Why Bother with a Critique Group?

I’ve been hearing about a movie, called “Authors Anonymous,” in which critique groups are presented in a rather poor light. Before I go on, let me make it clear that I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to. The reviews I’ve seen haven’t been good, and the truth is I don’t go to a lot of movies. I’d rather stay home and read a book.

The point of this post is not to bash the movie, but to offer my own take on the importance of critique groups (One of my children suggested that I write this post on the topic of how-to-accomplish-any-writing-while-your-kids-are-hyped-up-on-Easter-candy, but I’ll save that for another day). Back to the critique groups; I’ll use my personal experience as an example.

I am by no means a critique group expert, but I’ve been a member of one for about a year so I feel somewhat qualified to give my opinion. And my opinion is that it’s been a great experience. I am a member of an online critique group that I found through Women Who Write, a nonprofit writing organization for women. There have been a few comings and goings in my group, but there is still a core group of women who have been there from the online group’s inception. I like to stay in touch with the women who have left our group to continue to offer support and encouragement. The members of the group are at different places in our writing journey, and we all need and offer support and constructive criticism to each other.

This is how it works: there are rules about the length of our submissions to the group. We all adhere to the rules. We submit our writings on a designated day every month and two weeks later, everyone’s critique of our writings are due. The critiques are done in the “sandwich method,” which means they start and end on a positive note and in the middle are the constructive comments about flow, characters, plot speed, and any other issues the writer or critiquer may have. It works because we all understand that our writing can always improve and we are not shy about receiving criticism because of the positive way in which it is given.

One of our members is a memoir-writer, one writes prose that is often in short story form, one is writing an edgy young adult novel, one writes women’s commercial fiction (what used to be called “chick lit”), and then there’s me, a novel writer. What I love most about reading their work is that it’s so different from what I write; I love reading something different once in a while. I respect them all for their amazing abilities in their chosen genres. I sometimes feel ill-equipped to offer critiques on their work, since I don’t always know the nuances of their genres, but they know that and they can always feel free to take my suggestions with a grain of salt.

The nice part about an online group is that we submit our writings and our critiques electronically, so if I don’t have time to submit my writing or my critique until I’m in my pajamas at 11 o’clock on a Monday night, that’s okay. I can work and submit whenever I want before the deadline, and if I’m a day late, that’s okay, too. You can’t do that in a face-to-face meeting; if a group member is unprepared in a face-to-face group, that member doesn’t benefit from a critique and the other members don’t benefit from that member’s suggestions.

I also have a critique partnership with a wonderful woman who is writing a satirical romance novel. She and I trade work once a month and give our critiques over the phone. Again, I can be in my pajamas if I want, but I have to be ready to critique at the appointed time, or we both suffer. I love the flexibility of this critique partnership; we decide during our phone call when we can both be ready for our next submissions, and when we have time to discuss our critiques on the phone. It works well and I’m really enjoying and benefitting from the experience.

So that’s how I view critique groups. They probably don’t all work as well as mine, but that’s why movies are made. And I have to admit, our group works so well that we would make a pretty boring movie.

Have you had any positive- or negative- critique group experiences? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next week,

Amy

The Power of More-Than-One

This past Sunday I had the rare treat of getting together for brunch with some of the members of Women Who Write, a community of women writers based in northern New Jersey.  I had to drive two hours to get to the brunch since I live in far southern New Jersey, but I wouldn’t have missed it.  Within Women Who Write, there are a large number of women with hugely varying interests in writing:  poetry, children’s books, picture books, young adult, middle grade, fiction, screenplays, and the list goes on.

Members of Women Who Write are invited to join critique groups in which members submit pieces of writing for feedback by other writers.  I am a member of the only online critique group in Women Who Write (all the other groups meet in person), and the members of my group write in several different genres.  We are a mix of women of different ages with different careers and interests, but we have one passion that brings us all together…writing.  We submit our pieces of writing once a month and a few weeks later each member of the group submits her critique of each submission.

At brunch on Sunday we got talking about the importance of being in a group, and I was thinking on the drive home that being part of a group, even if it’s just a group of two, can have a huge affect on a person.

First, being in a group makes you accountable to people other than yourself.  There have been times when the women in my group, myself included, have been unable to submit because of other commitments or schedules that are way too full.  But each of us feels like we’re letting the group down when we can’t submit.  We have made a commitment and we know that in order for the group to work optimally for everyone, we all need to submit.

Second, being in a group helps you set and keep goals.  Each November brings the NaNoWriMo challenge.  For those of you who don’t know what this is, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it is an opportunity for writers from all over the world to challenge themselves to write a novel in one month.  The goal is 50,000 words.  The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that the challenge is the same for everyone.  Not everyone enters the challenge intending to write a novel; lots of people join just to give themselves a kick-start, to see how many words they can write if they really focus for an entire month.  But the goal of 50,000 words is there if people wish to give it a try.  The amount of online support from the writing community is enormous, and that support is what helps many writers keep pushing towards and even beyond their goal.

Third, being in a group encourages you to meet people you might not otherwise have met.  I am a member of a Pilates studio where I have met some wonderful people in my community that I would probably not normally run into in the course of my daily activities.  They have become an important part of my day, and I miss seeing and talking to them when I can’t get to the studio for a day or two.  They are a diverse group of people with interests and hobbies different from mine, and it’s great to get out of my own world every day and talk to these wonderful people.

Finally, being in a group is healthy!  Whether I’m going to the Pilates studio or a brunch in northern New Jersey (or meeting other people while I’m walking my dog or going to a PTA meeting or the list goes on and on), I’m getting out and talking to others and maybe moving- just a little- out of my comfort zone.  It’s great for my attitude and keeps me from getting bogged down by the things that go on in my own day.  And on the rare occasion that I don’t enjoy my time in a group, well, that just helps me to appreciate the time I spend alone at my desk even more.  And that’s good, too.

Are you part of any groups?  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Until next week,

Amy