What a Critique Group Can…and Cannot…Do For You

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Today, we’re pleased to welcome editor and writer Debbie Burke back to TKZ.

by Debbie Burke

Critique groups are invaluable, if not essential, to the serious author. But they may not provide all the answers a writer needs. First, though, let’s talk about their benefits.

What are critique group strengths?    

Support – A CG provides much-needed camaraderie in this oft-lonely business. They throw us a lifeline when we get discouraged, nag us when we’re slacking off, and lend a shoulder to cry on when we receive rejections. They serve as our cheerleaders, therapists, and comrades in the trenches. They’re the first ones to open champagne for our successes. CG members are not only writing colleagues, they often become close friends. We develop a high level of trust and respect for each other, both professionally and personally.

Brainstorming – Here, critique groups really shine. If two heads are better than one, six or eight heads are exponentially better at throwing out suggestions. Feeding off each others energies and ideas, CGs solve many dilemmas that stymy a writer. I can’t count the number of dead ends CGs helped me work through.

Accountability – CGs exert pressure, either subtle or overt, to produce a certain number of pages for each session. They act as a de facto deadline for writers who don’t yet have an editor or agent breathing down their neck. If you show up empty-handed, you’re not meeting your obligation. Dozens of times, I’ve heard writers say, “I wouldn’t have written anything this week, except I needed to submit to the group.”

What are some CG limitations?

Diagnosis – CGs generally do a good job of homing in on a manuscript’s weak spots. If two or more people mark the same passage, you should pay attention. But while they recognize there is a problem, they can’t always diagnose exactly what it is or how to fix it. If CG suggestions don’t help enough, consultation with a developmental editor may be worthwhile.

Overlapping relationships – CG friendships may cloud our judgment of the story. A member of my group, psychologist Ann Minnett (author of Burden of Breath and Serita’s Shelf Life) recently offered a perceptive observation: “When I read A’s chapter, I hear her voice and accent. When I read B’s chapter, I think of her sense of humor, and can’t help but laugh.”

Which made me wonder…Does your CG like your story or do they like you?

When you’re face-to-face with your friends, you hear her charming British accent, see his playful wink. However, when a book is published, most readers will never meet the author, meaning the words must shoulder all the work. They need to be effective by themselves, without explanation or amplification.

Here is where online CGs might give a clearer, more “book-like” perspective. Without personal, visual, or auditory cues, their effort focuses entirely on the words.

Time constraints – My CG meets every two weeks, submitting 15-20 pages per session. At that rate, reviewing a novel-length manuscript takes six months to a year. By the time the group reaches the climactic chapter on page 365, no one remembers a subtle, but important, clue on page 48 that set up the surprise twist. This piecemeal approach is the most vexing limitation I’ve experienced with CGs.

Micro vs. Macro View – A corollary to the time constraint problem is the micro view by a CG. They examine your 20 pages per week and help polish each passage till it shines. When you string all these perfect chapters together, the resulting book should be excellent. Right?

Not necessarily. Close examination under the CG microscope may not adequately address global issues of plot development, pace, and momentum that require a macro view from an airplane.

At this point, beta readers or a professional editor may be more useful than a CG to determine how well the overall scope of your novel works.

Objectivity – Your CG works for months or years on a manuscript. They are mindful of the original draft and every subsequent rewrite. They help you build the story and become almost as vested as you are. But, like you, they’ve grown too close to the novel. Even if they beta-read the whole book, they may subconsciously insert things from earlier drafts that you later cut. They might not realize the missing part is missing.

At what point do you need to move beyond the critique group?

In my experience, CGs are probably most helpful for a work in progress. They provide invaluable suggestions to get you out of corners. They catch typos, misspellings, word choice goofs, and awkward phrasing. They tell you if characters are flat and boring or ridiculously over-the-top. They pull you out of the ditch and keep you moving forward.

After your CG has reviewed at least one complete draft, and you’ve incorporated their feedback, suggestions, and polishing, now it’s time to find beta readers and/or a professional editor. In fairness, you should submit a draft that’s as clean and error-free as possible. Beta readers or editors shouldn’t spend time line-editing when what you’re really seeking is the Big Picture. The cleaner the draft, the more their efforts can be focused on important issues.

Depending on how extensive the rewrite needs to be, you may want to run the revision draft through your CG one more time to ensure you’ve achieved improvements suggested by betas and/or editors.

Critique groups can be a writer’s best friend. By understanding both their strengths and limitations, you’ll receive maximum benefit from them.

How about you, TKZers? What is most helpful about your critique group?  What are the biggest limitations?

IMG_2585(1)Debbie Burke has participated in critique groups for more than twenty-five years. She credits critique buddies with keeping her sane (almost).

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20 thoughts on “What a Critique Group Can…and Cannot…Do For You

  1. It continues to amaze me what others in my critique group find in my wip that I somehow overlooked: logic errors, continuity lapses, etc. And yes, some comments are off the wall, but I believe ALL should be considered.

