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On Writer’s Critique Groups

Vintage Tools of the Novelist

Vintage Tools of the Novelist


When novice writers ask their more experienced brethren for advice, we frequently recommend joining a writer’s group. Believe me, it can be very helpful. There are two kinds of fiction writers who resist this advice, who happen to be the ones who need it most. The first is supremely confident, convinced of their own genius. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see one’s own mistakes and flaws, and that is where a constructive critique is essential. The second type is shy and fearful of showing their work to anyone. If the thought of criticism from a sympathetic fellow writer is daunting, how much more frightening will it be when their work goes before the public?

Where you locate a critique group? Since the advent of the Internet, it’s been easy. Just search on sites like meetup.com or groupspaces.com. It pays to be selective, however, because not all critique groups are created equal. It helps to look for like-minded folks who are interested in the same genre. Years ago I joined a group of fellow students from an ASU writing course, and I was the only sci-fi writer there. Though they did their best to give me feedback, it wasn’t nearly as useful as the critiques I’ve gotten from fellow sci-fi and fantasy writers.

Another helpful aspect of the Internet is that it enables reading everyone’s work in advance, saving time and resources. I’ve been in groups that used paper printouts and read them for the first time at the meeting. It’s much better to have some time to digest it. I try to read all submissions at least twice. Subtle issues may not be apparent the first time through.

It’s important to approach critiquing, and being critiqued, with the proper attitude. Some people become defensive and argumentative. Regardless of whether you agree, one should receive such advice gracefully. There are times to stick to your guns and times to defer to consensus. My rule of thumb is that if three people ding my submission on a particular issue, they are most likely correct. Critiquing is also a fine art. Novice group members are subject to two temptations. The first is to adhere blindly to an arbitrary rule of style, such as “all adverbs are bad.” The second is to try to browbeat others into your own writing style. Some writers like terse fast-paced prose while others are more descriptive and flowery. I liken these differences to musical genres, each of which has its time and place.

Though reviewers should flag spelling and grammatical errors, an experienced writer should have few of those. Courtesy dictates that we strive to give the group a polished submission. Besides my word processor’s spell and grammar checkers, I use the website grammarly.com is an additional resource. (So far I’m still using their free version.) As for critiquing others’ work, the most useful feedback concerns plot and substance. Does the dialog sound natural? Does the plot make sense? Will readers be interested or bored? Did the author inadvertently change the spelling of a character’s name?

Writing is a lonely pursuit, but it can benefit greatly from the advice of other writers. Though some can produce first-rate fiction without help, most of us are not so brilliant. Writer’s groups come in many types as writers do. It pays to be selective and find one that fits your genre, personality, and writing style.

This article was first published on the Phoenix Publishing and Book Promotion Blog.