Critique Much?

Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.
-Henry Ford

Many hands make light work.
-John Heywood

Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together. 
-Source Unknown

The audience’s reaction to writing is subjective, made up of a wide-spectrum of points of view and experiences. So why wouldn’t an aspiring writer use the same to help shape their voice?
-DL Hammons

A couple weeks ago I employed the services of an editor to help me get my manuscript into the best shape possible before I send it out to publishers. She has been extremely helpful and I have no doubt that her insights will improve both my novel, and my writing. Making the decision to layout hard earned dollars for her expertise was a hard one, but one that I am now grateful I made.

When we got together and she learned a little bit about me, specifically my writing background, she was impressed by the fact that I’m part of a critique group and yet I still chose to pay money to have my book edited. In fact, it was her idea to write this post. In her words – “If you ever want to write a blog post on your process of using critique partners, how you found yours, and the value they add before professional editing, I would be happy to post it to all of my social media sites.”  Okay Shelly (that’s my editor), your wish is my command.

I’ve been pursuing publication for almost nine years now and been a member of numerous critique groups, both in-person and on-line. Some of them small (three members – including myself), some not-so-small (a dozen members), some I considered a waste of time (all romance writers except for me), and others that have improved my writing by light-years (my current group).  The group I’m part of right now has been together for three years and during that time it has seen several members have their books and/or short stories published. I’m very proud of what this group has accomplished, even though I am not one of those who have made their way into the published spotlight. That is one of the things I’ve learned over the years about CP groups, a member’s accomplishments are shared by the whole group.

What else have I learned or advice can I offer by my experiences? First off, I’m discussing critique partners, and not beta readers. (Yes, there is a difference). Beta readers are individuals asked to read a novel – usually after they’ve been critiqued – and offer an opinion on a macro level. They don’t get into the sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph type of detail that CP’s do. In a good group, CP’s are involved from inception to delivery. Beta readers are last minute tweakers.

Also, let me say that this is just one person’s opinion. Just as with our writing, interactions within a group are subjective. Not all groups are created equal – nor should they be – and the dynamic within a group is key. One ill-fitted member can tear apart a group. In a perfect world that square peg would realize the hole they’re trying to fill is meant for someone else, but unfortunately that’s not always the case and in those situations a strong team leader will need to take action. That leader should work with the group in selecting the type of writer/person who joins. Which is another element of a good group – fluidity. Frankly, the turnover rate for aspiring writers is pretty high and it is very common for others to go dormant at certain times in the year.  Keeping the workload within the group both steady, and manageable, can be a challenge. It’s usually dealt with by allowing the enrollment numbers in the group to inflate at times, recognizing that some CP’s are inactive. And when an inactive CP re-surfaces with new material, most of the time another member is going quiet.  Like I said, fluidity.

What should you expect to experience inside a good critique group? In my opinion, an equal amount of constructive criticism and praise. I’ve been in groups where everything said (or written) is nothing but positive, or neutral (“you forgot a comma”). That shouldn’t happen, because let’s face it, we’re critiquing 1st or 2nd drafts and I don’t care how good a writer you are, things need to be adjusted. But I’ve also been in groups with members who do nothing but bluntly criticize (which in their mind - they are doing the writer a favor) and that level of negativity doesn’t work either. Favor or not. Yeah….yeah…I know what you’re thinking. What about someone who makes their way into a CP group and whose work is clearly sub-standard? How do you honestly balance your critique in that case?  First off, I refer to my previous paragraph where I discuss the make-up of a group. If vetting is done properly, that person shouldn’t be in your group.  Secondly, I don’t care how bad the writing is, YOU CAN STILL FIND SOMETHING POSITIVE TO SAY. PERIOD. END OF STORY!

To get the most out of your CP group, take the Ying-Yang approach. You'll only get out of it as much as you contribute. Don't expect to receive quality critiques of your material, if  your not doing the same for others. Be thorough, which means schedule your time accordingly so you don't have to rush when meeting time arrives. And be ready to answer follow-up questions about your suggestions. The interactive dialogue between a writer and critiquer can be some of the most productive time you spend.  

So, if you’re part of a good critique group (which I am), then why would you even need a professional editor. Multiple reasons, or motivations. For me, I have decided to give up my quest to find an agent and there is a good possibility that my novel may be self-published (although I’ve not given up on publishers yet). My CP’s are good (and qualified), but the line-to-line detail editing required for a book before it debuts in the marketplace is not something I would ask them to do.  It is painstaking work (for 90k words), and something I feel a professional should be entrusted with. Being that one of my weaknesses as a writer is in the technical aspect (grammar, tense, etc.), I am using expert eyes to shore that up.  

Why bother with a critique group then? Why not go straight to an editor? The obvious answer is that it’s not cheap and if you can avoid it, then avoid it. But for my real answer I’ll refer to my quote at the top of the page.  The audience’s reaction to writing is subjective, made up of a wide-spectrum of points of view and experiences. So why wouldn’t an aspiring writer use the same to help shape their voice? My book has been influenced, molded if you will, by the numerous eyes and opinions by my critique group. If I went straight to an editor, I would be relying on one person’s perspective. A single frame of reference. No matter how good that editor is, I just can’t do that.

That’s it. That’s all I have to offer on critique groups. If you have specific questions that you would like for me to answer – fire away. I’d be happy to answer any you might have.


Best of luck with your own CP search!

10 comments

  1. I've never been part of a critique group, although I've had some amazing critique partners over the years. (And my beta readers, who have stuck with me from the beginning.) But it can enrich a story - and our lives.
    Awesome you have your manuscript in a good place now. It's your time, DL.

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    1. Thanks Alex. I still keep in touch (loosely) with most of the CP's from my previous groups.

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  2. I've had various critique partners, but not really a set group (tried it once and it didn't work out). These are great points :)

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    1. I'm not surprised it didn't work out because the dynamics within a group can be very fickle. You should definitely give it another try though. :)

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  3. I was part of a critique group over ten years ago, but they were not a good fit and I never found another.

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    1. I don't think I've ever run across a writer whose only been a member of a single group. It takes some trial and error before you find that right combination.

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  4. Great article DL. Thank you writing it.

    One place my other authors have had success finding critique partners is by attending writers' conferences. Two of my best-selling authors found each other at the LA Times Festival of the Book. They added others as they attended different conferences. Interestingly enough, the four main authors all wrote in different genres.

    Places to find critique partners...
    * Meetup.com for your city
    * Your city/county author guild
    * Through a creative writing class
    * Facebook
    * Do an internet search for online writers' groups.

    It's important to look for a group that has rules outlining the expected behavior of participants. Like DL said, if all someone is doing is giving you blunt criticism and not telling you what is working, run! Knowing the positives in your writing style helps you to build on that.

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    1. I found my previous CP groups via the blogosphere, local literary group, or recommendations from other writers. When I wasn't satisfied, I ended up starting my own group and recruited fellow writers from Facebook and the blogs. Like I said, we've been together for 3 years and we're still going strong!

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    2. I love your determination to surround yourself with the right people!

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  5. Great post! That really sets up good definitions of the different roles.

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