are always one dimensional, you can read up on character creation. If your world building is uninspired, watch a youtube video (or five) and get some tips! Next time, you’ll be the one with the insight. It’s just like going to the gym. You might be sore the next day, but you’ll be stronger for it.
4. You are willing to read other people’s work and offer substantive feedback.
When you’re in a critique group, it’s important to balance the give and take. If you only show up when you need something, and you don’t offer something in return, no one will like you. It’s a fact of life. They might be nice to you, but they’ll see you as a freeloader. When you’re reading someone else’s piece, try to find one or two things you like, even if it’s a mess. I don’t always do this, and it’s something I need to improve on. From there, offer your thoughts. Carefully read their story. Writers can tell when you skimmed their story and are not really trying. I won’t get into details on how to critique here, but think about what you want in feedback and provide that level of commentary.
5. You can say no to feedback that you think is off base or won’t work for your story.
It’s your story. Your vision. Just because Nancy across the table thinks your orcs shouldn’t be smart or “Hard Science” Joel thinks you should explain exactly how your raygun blows people up doesn’t mean you have to listen to them. This is the hardest part about being in a critique group. Find your voice, discover your story, and accept that it is your responsibility to sift through the feedback to find the golden nuggets that will make your story shine. As much as I want my readers to tell me what to do, I know what I want my story to accomplish, and I have to be the one to make the final cut on what changes to incorporate.
The other side of this is to remember you are not a writing god. This is why you joined a group in the first place. If everyone says that your character’s reaction is unbelievable, you should probably listen to them.
Go for it!
Only you can decide when it’s time to find a critique group. If you feel ready, go for it. Based on my personal experience, I feel like these criteria are a good starting point, but every person is different. Most importantly, don’t be afraid like I was! Writers love to support and help other writers.