    • How true, Mike. Many times I’ve submitted a chapter I thought was perfectly clean, only to have my CG point out an embarrassing number of goofs. It speaks to objectivity–we know what we *think* we wrote, but the CG reads the exact words we did write.

      Like you, I pay attention to every comment, even off-of-the wall ones. I may dismiss them, but not without figuring out if there really is a problem which prompted the comment.

  2. Not a fan of group activities. I run by myself, I work by myself, I write by myself. When I need feedback, I use beta readers that I trust.

    I should offer the caveat that I am not a ‘serious’ writer. Also, to this point, not a series writer. (both said with tongue firmly set in cheek.)

  3. I envy your independence, Paul! Without a “deadline,” I’m a bit of a slug.

    Your self-discipline shows you’re *serious* enough!

  4. I love my critique group(s) (I’ve belonged to several over the years). I find them enormously helpful in spotting places where the writing is confusing, lags in the pacing, or some other issue. I do tend to get frustrated with my CGs from time to time–I see writers being given valid, constructive criticism, week after week. But comes the next week, they bring in new work with THE EXACT SAME ISSUES. After a while, I feel like giving up giving them any advice, except the bland encouragement of “Keep Going”!

    Debbie, thank you for being our guest again here at TKZ. Your post just gave me an idea. What if we started a critique group composed solely of TKZ readers and bloggers? Membership would be restricted to those who have subscribed to the blog. and who agree to to participate in the critiques. We could submit our pages to all the people who agree in advance to participate in the TKZ critique group. They could send their critiques/comments to me at the TKZ gmail address, I’d distribute the pages to our critique volunteers, and then we could post the notes and comments (the author of the submitted pages would remain anonymous, as usual).
    ***
    *Note: this idea just occurred to me– I haven’t even had a chance to run it by my TKZ blogmates yet, but what does everyone think of the idea?) I’d be happy to turn over one of my regular Tuesday blog days for a “TKZ Critique Group” day, and maybe even the once-a-month Thursday critique day could become a critique by our entire TKZ community, as well. Let us know in the Comments what you think of that idea!
    ***

    In my own experience, I do not rely on Critique Groups to tell me how to fix things in my writing. That’s my job, to figure out how to fix it. But Critique Groups ARE wonderful at pointing out things that need to be be fixed, even when the people giving the critique don’t know how to make the fix. This is the main reason I keep going to CGs. Plus, the CGs force me to get out of the house and interact with other human beings. Otherwise, I might very well become a grumpy hermit herding goats on a mountaintop somewhere, by now.

    • Thanks for having me back, Kathryn. TKZ online critique is a great idea. I’d love to participate in such a group.

      I too have run into the week-after-week folks who never seem to absorb suggestions. Sometimes the same concept has to be repeated by different people in different ways for the writer to “get it.” Occasionally, it finally clicks, and s/he takes a quantum leap forward. Most times though, the person eventually drops out b/c s/he doesn’t want critique, but only affirmation.

      Thanks for having me back.

  5. I facilitated an RMFW critique group for years. We’ve had members who had to be “fired” after being abusive to others, one we had to move to flee from – who later committed suicide (over breakup not our critique), and many we’ve turned down through the audition process – in some cases more than once. Maintaining a high functioning and effect critique group means determining the rules together and then trying hard to stick by them. Being always kind and always honest and always with the goal of helping your fellow writers.

    That question “do they like you or your story?” becomes a special concern when you bring something based on your life…. I’m working on a semi-autobiographical novel and I am always asking my Sisters of the Quill whether their laughter is a result of the scene in the book or because you can totally picture it happen in the family they know. 🙂 Thanks for the post, Debbie!

    • Wow, Karen, a suicidal CG stalker! Sounds like a thriller novel.

      Establishing fair reasonable guidelines and sticking to them is very important. Members who insist on arguing or defending their work don’t benefit themselves or others in the group. The old saying that you learn more when your ears are open and your mouth is closed certainly applies to CGs.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Karen!

      • I have to share a story related to that, Karen. Years ago, before I’d published anything, I applied to join a critique group who had some published, but as it turned out, somewhat snarky members. After I received the note telling me that I hadn’t been accepted, I responded graciously, thanking them for considering me. Shortly after that, I was was accidentally copied on an email in which one member referred to my my response by saying, “Well, at least she didn’t stick her head in the oven.” That snarky comment stayed in my head for a long, long time. I didn’t fully recover until the day I signed a multi-book contract with Penguin Books. 😄

  6. My critique group is small and on line. We’ve been together for a long time (probably at least 4-6 books each, or more). The advantage over the live get-togethers (in addition to the fact that I’m in rural Colorado, one’s in the Chicago area, and another is in London) is that we can submit at our own pace. Our ‘guidelines’ say 2 subs/week, 3K word limit, and to respond within 3 days. But those aren’t fixed rules, and if one of us wants to get the full ms read before sending it to an editor, we’ll read ‘the rest’ of the manuscript. I like the different approaches each brings. One is a computer programmer, and he’ll catch any techno-glitches plus he has an amazing eye for detail. The other sees the big picture, and can tell me when my characters are wandering away from what I’ve set out to make them.

