Getting pecked to death:Are critique groups worth it?

By P.J. Parrish

I recently joined a critique group. Those who know me might think that’s weird. I’ve been published professionally for more than 20 years. I’ve done my share of teaching and should know how to do this by now. And I have a built-in critique group with my co-author sister Kelly.

So why do I need the tsouris?

Three reasons really. First, just because you’ve written some books doesn’t mean it gets any easier. Second, I now have a second home in the suburbs of the ebook Wild West and you need all the neighbors you can find out here among the wolves and cacti. And third…I’m lonely.

We’ll get back to that last one in a second.

But let’s ask the main question here: Are critique groups worth it? Worth it in time, energy and the bruising your ego will surely take? Should you expose your hatching to the cruel world to be pecked at before it’s barely had the chance to sprout feathers let alone wings?  (Whew, labored metaphor alert there).

I used to think critique groups were a waste of time. Maybe that’s because early in my writing life I got involved in one that was really bad. We met at a local bar once a month. (first mistake: combining wine and whine). The members weren’t very good at articulating what was wrong (or even right) in stories and a one guy was really defensive about being rejected by the “Manhattan cabal.” That’s what he actually called New York publishers. I left the group after two sessions, figuring it was cheaper to get depressed at home with a bottle of pinot.

But I think writers are better these days at taking constructive criticism. Maybe it’s because the new world of self-publishing has stripped us of the delusions we might have about how easy it is to write (and sell) a book.  Maybe it’s because in these days of change and turmoil, good editors (even those in the Manhattan cabal) are worth their weight in gold. Whatever the forces at work, I think we’re seeing a shift among writers, a new willingness to get help and get better.

So I’ve come to believe that a critique group can be one of the best tools a developing writer can use. Even experienced writers can benefit from them. But there’s a bunch of caveats that go with this. And I’ll get to those in a second too.

First, let me tell you about my little group. There’s four of us and I was the last to join about two months ago after one of the group, Christine Kling, literally sailed off into the sunset. (She’s an avid sailor and decided to pull up anchor and cruise the Caribbean, though she’s back now). That left Sharon Potts, Neil Plakcy, Chris Jackson…and me, the new cucumber.

We meet every two weeks at a Starbucks but in the week prior we send each other our 10 pages. We each then read and “red pencil” our comments on the pages. We use Word’s TRACK CHANGES function. It’s an editing program that lets you insert comments on a document. Track Changes is a little hinky to learn at first but it’s a cool tool. And most editors in publishing are now using it for their author revisions and expect you to know it as well.

Why just 10 pages at a time? Well, too much makes you skim over surfaces. You can really focus down on a book’s problems if you take it in small bites.

What things? We try not to nitpick and line-edit. That’s for second and third drafts and hopefully copy editors. What we try to help each other with is the Big Picture. Where the plot is going into the ditch, where the character development is lacking, and what — and this is important — to the cold eye seems confusing. But we try to stay flexible. We made an exception to our 10-page rule last week for one of our members. She is struggling with a very complex thriller. Her plot had become a hyrdra-beast and she wanted help simplifiying it. So she gave us a concept and we went from there.

At Starbucks, we pick one author to critique and we take turns going over our Track Change comments (we bring printed-out copies to give to each writer). We also encourage the other critiquers to jump into the conversation if they want to add something to the point at hand. These sessions run about four hours, three lattes and at least one pee break.

Have they helped me? Immensely. I am working on a new Louis Kincaid series book and after I offered up my opening chapter, I was told the tone was completely at odds with where I had left my hero in the previous book. That was a major revelation that has made me rethink my first six chapters. I also came to realize I’ve lapsed into a lazy habit of underwriting. My critique mates want a little more description and detail from me. (Ironically, my sister tells me the same thing). I also learned my treatment of my series backstory (always a tricky thing) was deficient. I was mentioning characters and situations from previous books that weren’t explained enough in the present one to stave off confusion.

What’s really good about getting this kind of feedback is not that they are trying to tell me how to write my book. It’s that this will save me valuable time. In rewrites, of course, but also later when I am deeper into the plot. It’s like hiking through a forest. Alone, I might have gotten far into those dark woods, realized I had  lost my way back on that first turn, and now I have to backtrack to find my way out. Without falling off the ridge.

