Are critique groups worthwhile?

[August 2007] Writers sometimes debate the value of being part of a critique group or attending writers’ guild meetings. I won’t generalize. What works for one person may not for another. I can only relate my own experiences and hope that within this stream of words you’ll find something that applies to your situation.1

Over the past decade, I’ve belonged to two different critique groups—one live and one virtual. I joined the Woodlands Writers Guild (WWG) in 1999. My first contact with the Guild was sometime in the late 90s through one of their annual conferences where Joe R. Lansdale was a guest of honor. I wasn’t writing at the time, but I loved Lansdale’s books—especially his Hap and Leonard novels—so I attended the day-long conference.

There were other writer guests—Sean Stewart (who wrote Galveston) and a professor from the University of Houston who was the son of some famous science fiction writer whose name escapes me—and probably some agents and editors, but Lansdale stole the show with his casual and disarming style. When I started writing a few years later, I remembered the Guild and decided to give them a try.

The group meets on the first and third Tuesday of the month. At 6:30 there’s a business meeting that lasts about half an hour. As the final item on the agenda, members announce any recent acceptances or rejections. Both are met with the same applause, because they’re equal indications that writers are submitting their work, hoping to be accepted but exposing themselves to the possibility of rejection.

Once every month or two, a guest speaker talks about some aspect of writing or publishing. Afterward, the attendees, usually 15-30 in number, break up into groups of six-to-eight people for the critique session. Anyone wanting criticism brings several copies of up to eight pages of a work, distributes them to the members of their group and reads while the others follow along. Occasionally the author alerts the group to look for something specific— characterization, pacing, dialog—about which he or she would like feedback, but not always. After each reading, live reactions are provided, ranging from grammatical corrections to more general contextual criticism.

I had to check my ego at the door to keep from getting defensive when someone didn’t like what I’d done, but I also had to keep from blindly accepting all the feedback I received. I learned early on that the criticisms I received weren’t always valid. Each group member interpreted my work through the filter of his or her own creativity. I listened for common themes in the feedback. Places where readers were confused or dissatisfied. Obvious continuity errors or inconsistencies. In the final analysis, the work was mine and the decision about how to present it was mine, too.

We were never successful in getting a take-home critique program running, partly because of the relative infrequency of the meetings, but also because we didn’t have fixed groups from one meeting to the next, creating a lack of continuity. I might find myself with a poet, an essayist, a spiritual writer (usually Christian, but not always) and a science fiction author. The next week some of the same people might be in my group or the composition might be completely different.

I stuck with the WWG for a long time—I was even president for a term—but as the years went by, my participation dwindled until at the end I was only going for the business meeting and leaving before the critique session. Why? Because I wasn’t getting the kind of feedback I needed. Live critique doesn’t give the other participants much time to consider the work, so the advice I was getting was mostly grammatical—and I do a decent job of that myself. Not perfect (I’m sure an astute reader will find any number of errors in this essay), but it’s not rocket science. What I needed was structural feedback, big picture stuff, and I wasn’t getting it. Other than having my work proofread, the only benefit I received was some ego boosting when people liked what I wrote—which isn’t to be dismissed. One reason we perform public readings at conventions is to get the same immediate gratification stage actors thrive on and writers seldom receive because of the distance between us and our audience.

Also—and I hope this doesn’t come off sounding too pompous—many of the Guild members were perpetual aspiring writers, whereas at some point I stopped aspiring and became a writer. I outgrew the group. A few others were published, mostly in small press or through POD deals, but anyone who achieved a certain measure of success—one former member, a school teacher, has published at least a half dozen historical romance novels—stopped coming after a while.

I kept going to the business meetings for a while as a show of support for the other writers, and for the social aspect—it was good to commiserate about the shared experience of laboring at a common craft—but eventually I realized the time I was spending at these meetings was better spent writing.

At around the same time as I joined the WWG, I also became a member of a message board with a small group of people who shared a common interest. A few of us also happened to be writers, so we started e-mailing works in progress to each other. We’d then post our feedback on the message board. The non-writing members of the board participated with the critiques, too.

The online critique process was far more productive. By posting our thoughts on the message board instead of e-mailing them directly to the author, we turned the critique into a dialog. Other readers of the same story would chime in with their thoughts, sometimes offering a dissenting opinion to that of the original commentary. Through this process, I received a lot of valuable and constructive criticism when I was just starting out. Several stories that we circulated back then have seen publication—a few of them mine. Monica J. O’Rourke, a name some of you will recognize, was also a member of that group.

We stuck together for quite a while, but eventually drifted apart. I haven’t been part of an organized critique group since.

What’s the take-home message? I think that writing and critique groups may be of value to writers starting out. We’re like toddlers, testing our footing, sometimes losing our balance. We’re trying to express ourselves while craving and needing encouragement for what we’re doing. When we stumble, we’re in a supportive environment, where someone can hold out a hand to us. Once we reach a certain point, though—and those of us who are really determined will—we gain a surer footing. We find our voice, and some measure of confidence.

That’s not to say we still don’t need help—but what we need is more sophisticated and can’t be provided by toddlers. We find a mentor or a first reader who becomes our one-person focus group—the person who reins us in when we go too far or who spots the gaping holes in continuity or logic that we miss because we’re too close to the work.

Once we start publishing, the editors who shepherd our works from screen to page become our ultimate critique group. I’m working with a very hands-on editor at the moment, and it is a delight. He knows what he wants, but he also discerns what he thinks I want from the story and is helping me get there.

Another way of looking at this: We attend kindergarten, grade school, high school and perhaps university. At each stage, we require different levels of support, from spoon-feeding to tutorials and independent study.

If I still belonged to a critique group, I might have showed them this essay before I posted it here (read it aloud) for all the world to see (hear). I wonder what sort of feedback they would have provided.

1 The presence of anything that might be construed as advice within this essay is not guaranteed

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