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When Do I Involve a Critique Group?

I just spent an amazing weekend at Big Sur with my colleagues, some great editor and writer friends, and a whole gaggle of talented, hardworking writers. How refreshing and invigorating (and, of course, exhausting, but so worth it)! I was especially proud of my workshop groups at this Big Sur because my writers became so close that they were eating together and hanging out long after our scheduled sessions were over. There was even talk of extending the conference connection and forming a critique group after the weekend ended.

This made me think, as I frequently do, about the glory of critique groups and readers. All writers need them, no matter if you’ve never thought so or had unsuccessful situations in the past. Good critique partners and readers are worth their weight in gold, truly. Seeing critique in action made me think of reader Melissa’s question:

What’s the best time to start submitting work to a critique group? Should you wait until it’s finished or submit chapters as they’re written? Also, are beta readers the same as a critique group?

The point of critique of any kind is to get other eyes (ideally, eyes that belong to writers who know what they’re talking about) on your work. How do you do that? First, there are critique partners or critique groups (the name isn’t important). These are other writers who you exchange work and commentary with, ideally on a regular basis. Some writers love working with local groups, but you don’t have to know your crit partners in person…these groups work well over the Internet or the phone, too.

Critique partners or groups work best when writers convene regularly and are committed to one another, so that a core group can stay together over the course of many projects. Critique partners become intimately familiar with your writing, your stories, your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This kind of continuity lets you get down to business and really get into the nitty gritty of the writing (ideally…you can read more about what makes a great critique partner or group here).

Some groups all want a writer to have a completed manuscript, others will be open to seeing work in progress…sometimes literally as it comes hot off the press (or printer). You should talk this over with your critique partners and make a decision that appeals to everyone.

It can be useful and exciting to get feedback on a project while you’re still creating it. It is even more useful, I think, to finish something, revise it on your own for a few passes, and then bring in your critique partners. A novel changes so much during the writing process, that it may be more helpful for you to work it out and get it written first, before even thinking about feedback and revision.

There is a small distinction, in my mind, between critique groups (or partners…I’ve used both terms interchangeably here) and beta readers. When I think of critique partners, I think of a group that meets regularly, will read whatever you give them, and really drill into it. That could mean reading an entire manuscript, or it could mean reading twenty versions of one chapter as you try to get it right. Critique groups should be very hands on and intense. Beta readers are people who read the whole manuscript and give feedback, but who may not give as much writing/revision/craft advice as your regular critique group. Beta readers are great if you want new eyes on a project, or if you want to hear from someone who doesn’t already know the story (like if you’re writing a murder mystery and really want to see if your red herrings work, but you’re worried whether your critique partners, who already know the whole story, will be able to judge after a few revisions).

Most of the professional writers I know have a regular critique group and then a few beta readers who they reach out to after the manuscript has been revised and polished, just for some quick feedback and a last minute read before it goes to their agent or editor, just to make sure the book is working.

But if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about having a pocketful of beta readers and a five-person bi-monthly, dedicated critique group. Maybe find a partner online (through the Verla Kay Blueboards, or the SCBWI) or at a writer’s conference. If that partner doesn’t work, find another one. I just did a Critique Connection post a few weeks ago, so that might be a place to search. The point is, start finding some critique opportunities and getting comfortable with the practice of giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback from a supportive community of writers. Hone your revision skills. Take it one step at a time. You’ll find the right mix that works for you.

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  1. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    Met my best individual critique partners through Verla’s. Can’t go wrong with the Blue Boards!

  2. Marybk’s avatar

    I heart my crit partners and beta readers. Writers are such a fantastic group, in general–generous with their time, willing to call you on your tics, and always rooting for you.

    When developing a project, I like to get some initial feedback after the first 10k words I write to make sure my characters are compelling and the story has page-turning appeal.

    There are different kids of crit partners and beta readers, too, and they all help catch different types of things. Couldn’t live without them. :)

  3. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Totally bizarre. I posted a poll this morning, over at Verla’s, about this! I was wondering about how many published/unpublished writers had critique groups/partners/neither. I was intrigued because I’d realised some writers don’t have critique groups/partners and I wondered about that. I would be lost without my crit group. It seems, though, that those who don’t rely instead on their editors or agents for crits.

  4. Cyndi’s avatar

    I met my group and individual partners through Verla’s, too. What a difference it makes having that support and feedback! I know I’ve improved a lot faster than I ever would have on my own.

    (I voted in your poll, Siski ;) )

  5. Ishta’s avatar

    I met my crit groups (I have two – one for PBs and one for MG/YA) through the SCBWI, and they are awesome. I’d be lost without them! And I found one CP through your critique connection, Mary, so thank you so much for that!

    This was a great post; I appreciated reading your distinction between CPs and Betas. They perform such different functions, I can’t imagine how a writer can go without either of them.

  6. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    I’ve learned so much from my critique group partners and have now come to the point where I feel I have good feedback to offer as well. It’s wonderful to see others stories growing and advancing through your feedback and their hard work and dedication.