My hiking mates aren’t telling me where to go. They’re just keeping me on the path I have already chosen.

So, is a critique group for you? I can’t answer that, of course. But I can pose some questions for you:

1. What kind of group do you need? Ideally, face-to-face. If you can stay within your genre, also good but not essential. Good writing is the same whatever the genre. But I’d stay with fiction. Non-fiction folks have their own unique needs.

2. Where are you in your skill level? You need to find like-minded writers but it’s always better if you can link up with some folks who’ve been published. As the saying goes, you want to play tennis with someone better than you or you never improve your game. But be willing to take the heat. If the group seems like a mere pity-party — ie, everyone bitching about their lack of success — get out as soon as you can. It’s cathartic to exchange tales of woe but it should be limited to small-talk after the hard work is done.

3. Where can you find a critique group?  If you’re isolated geographically, there are online groups but it’s pretty gnarly out there, almost like cyber-dating. (There’s one group, Ladies Who Critique, that’s females-only).  Start here for a list. The best way, I think, is through writers organizations. I found my group via contacts I made through my Mystery Writers of America Florida chapter. If the organization doesn’t offer critiques, network and start one yourself. All you need is two or three other committed people. Here’s some good advice on starting your own.

I can also give you some advice on how to handle yourself if you do decide to join a group:

1. Make a commitment. You’ll get only as good as you give. If you join up, be willing to spend whatever time it takes helping the others with their WIPs. Nobody likes the guy who shows up at the party empty-handed, drinks all the good booze and sits in the corner with nothing to say.

2. Be tough but kind. The best editors I’ve had always know how to make revision letters sound like they are really praise letters. They always tell you what you did brilliantly before they smack you upside the head and tell you where you royally screwed up.

3. Don’t get defensive. We are all soft-shelled about our writing but if you can’t take constructive criticism, don’t join a group. Hell, don’t even try to be a real writer for that matter. At our last session, I got defensive about fried pickles. My hero Louis orders a basket of fried pickles. It was one throwaway line but one of my critique buddies wanted more about the pickles. (It’s hard to explain but she was right.) I spent five minutes trying to justify why I didn’t want to write more about those friggin pickles. Later, I realized it had nothing to do with pickles and everything do to with me being prickly.

4. Don’t ever say “Yeah, but…” This is a variation on No. 3. One of your critique mates says, “I can’t figure out what is going on in this scene where the guy is stealing the fried pickles.” And you say, “Yeah but if you just wait until chapter 26, it will all be explained.”   If someone is confused by what you’ve written you should listen to them.  Misdirection is a great writer’s tool. But it is not the same as confusion.

5. Don’t get depressed. Having folks tell you what is wrong with your story is not easy to hear. But a good critique group can be really inspiring.  It can teach you that all writers struggle, that first drafts are never meant to be perfect, and that you can, despite what all the demons in your head are whispering, fix it. Yeah, you might feel like that guy in the picture at the beginning of this blog — that’s Prometheus, who Zeus tied to a rock and sent down an eagle to peck the guy’s liver to shreds. But you can also get a big dose of camaraderie through a good critique group.

And that brings me back to my last point — the thing I said about feeling lonely.

We all do, right? We sit here in our old yoga pants and Bob Seger t-shirts, poking away at our keyboards, hoping this STUFF we are storing away each day might actually coalese into a book and be read someday. We surf the internet, read articles about how to improve our craft and blogs about how to market them. But sometimes, as that great western philosopher Bruce Springsteen says, all we really need is some human touch.

We need to know we’re not alone. We need to hear other footsteps behind us on the path.

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30 thoughts on “Getting pecked to death:Are critique groups worth it?

  1. Kris, I have never worn yoga pants, nor do I own a Bob Seger tee shirt. And I’ve never been part of a critique group. I have had some people in workshops over the years who’ve shown me things that needed fixing, but they’ve said to me, “But my critique group said….” Sometimes odd memes develop and become a group “law.”

    I’m agnostic on the net benefits of critique groups. I will be most interested in the comments.

  2. James,
    Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I have encountered the same group law when I have done individual critiques. It’s a variation on “yeah but my brother said he really enjoyed it.” Originally I wrote about this as one of the caveats but the post was running long so I cut it. I agree that the wrong critique group can be almost crippling.

