One of the top pieces of advice agents and editors give to writers of all experience levels is this: join a critique group. There are many advantages to this, among them: help with finding holes in your plot (and other things that don’t work), a support system to cheer you through writer’s block, and a community of like-minded people who take writing seriously.
So what should you look for in a critique group? Here are some important things to consider:
- Experience with your genre. This doesn’t mean everyone in the group has to be working on exactly the same type of project—there are pros and cons to that. But think of it this way: if you’re writing a middle grade boy book and all of your other critique partners write adult fiction, you might not get the feedback you need. That is, unless the other member are avid readers of MG fiction (perhaps they have children in that age range), and they know the market and what it takes to hook a young reader versus an adult.
- Success among the members. By this, I don’t mean you should turn a group down if all its members are not NYT bestsellers. In fact, if you’re a new writer, it’s going to be a little hard to get accepted into that group! But what you should look for are writers with a successful track record of some kind. Ideally, at least one is published with a traditional house, and another another is achieving success with her self-published titles. Another member has just sold a short story to an online literary journal, and a fourth has just finished his first novel and is shopping it to agents and editors. You’ll learn a lot from this variety of experience levels, and no matter where you are in your writing career, there will be someone who has been there or is going through the same steps now. What you don’t want is a group of people who think writing is a neat hobby and who dream of “one day” finishing a novel so they can go for the next step.
- Reliable group members. We all have busy lives and occasionally have to cancel a commitment. But if several members of your group consistently flake out, you may end up giving a lot more than you get in return, and that’s not fair. Before you join a group, ask about their average attendance and whether there is a system to encourage accountability. A good critique group can be one of your greatest assets as a writer—but only if it’s a team you can count on. And don’t forget they’ll expect the same from you!
- Healthy balance of encouragement and criticism. When you join a critique group, you’re looking for people who can give you honest feedback—after all, if you wanted nothing but praise, you’d ask your mom. The goal (and you should apply this when critiquing others as well) is to make that feedback constructive and useful; a good way to do this is to start by highlighting things you liked or that worked for you, and following them in a respectful manner with your concerns, being specific about what didn’t work and why.
Okay, I’m convinced, you say. But where can I find a critique group?
One of the best places to start is with your local writers organization. They should be able to provide you with a list of groups open to new members, or point you toward resources for finding one. Ask your writer friends or writers you meet at conferences—networking is a great way to find a group. And while I’m generally an advocate for face-to-face interaction, online groups work well for a lot of people, too. Try www.writers.net and www.critiquecircle.com. Also, check out this helpful page from Colorado State University—it’s full of great tips and questions to ask yourself before joining a group, or to help you start your own.
A last piece of advice: go with your gut. If you join a critique group and you feel torn down rather than supported after each meeting, or you wonder if anyone actually read your pages, it’s probably time to let go and find a group of people who are as interested in your success as you are.