  7. Meagan Spooner’s avatar

    For me, I like to have readers while I’m writing the first draft who are excited about the story, claim (however truthfully) to enjoy the story, demand more chapters, etc. It’s a big love fest, with very little (if any) critique involved. It keeps me excited about the manuscript and keeps me from second-guessing myself.

    The second I finish the last chapter, though, I stop wanting the happy love-fest readers and start needing people who are willing to help me rip the thing apart. I’ll usually revise it once on my own and then send it off to a first round of critiquers. Then repeat as necessary (or ad nauseum) until the book is ready.

  8. Jean Ann Williams’s avatar

    Most of my critique partner experiences have been wonderful. Even the time I made a complete fool of myself with my poor writing, and I drove home in tears, saying, “I’ll show them.”

    I’ve grown a bunch since that time over thirteen years ago. So, I say that’s wonderful.

    Nice post, Mary!

  9. Holly’s avatar

    I don’t know what I’d do without my critique partner or my beta readers! Not only are they essential to my writing, but they’ve become really great friends too.

  10. LM Preston’s avatar

    Luckily I’ve had mostly positive critique/beta experiences. There are some critique feedback that can be harmful to a writer’s tenacious spirit to improve so I do caution to pick your critique/beta’s wisely. Exchanging a chapter or two first sometimes can give you a feel for the critique partner’s style.

  11. Cassandra’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! It was a nice reminder of the importance of the opinions of others. For me, the feedback of other people is truly the key to improving my ideas, tweaking my plot, inserting details as necessary, and tightening up loose ends. It’s the ultimate one-stop-shop for story improvement! Except for the extensive revisions afterward, of course. ;) But it’s not so bad when you know what changes people are looking for.

    I established my own monthly writer’s group, and we’re now nearly ten members strong, nine months later. Since starting the group, I’ve noticed significant changes in my style and the strength of my writing. The advice and opinions of another set of eyes are truly invaluable. They pick up on things you didn’t, provide honest opinions you [think] you don’t want to hear, and ultimately help your writing. As long as I am a writer, I’ll always have my critique group.

  12. George Shannon’s avatar

    Mary,

    Thanks for this post. I will be meeting with my critique tomorrow, and they are invaluable. I believe the most significant thing I’ve learned from our ten years together is how let go of being defensive about my writing. I may not always be delighted to hear their comments, questions or suggestions. But I trust they are sincerely offered with the goal of helping me make the best book I can. When I’m not feeling anxious or defensive I am much more able to truly hear what they have to say. Once I’m able to listen openly, I am more able to take suggestions I think will help me make the book I’m trying to make. And, their comments that don’t match my goal and vision of the book can be placed aside. My group has also developed a way to group-think-aloud. By tossing ideas and questions back and forth we often find just the right tweak or word or sentence needed in the manuscript being discussed.

    There have certainly been times I left my writing group feeling flat or disappointed they didn’t award my new story the Noble prize. But with only one exception, by the time I reach home I have always excited to get back to work on my manuscript. Why? My friends’ comments, questions, and challenges are invigorating.

  13. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Having a critique group has got to be one of the most important things to do as a writer. I’ve had some great one-off critiques from Verla’s, and made some lovely friends from there too.

    My crit group was made up of WriteonCon folks and they are awesome. I have been a beta reader for a couple of people recently even though they already have crit groups and it is really good giving a different perspective, new ideas when you haven’t read the ms thousands of times.

    Great post Mary!

  14. Gail Shepherd’s avatar

    I have three separate critique partners now, thanks to a hookup Mary did a month or so ago, and its been really interesting to see how differently these individuals respond to the same material. It’s been invaluable. They’re looking at a first draft of a first (unfinished) novel, and I’ve been moved to make major changes: collapsing characters, re-plotting whole sections, shuffling chapters — even parts of the book they haven’t seen yet! Having critique partners fairly early in the writing process has saved me from traveling a long way down dead end roads, I think, even if I’m making intuitive leaps rather than changes based directly on their suggestions (although there are certainly some of those too). Thanks to these crit partners and workshops at Big Sur (truly inspiring!) I’ve grown tremendously as a writer — I highly recommend both.

  15. Melissa’s avatar

    Thanks for the response, Mary. I found a crit partner through Verla Kay and it has been great! Her novel is complete and mine is still being written, but we figured out an exchange pattern that works for us and I couldn’t be happier. That’s not true–I will be happier when I finish my darn book! :)

  16. Bree’s avatar

    I found my critique partner through your critique connection and she’s AMAZING. My ms is so much stronger now with her help. I kept meaning to post a thank you on here, and forgetting to do so, so here it is.

    THANK YOU. For the connection and for the ongoing advice!

  17. Michelle Julian’s avatar

    Thanks for this post. I have often wondered when would be the best time to share work with a critique group and now I am sure that after the second draft would be best.

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