  3. I’ve never found a group that worked for me. Your 10-pg notion sounds interesting, especially if you don’t spend too much time on line edits. It’s been my experience that people who can see the big picture are rare. A small grp of 4 is good too. That way you don’t get inundated with work to prepare for your bi-weekly meet up. With that kind of schedule, I’d be chapters ahead and would have to wait a few months to catch up to my ending though. With deadlines, that wouldn’t work for me.

    I completely understand about the social aspects. I’ve been staying in touch with the local writing community in various ways, from speaking at meetings to conducting specialized workshops to having fun dinners.

    Something that would help me more is a new book plotting retreat or a trouble shooting session where brainstorming comes into play. After your post, you’ve got me thinking again about the benefits of a small group. It would depend strongly on who is in the group & what I feel that I need. It sounds like you’ve got a good combo that’s working for you. And you’re right, it doesn’t get easier. Each book has it’s challenges. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jordan,
      Yes, i am lucky in that the folks I am with are all pros in the small p and large p sense of the word. We concentrate mainly on plot problems (which i think it where most of us can benefit from a second or third brain. Because, as you said, someone who can see the big picture, is rare. Even in professional editors.

  4. Friends of mine, Merline Lovelace & Maggie Price, have been crit partners for years. They are both well-published. They meet once a week for a concise session to keep their projects moving forward. They may plot and brainstorm books or work on the week’s writing. They both write the same genre, romance. It really works for them. They are good friends who can be honest with each other. Both good writers too.

  5. I look at crit groups just as I do a physical therapist or a trainer–you listen carefully to their advice, but ultimately, it’s your body and you have to do the things to take care of it that are right for you.

    As long as you never forget that, it’s worth it to get a fresh, hard look from another person’s perspective.

    • Exactly, BK…that’s how I think of it as well. Like a good therapist a good critique can tell you that you might have a problem (which you tend to already know at some level!). But they back off and let you find a way to fix it.

  6. Another thing to consider is how new what you bring to the group is. I find it’s most useful to me to bring a second draft, because by then I’ve worked out the kinks I can see– changed names, repeated words or phrases, and so on. But I know some people like to bring in work that’s so fresh you can almost smell the ink!

    • Maybe the temptation is strong, Neil, for some writers to always bring in fresh meat? It’s a good excuse to not work on the stuff that needs fixing maybe.

  7. Excellent post, Kris. I’ve often envied you and Kelly for the very reason that it is so helpful to have someone to bounce ideas around with. We have all had the experience of dealing with any problem, even one that is not a writing problem, and then asking a friend for help. In the process of explaining the problem, the solution just pops into your head. Our brains work better when they are interacting with others. I’ve found that what I get most from the group is a jump start to the brain. Somebody in the group will say ABC and while I might not agree with them, that doesn’t matter. It gets me thinking about that part of my story and later I will change it to XYZ. I haven’t taken their ideas, but I have used their comments as a catalyst to come up with ideas of my own.

    • Yup. I think this is the same impulse that is behind the “return to the office” movement going on lately. The isolation of working from home is, according to some experts, has the effect of stifling creativity because researchers are finding we need face to face interaction to get our brains moving.

  8. I’ve always gone in and out of critique groups, sometimes sharing new work, sometimes working alone. I like both.
    It’s always good to hear my work read aloud, and I’d rather read to a group than sitting in my rocking chair. I find that reading to a group feels almost like “publishing,” very satisfying. And I do get a lot of help. Sometimes even a question makes me rethink a character or a plot line.
    I had a funny experience last month. I read to a large, mixed group, and when I read the word “crotch” in a scene, a ripple ran around the room, movement, indrawn breath. I looked up in surprise. Isn’t that an ordinary word? A familiar word for a part of the body? At the end, the group leader advised me not to use “that word.”
    It’s hardly a vulgarity…is it?

    • Not in my dictionary Martha! What are you supposed to call it? I find it interesting that your group reads out loud. So your critique partners do not get to see your WIP ahead of time and really think about their response? Doesn’t this lead to superficial judgments? Just curious.

