What is a Critique Group?
A critique group is a team of writers or illustrators who provide constructive criticism of each other’s work in progress. Often a group focuses on a particular reading level, art media, or genre, but not always. Some groups (such as ours) meet online, others face-to-face. Some meet weekly, others monthly. The details are up to the group.
SCBWI Ireland runs an active online critique group called Scribblers, with participants based in many locations. Every month, two members submit a short piece of writing and the other participants then have until following month to read and critique the work.
We are here to encourage, learn, and support each other in our efforts to improve our writing. For a critique to be truly useful, we need to be able to objectively point out flaws or items that may require change/improvement/consideration.
We try to provide a fresh pair of eyes and an outside perspective, where an author might be too close or too deeply engrossed in their writing to see potential problems or solutions.
Choosing a Critique Group
Critique groups take commitment. Every member has to provide new material and critiques according to the group’s schedule and rules. Once you join a group, commit yourself.
Do you want to join the SCBWI Ireland Scribblers critique group? You must be an active member of the SCBWI to participate in Scribblers. Please contact Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out if there is a space open.
Notes on participating in an effective critique group
Take the commitment seriously. Don’t view deadlines in your critique group as flexible, missing them if something “better” comes along (unless of course, it’s a true emergency). If other members take the time and effort to submit work, you owe it to them to participate.
Lots of activity
The more writers are using a given critique group, the more likely you are to get plenty of timely advice on your own writing. Not only that, but the more often you critique someone else’s work, the better your own writing will be. Besides, what’s the point in joining a group where nothing ever happens?
It’s the mark of the professional, whether paid or not. Even if a piece is terrible, telling the author that s/he is a dreadful writer who should never write again is simply inexcusable. Good critiquers will say honestly what they didn’t like about the piece, but they’ll also suggest what can be done to improve it. It’s a rare piece of writing that has no room for improvement, and a good critiquer knows it.
The honour system
After reading and critiquing a story, members of the group should delete the message it came in (if by email) or dispose of printed out work, and promptly. Hoarding old stories not only takes up space on your computer or in your home, but it’s also bad practice when it’s not your work and amounts to stealing another writer’s ideas. If you liked it, support the author by buying the publication or visiting the website where its published.
Moral (and professional) support
It’s great when members can share their victories—and sometimes, their frustrations. A good critique group will be open to reports of its writers’ successes, trials and tribulations. It’s also a great place for writers to share market information and thus help each other to get published.
Be tactful and respectful
When commenting on someone else’s project, remember that how you deliver your remarks is as important as what you actually say. True, creative types need to develop a thick skin when dealing with editors, but a critique group should provide a kind of safe haven – you can be constructive without being destructive. People who feel attacked (whatever the intent) are not likely to return.
How to Read a Critique Without Flinching
Getting feedback isn’t always easy or pleasant.
A critique group is full of unexpected reactions to works you thought would be straightforward, and new writers are often nonplussed by this. Don’t be. Plunge right in and read all critiques of your piece, then go back later and read them again. Don’t discount any advice, even if you don’t agree with it. Remember, not everyone shares your tastes, nor should you expect them to. One person’s great creative breakthrough is another’s big yawn. And sometimes, an unexpected suggestion might be the thing that helps transform your so-so piece into something highly publishable.
But suppose somebody has said something incredibly hurtful or downright unhelpful. Should you argue with this? Not on the public forum. In private e-mail, if you’re really that upset, you can say what you will, but don’t be surprised if you get an even nastier response back. But why waste your valuable time and energy getting locked in a flame war?
Fortunately, really scathing critiques seldom come up in a good group. And often what looks awful on the surface of things amounts to little more than a misunderstanding (not all critiquers will understand what you’re trying to say), or a difference of opinion (the other person may understand it and simply disagree with you.) You can thank them for taking the time to look it over, and not follow a word of their advice.
What Advice Should You Use?
Clearly, if two or more critiquers suggest similar changes to your work, they might be onto something. If half a dozen or more give the same advice, you should seriously consider it. If everyone stumbled over the same sticky patch in your piece that you encountered while writing it, take their advice with profuse thanks. But even if just one person pinpoints a trouble spot you had while writing, pay close attention to their suggestions as to how to fix it. It’s uncanny how often another writer will be right about something like this!
Much advice you get will be unusable—some of it simply due to differences in taste, some because it would turn your piece into something it’s not. Pay attention to whether the critiquer is close to your original vision for the piece, but don’t expect them to treat it as gospel. And keep an open mind—sometimes, a complete change of direction is exactly what a good piece needs in order to become an outstanding one.
Getting the Most Out of Critiquing: A Final Thought
You may not believe it, but the best way to become a better writer is not getting critiques—it’s giving them! By helping other writers find their way through the maze of language, you help yourself. You find yourself getting original ideas at an amazing rate; you feel great when you’ve suggested something that will make someone else’s gem shine; you’ll even find surprising new ways to spruce up your own pieces, including stinkers you thought you’d given up on long ago. Writers need to write every day, and writing critiques is a good way to limber up for your daily verbal workout. And on top of all that, you get thanks for good advice—and more of the same in return.
The Writing Group Book: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Writing Group edited by Lisa Rosenthal