Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Benefit of Critique Groups

A while back on the blog one of my readers said something about critique groups that really got me thinking. Her comment was that while she loved her critique group she didn’t always trust their feedback. She had mixed feelings about that since she has learned a lot from them, but wasn’t sure they were always steering her in the right direction.

While I’ve never been in a critique group I think in some ways this is a great sign. A good critique group, like a good editor, shouldn’t always be telling you how to write or fix your book, they shouldn’t even always be able to identify what exactly is wrong. What a good critique group should do is help guide you, point out concerns, and get you thinking about your writing in different ways.

The truth about editing and edits, whether they are from an agent, an editor, a good friend or a critique group is that it’s all subjective. The dream editing partner is someone who understands you and understands your writing, but is still willing to address concerns even if she thinks you won’t be receptive to them. For example, I might tell you that the hero in your book is too manly and not sympathetic enough. Ultimately, just because I said it doesn’t make it right or doesn’t mean other agents, editors, and readers won’t feel differently. It’s just my opinion. Whether or not you make changes has to be up to you. However, if it even gets you thinking about your characterization, then I’ve done my job.

The very first step to success in this business is learning to trust yourself. Take everything you’re given from agents, editors, and critique partners and absorb it, weed through it, and decide what works for you and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, there’s never a guarantee in this business and that goes for edits too.

Okay, all of that being said, to have a good critique group I do feel you need to be getting something out of it, and that isn’t just on critiques of your own work. I honestly believe you can learn more from reading and critiquing the work of others than you can from the critiques you’re receiving.

There’s no magic answer in the arts. That goes for writing, painting, quilting, cooking, or photography. We all come to an art with our own ideas and our own baggage. Let others and their ideas help you learn, grow, and reevaluate your writing, but don’t expect someone else to tell you how to do it.

Jessica

44 comments:

Aimee said...

No...magic...answer?

*faint*

Sheila Connolly said...

I was in an on-line critique group a few years ago, and what I found most useful was not the specific comments but that the group served as a proxy for the reading public. We wrote in different mystery genres and had very different voices, and it was revealing to see how others responded to what I wrote (it was also inconsistent). Overall it was a valuable experience.

Aimless Writer said...

Critique groups are like new shoes. You have to try them on and walk around in them a bit before you know if they'll fit.

Anonymous said...

A great writer once said of crique groups - take what need and leave the rest. The operative word - need. He didn't say, "Take what you want." He said, "Take what you need."

Angie Ledbetter said...

I'm adding your link to my post today on Writing Group Wizardry.

Thanks for always generously sharing your knowledge.

Laurel said...

A crit group helps you identify patterns. That's the biggest benefit, IMHO. If the same objection comes up from assorted readers then it needs fixing.

C. Patrick Schulze said...

I enjoyed Amiee.'s response. Very clever. I also found great merit in Aimless Writer's comment.

I've tried online groups and face-to-face groups. In my opinion, there is no substitute for getting to know people personally and learning to trust them and their opinions. For that reason, the live group works best for me.

However, the most valuable lesson I learned is everyone in the group has a unique perspective toward writing. By melding these skills together, I've honed my editing skills to a finer edge.

Regardless your avenue, I fell a critique group is critical to a writer's success.

C. Patrick Schulze

Falen said...

This post is so true. I think all writers should remember that they should take crits that work for them, and discard the ones that don't.
I need a new crit group. Anyone know the best way to find one?

Gissel Escudero said...

(First, excuse my English if I make any mistake. I'm a Spanish speaker.)

I've gotten a lot of help from my crit group. But there was a comment I had to dismiss at once. I had written something like, "It was autumn and the leaves were turning yellow," and this guy popped up to say that that phrase was too simple and unoriginal, and suggested something much longer and complicated to say exactly the same thing. Well, I knew this guy's writing and usually it was extremely boring, so I kindly answered that I preferred to be more direct in my storytelling. And most of my readers have told me that they like that.

Right now I rarely get negative critiques, but whenever I do, I wait until I hear the same thing several times. THEN I think they may be right :-) I suggest them to do the same whenever *I* make a negative critique.