  9. Loved your post, Kris, especially the depiction of yourself as Prometheus getting pecked to death. I think most of us cringe when our “babies” are examined so closely by others. And our natural reaction is defensiveness. “Oh–they’re missing the point!” But I’ve learned when I think about the suggestions later that night or the next day, they’re generally spot on and I’m amazed that I hadn’t recognized the problems myself. But that’s the point–we’re so close to our own work that we can’t evaluate it clearly. For me, having insightful critique partners has made a tremendous difference in the quality of my own writing.

  10. What a great posting, Kris. I’ve nothing witty to add. Getting the right mix of people seems key. Wow! Then the balls go up in the air. It sounds just perfect. Some of us have a critique group going in our heads. Woo-hoo. And that sound behind you on the trail just might be ole Griz.

    • LOL! Haven’t you had one of those bad writing days when you WISH you heard footsteps behind you? But there’s nothing but crickets. I’m having one of those today.

  11. I was in a critique group years ago with 3 people who became my close friends. We met twice a month face-to-face and the criticism & comments were very helpful. The problem was that we didn’t critique very often. Most of our time was spent chit-chatting and two of the members barely had pages to contribute.

    I’ve since built up a couple of go-to critique partners, but it’s over email, which means we’re bad at schedules and deadlines!

  12. Learning to critique other writers is a skill. There has to be a balance of honesty, generosity, and compassion. It’s easy to point out flaws, but it takes experience and insight to provide possible solutions. I find that attitude and intention are vital. I can take any amount of criticism if I know that the person offering it has put some thought into the comments. And, when it comes to it, I’d rather hear my failings from those who care about me and my work than reading about them in an agent’s rejection letter or a poor review by a dissatisfied reader. Great post.

    • Carrie: Exactly. I think it’s interesting that this post has generated (evolved?) more into a discussion of how to take (and give) criticism. And you’re right; the critic must be able to offer insights not just negativity. It’s a challenge, too, I think to not impose your own STYLE on a fellow writer. You have to know how to help them within the dictates of their own voice.

  13. Great post, PJ. I appreciate both of my critique groups. (Each for a different age level.) One is internet, but they’re a great group of people that have helped me grow as a writer.

  14. Good Blog…
    I joined a writers critique group in Boca Raton, FL some months ago … thinking it would do me some good and get constructive feedback.
    After the first meeting, I felt very irrelevant and not welcome.
    There were mostly academics at ‘the gathering’ and their submission reviews were at best, better reviewed by family and friends.
    I would have never put 2 cents on the line for even their rough drafts.
    I would love to find a writer group that had some guidance by a professional writer/reader, instead of strong egos.

    • Dave,
      Boy I hear you. Like I wrote, my first experience was bad. I’m thinking that if you try it again, try to find a good fiction-only group. Academics can be the worst (Hey, I can say that; my degree is in education). So can some journalists because they think just because they write, they can write fiction. (I can say this because I am a recovering journalist). It takes a special type of brain to write fiction.

  15. Beth wrote about her great experience with writers critique groups on the internet.
    This is true however; I am reluctant to join such a group, as the internet has too many probing ‘behind the scenes’ eyes.

  16. Closest I’ve come to a critique group is having a couple of beta readers, unless you count talking to that guy who always shows up on the shiny wall when I go to the bathroom.

    He seems like a nice enough fellow but he creeps me out showing up everytime I come into the bathroom, always trying to talk at the same time I do. I’m afraid that one of these days he’s going to jump out of the room on the other side of the sink…just creepy.

  17. I love my critique group. We’ve been together for years and are there for support through life’s changes as well. I wouldn’t be published if not for them. They always point out things in my work that need improvements.

  18. I once visited a critique group at my local library and watched a young woman pour her heart out in her prose — about motherhood, the meaning of life, parenting, death. After about five minutes of reading, the facilitator asked for comments from the group, and a woman raised her hand and said, “I just find it unbelievable that a person would have the washing machine and dishwasher running at the same time.” Needless to say, I never went back. I decided, instead, to go to grad school. 🙂

  19. Great post, Kris… I’ve had good and bad critique groups. The good, what a joy! The bad? Well, at least I got a column (and subsequently a blog post) out of it! I think having members with similar sensibilities is as important, maybe more, than what kind of stuff they write. Giving and generous with praise and constructive criticism, good. Self-important and hyper-critical over the minor stuff? Bad.

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