    In fact, right now, I’m looking at feedback asking me if I really need to go into this person’s POV at all. Crit groups make you think, and that’s their true value for me.

    • Terry, sounds like you’ve got a great system worked out with your online group. Connecting with writers from different parts of the globe is enormously beneficial.

      Each member of the group brings unique knowledge, experience, and expertise, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I love it when someone brings up a tidbit or fact I didn’t know before and it works in the story. Or if it’s a good enough tidbit, I’ll change the story to include it.

      Thanks for sharing the online perspective.

  7. Debbie and I were in a magical critique group several years ago, and still value each other’s perspective enough to serve as beta readers when needed. (I owe her lunch and a crit right now!) When we started the group, we had a long discussion of our goals and process, and that proved enormously helpful. We made sure we were (mostly) at the same writing level, so that we could give each other what we needed. Another important decision is whether to form a group with only writers of your genre — mystery, say, or romance — or whether to be cross-genre; pros and cons to each, of course, but it’s an important topic to explore when forming a group.

    Good advice, Debbie!

    • Thanks, Leslie! We did have a terrific group and everyone made a lot of progress. One member even moved on to win multiple Agathas 😉

      Genre-specific or general is an excellent question to consider. I personally like mixed, especially readers who don’t normally read my genre, mystery/suspense, b/c they offer a fresh perspective. But a group focused on the same genre can offer laser-like critique b/c all are familiar with the conventions and parameters.

      Looking forward to swapping mss with you!

  8. I’m in for TKZ group critiques because I learn a lot (or, at least, I integrate existing knowledge) by critiquing.

    I now have only online critiquers at the WIP stage. Once the WIP is “finished,” I turn it over to a couple of beta readers and my favorite editor.

    I love the questions and comments during WIP phase, e.g., Do you WANT your protagonist to be pathetic? (Oops! back to the drawing board for that second scene), There’s no way you can make me believe that would happen (Oops! A contrived plot point.) The list goes on.

    As for varying levels of writing experience and/or craft knowledge… I was the only unpublished author in my first group. Talk about being spoiled! For many years, I thrived on helping other writers, and I still do, but I no longer enjoy having an obvious novice in my critique group, especially one whose writing reveals the same weaknesses week after week. A truly talented novice with a strong desire to improve and who reads about the craft, and especially whose work shows growth from week to week? That’s fine, but those writers are rare indeed.

    • “Do you WANT your protagonist to be pathetic?”

      Yep, Sheryl, that question sends a writer straight back to the drawing board, all right. We might think we’re giving our MC flaws and vulnerabilities to build a satisfying character arc, but the CG says, “TSTL (too stupid to live).”

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  10. As much as I love getting critiques of my own work, I dislike sending them out to writers who cannot cope with someone messing with their babies. I think that falls to them not knowing what they really want or knowing the difference between an editor, a critique partner, and a beta reader.

    I sent my critique of a story (more like the rough draft of a first draft) to a “serious, but newbie” author- someone I considered a friend. I detailed the problems with continuity and pacing, characterisation, and plot. I wrote craft notes to get this person moving in the right direction, as well as suggestions on how to tighten up prose. I very rarely use the words “you” or “your” in a critique, because I separate the writing from the author, especially in this case, since I wasn’t sure about the reaction I would get.

    I got massively skewered by it, not just by a sobbing writer in a hurt-filled message, but by friends of hers who heard what I wrote. Feeling rather bad about it, I looked through my critique for where I had been mean and nasty (I couldn’t see anything untoward), then sent it to another writer friend of mine and asked if I had been too harsh. The comment came back that it was spot on.

    I don’t feel bad for having sent it to her, but it made me appreciate the pitfalls of an author who doesn’t know what they actually want out of a critique or an editor– or what they actually need. And needless to say, I won’t be critiquing for them any longer.

    • Mollie, you’ve hit upon the great peril of critiquing: the defensive writer who knows not.

      New writers are the proud parents of ugly babies. I usually try the “sandwich” approach, a layer of praise, suggestions, followed by another layer praise, even if it’s a stretch to find something praiseworthy. As you mentioned, avoiding “you” and “yours” is an excellent way to maintain professional distance. I also try to frame advice in questions like “What if you tried XYZ?” or “What would happen if the character does ABC?”

      But sometimes, no matter how diplomatic a critique is, it blows up in your face.

      Writers who are truly serious may initially burst into tears, but later realize the validity of the critique, and rewrite. Eventually they develop the calluses we all need to endure criticism.

      The others…well, their mothers absolutely love their stories.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

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