And yeah, critiquing other people's work have helped me a lot with my own editing. It's much better to KNOW what's wrong with a story than just FEEL there's something wrong but you don't know what it is. That's annoying! :-P

Brandi G. said...

This is an excellent post.

I joined a critique group in the hopes to improve my writing, and I certainly have. But there are times when someone has said something that, after long deliberation, I just had to disregard.

But that's the beauty of it. As a new writer, I thought that everything that everyone said was right, even if my instincts told me otherwise. Now, as a stronger writer, I can take critiques objectively and feel free to set aside something that just doesn't feel right.

Christine Fletcher said...

I once took a workshop with Chris Offutt, who said something like "90% of critique is worthless, and 10% is gold. It's up to the writer to decide which is which."

I've been in a fabulous critique group for going on 12 years, and while I think his percentages are off, the concept is very true. Each writer is ultimately responsible for his/her own work.

Robena Grant said...

I was part of a five person face-to-face group a few years back and most of the comments just left me dazed and confused. : ) I noticed my voice had lost its originality, its special spark, although I better understood the craft of writing.

After four years of going it alone, two months ago I linked up with one of the ladies from the old group with an online crit. We write at about the same rate so can crit two chapters a month.

The thing I find most valuable about my friends input is I can ask questions like, "Am I cheating the reader?" "Do I need to put this in real time, not summary?" "Is this scene repetitive?" "Am I still not digging deep enough, not enough emotion?" She always gives me an honest response without trying to reword my work.

Kate Douglas said...

It's taken me years to pull together a group of readers who read critically and can actually help me. I refer to them as beta readers and don't show them a manuscript until it's complete. A couple are published authors, one's an editor, one owns her own small press and also writes, a couple are avid romance readers familiar with my genre. Every one of them looks for something different when they read, and none of them are at all hesitant over giving their unbiased opinions.

I can't imagine sending a ms. to my editor without their feedback. They're sort of my last chance to get it right before mailing my work in to the editor, and so far they've been extremely helpful. The thing is, I take their comments, sit on them for a bit and then see how I can--or can't--apply them to the ms. In most cases, they're able to find the spots that need work and they're input allows me to fix what needs fixing.

Carolyn V. said...

I am in a couple of critique groups and an always amazed at the differences in the critiques. Great post. Thanks

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Anonymous said...

I have a handful of people whose comments I trust, and they're all good at diff things--big pic, tiny details, etc. It's very informal but has been a great help. They don't tell me HOW to fix something, but they point out it needs work. That's why I value the advice of agents who take the time to comment and offer helpful suggestions--what a treat.

So far my husband has been my best reader yet--he tells me that a section is "slow" or repetitive and it forces me to take a second look. And he's right!

ajcastle said...

I absolutely agree. I've learned so much from being involved in a critique group. The surprising part was that I actually learned more critiquing other's work than having my work critiqued.

I have a couple writing buddy's that critique for me and that I critique for. It works out really well for all of us. Sometimes I don't like or agree with what they say but I appreciate and consider everything. A lot of the time, they're right -- or at least on the right track.

I also use more anonymous critique forums to get a wider range of opinions. Sometimes this is helpful, especially if I'm waffling on something one of my crit buddies has said, but my most valuable feedback comes from those with whom I have a relationship already. Those that know my writing. But the outside opinions have their place and are also helpful.

RCWriterGirl said...

I think we all secretly have an inkling about spots we've gone wrong in our writing. One thing critique groups do is help us solidify that we've bogged down a section of our story, or something wasn't clear.

The other thing critique groups do is point out the stuff we just totally missed. Stuff that seemed to make the most sense in the world to us, until the critiquer said, "ahem, no." And then you get to asses whether the critquer's a nutcase or your work needs revision.

You always have to trust your gut, but the critique can tell you spots you need to evaluate and give a gutcheck test to.

SphinxnihpS of Aker-Ruti said...

When I'm in them, I enjoy crit groups. They helped me immensely. But sometimes I get burned out or the group isn't a good fit. So, I'm still looking for one, but it has to wait until my story is ready to be critiqued.

Jodi

Steph Damore said...

