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).