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Writing Articles

 

Critique Groups—To Join or Not to Join

Published: Writers’ Journal 2005

 

I host an empowering, motivating critique group that meets once a week at Borders Bookstore in Montclair, California.  Since its conception seven years ago, our members have written and published many articles and several books, crediting the invaluable critiques they received.  Consequently, I strongly recommend joining such a group.

 

Before you research groups in your area, however, you should be clear about your expectations.  If you don’t want to be critiqued, do not join a critique group.  This may seem obvious, but I have seen the look of shock on the faces of new members when valid suggestions are made or problems are pointed out.  They have been told by others that their writing is wonderful.  Even so, their work is going to be carefully scrutinized.  Although positive reinforcement should be a part of the process, pointing out what doesn’t work is what a critique group is all about.  If two or more members voice a concern, it should be seriously considered.  Displaying the courage to ask for constructive criticism and having the wisdom to accept it can lead a committed writer toward  a successful publishing career.

 

Sometimes writers only want to share their work with others, and that's fine.  There is value in meeting with those of like mind and joining such groups can alleviate the isolation writers often feel.  Writing clubs offer this kind of support and camaraderie.  I belong to the Inland Empire Branch of The California Writers Club.  We provide speakers, workshops, scholarships and a monthly newsletter.  Members share writing successes (or frustrations) and write from prompts extemporaneously.  It is great fun, but it is not a critique group.

 

If you want to hone your skills and receive honest feedback, you must be willing to put your writing out there.  Once published, reviews are part of the territory, and critique groups can prepare you for that experience.

 

Let’s assume you are ready for an in-depth critique of your work, and that you want to educate yourself about the marketing process.  What should you look for in a critique group? 

 

The members of our group come to weekly meetings prepared to offer critiques in a diplomatic, positive manner.  New members are guided through the marketing process.  Information about writing events, conferences and workshops is shared, as well as marketing and publishing experiences.  Members are asked to adhere to the following guidelines:

 

       Critique honestly but thoughtfully, and if possible, begin with positive reinforcement.  Although the definition of critique is "to criticize," there is a subtle difference between the two words.

       Correct grammar and punctuation on the manuscript and verbalize only when one of the rules of grammar needs clarification.

       Circle or underline repetitive words.

        Mark sentences and paragraphs that are confusing or slow the flow of writing.

        Be succinct.  After a brief discussion, allow the writer to accept or reject suggestions.  It is always the writer's call.

       Never be condescending to those who are educating themselves regarding writing and marketing, as it is an on-going process for everyone.

           

When these guidelines are not followed, problems can arise.  Occasionally, some writers may be dismissive of certain genres, and this comes across in their attitude.  For a critique to be helpful and accurate, manuscripts must be critiqued within their genre.  Literary writers may want others to write to their standards and insist on  “more” of everything.  If a book is intended to be a "page turner" and "a fast read," this advice can be detrimental.  On the other hand, mainstream writers may critique literary manuscripts by commercial standards, e.g., too much description, ignoring the fact that the beauty of literary writing lies in word choice and often lengthy description.  Less confident writers may take these confusing critiques to heart and decide they don’t have the writing skills to be successful.  They may hesitate to market their work.

           

A good facilitator will not let this happen, even if it means diplomatically suggesting that a member unwilling to abide by the guidelines might want to find a group that better meets his or her needs.  No one should ever leave a meeting disempowered.  Every writer should feel motivated to go home and write.

 

When deciding whether or not to join a critique group, ask yourself the following questions:  Do you feel the exciting creative spark that comes from being in the company of other writers?  Have you received a constructive critique?  Do you feel good about yourself as a writer?   Are you looking forward to returning to the next meeting?   If not, run!  You need to find writers who share your beliefs and a place where you feel accepted and comfortable.  If all your answers are in the affirmative, rejoice!  You have found the right critique group for you.