I've been experiencing this subjectivity firsthand. I recently revised the beginning of my MS and opened it up for critique. As part of my growth as a writer, I posted the request for readers on my blog and got a fresh perspective as five new writers reviewed my work. It was interesting and rewarding to review their feedback, and see what worked for some and not others. It's definitely an experience I'll repeat in the future.

Matt Heppe said...

I'm lucky to be in a wonderful face-to-face critique group. They have helped me tremendously.

I love that:

1) They are tough. They aren't afraid to tell me when I'm wrong.
2) The aren't cruel. They don't take pleasure in telling me when I'm wrong.

Catherine Bybee said...

I belong to several critique groups and have three partners. We all bring different things to the table. I do think a CP is the best thing you can do for your writing to get it ready for agents and publishers.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I think Robena said it well--be careful of comments that sap your voice from your writing. Just last week I had some comments in my writing group that not only questioned my voice but then told me it was wrong. (I'm afraid I had to reject that feedback.)

I take only about 25% of the comments but I always measure up the comments according to what Jessica says in the post: whether it's true to my story and whether I inherently trust the comment. The critiques that I use to make changes are the ones that resonate with me and my story.

All that being said, it is really a skill to learn what comments to take and not to take. It's really hard to fight your way out of feeling like everything you've written is crap because people have critiques about it. But we must do that in order to pick out the good comments.

cathryngrant said...

"I honestly believe you can learn more from reading and critiquing the work of others than you can from the critiques you’re receiving." So true -- I learned a great deal about my own strengths & weaknesses from critiquing the work of others.

I also agree that you often know in your gut what's wrong. I started with a critique group because I felt one of my characters was melodramatic. The group helped me see that she was one-dimensional -- thus the melodrama.

Christina Adams said...

Being in a critique group is very subjective. Most of the critique groups I have been in have been mixed genres and age groups. What I think is boring may just be because of my chilren's lit. short attention span. : ) And what they might think is too fast of a pace would be only be right in children's fiction.

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

Thanks to Angie at Gumbo for sending me your way. I've been looking for a critique group and info on being part of one and your post has been helpful.

Joshua said...

I've been in a few critique groups, all of which went bust. They all turned into pats on the backs and when I tried to offer "Did you consider..." or "Why did you..." kinds of responses, I was pretty much shunned. I want people who don't pull punches. I need honest gut reactions, not placation. My personal 0.02 anyway.

-Joshua

A. Randall said...

I love my face-to-face crit group. We meet every two weeks, and sub about a chapter each time.

It took us a couple years to get a good balance of people, one of the things we ended up doing is narrowing the focus to only Spec Fiction writers.

I agree with the others though, I've learned more about the craft by critting others than being critted, but both have helped immensly.

Marilynn Byerly said...

The idea that all critiques are subjective isn't accurate.

The craft of writing has certain requirements, and if those requirements aren't met, the error is as obvious as a math mistake for a critiquer with a good eye for craft.

These mistakes can be everything from grammar to novel structure.

Perpetuating the idea that everything is subjective in writing enables new writers to ignore accurate criticism and blame everyone else, including agents, when they are told something in their book doesn't work.

Lisa Dez said...

I wrote the novel that got me my agent without any feedback at all. (Not even my husband knew I was writing.) Since then, I've found a really great crit partner and I can tell you my writing life is so much easier.

I agree with Jessica, but I think it's important to find someone you REALLY trust to crit your work. I originally had two crit partners, but I found one wanted to re-write everything and muck with my voice, so now I'm down to one and she's awesome. She hardly ever has a suggestion that I don't follow through on.

Jess Haines said...

I switched from a critique group to a core selection of beta readers. Love having their input; they help me catch all kinds of interesting things.

My favorite inconsistency in my own work that one of my betas caught was the MC closing the blinds in her living room, and, a few paragraphs later, peering out the window.

:headdesk:

Larissa said...

I recently posted about critique groups on my blog and discussed learning from the comments you disagree with.

That, and the amount a writer can learn from critiquing others' work are two important aspects of a great critique group.

Great post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

What's the difference between a critique partners and beta readers?

Mira said...

I really like this post, Jessica.

I think you make some great points. I especially liked what you said about trusting yourself as an artist, but still evaluating feedback. Nicely put.

Voidwalker said...

I wouldn't be opposed to joining such a group, but I think people have a hard time drawing the line between identifying problems and suggesting fixes. (Which are 2 VERY different things)

Anonymous said...

Online critique groups have the risk of not really knowing who yu're dealing with--could be people just cruising througgh looking for "inspiration."

In-person groups where you have the first-last names of all involved, and their is an application prcess to join, can be okay. In the end, though, it's just you and your work, and it's best if you depend on no one else but yourself to write it.

Otherwise, it's like you can't really do it--you need other people. And what happens when those other people leave? So, just learn to do it all on your own, is what I recoomend.

The market IS your crit group. Doesn't matter what anyone else thinks--they're just trying to crack the market, too.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. That's good advice. The crowd doesn't have to be right, but it has to be heard.

Jemi Fraser said...

I have 2 incredible crit buddies. They are honest & helpful. It's a fine line to walk, but I think we make a good team with a good balance. We're lucky :)

joeinlosangeles said...

I think it's fine to get feedback but critique groups can be overrated. For one thing they tend to read books chapter by chapter with long spells inbetween submissions, which is not a typical reading experience.

If you use a critique group, you need to be savvy enough to critique the critiquers. Some people give good advice, some give terrible advice. Some people in a group won't be the audience for your book and they'll be guessing what the audience will like.

The reality is, only a certain percentage of people will like a given book. I am sure many critique groups would have told Dan Brown to tear up the DaVinci Code.

The most useful things are: (1) When a number of people you trust say the same thing. Or (2) You heat advice that really resonates with you.

The more experienced I become, the more I trust my own instincts. I tend to write a whole draft and then give it to a few people I trust.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fine to get feedback but critique groups can be overrated. For one thing they tend to read books chapter by chapter with long spells inbetween submissions, which is not a typical reading experience.

If you use a critique group, you need to be savvy enough to critique the critiquers. Some people give good advice, some give terrible advice. Some people in a group won't be the audience for your book and they'll be guessing what the audience will like.

The reality is, only a certain percentage of people will like a given book. I am sure many critique groups would have told Dan Brown to tear up the DaVinci Code.

The most useful things are: (1) When a number of people you trust say the same thing. Or (2) You heat advice that really resonates with you.

The more experienced I become, the more I trust my own instincts. I tend to write a whole draft and then give it to a few people I trust.

Annette Lyon said...

Not all critique groups are created equal, for sure. I know that mine is downright amazing--they can pinpoint with frightening accuracy what's wrong. Sometimes their solutions aren't what I agree with, but they can always tell when something isn't working. And then *I* can figure out how to fix it best. Sometimes the table is split, and they disagree amongst themselves. That often tells me that something is still wrong, and I have to figure out what. And other times, I have thrown out their suggestion altogether because I disagree. But most of the time? They're dead on, and I'd be stupid to not listen. They've saved my bacon more times than I can count.

Donna Gambale said...

I'm lucky enough to have a fantastic crit group, and I trust them completely. I love that you mentioned that people learn as much from critiquing as they do from being critiqued -- few writers realize that.
I actually wrote a post today on my crit group's blog on toxic critique partners, if anyone's interested. I made sure to link to this post, too.

Kate Douglas said...

Anonymous 3:52--I see the difference between a critique group and beta readers thus--generally a critique group will see your work in progress and make comments as you're actually developing and writing the story. They can help you tighten a plot before you've totally screwed it up, develop characters, etc. Beta readers see the finished manuscript--they're like software testers who make sure the final product "works" before it goes to an editor (or an agent) I choose a mix of beta readers who I know will look for different things--some are pickier about the technical aspects, others see plot holes are character flaws in the finished story. They tell me what doesn't work for them, I go in and fix what needs fixin' and then the ms. goes to my editor.

Kimber An said...

A good critique group can make all the difference. You just need to be patient and figure out what kind of critiques best fill your needs and the needs of the story. I've noticed each story has different needs when it comes to revising. I make a lot of the same mistakes over and over, but each story is also unique in some way.

I highly recommend-

www.critiquecircle.com

The credit system there means everyone crits, gets critted, and the selfish, meanspirited critters don't last long. There are writers who are newbies as well as published and everyone in between.