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Choosing a Writing Critique Group

Learn how to choose a writing group that's right for you with this excerpt from Becky Levine's The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide.
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Choosing the Kind of Group That’s Right for You

You’ve decided you’re ready to gather with other writers. You want to share your time and your creativity, and you want to get feedback about your own projects. You’re ready to go.

Before you jump in, though, you want to do a bit of thinking. You’ll want to assess where you are with your writing and what you’re looking for in critique partners. You’ll look at where you live, how much free time you have and what time of day you get it, and whether you are more comfortable with the idea of critiquing face to face or long-distance. You’ll also look at your compatibility with the other members in specific groups, but I’ll discuss that in chapter two, “Joining or Setting Up a Group.”

Let's talk about the choices you can make before you start the hunt for an actual group. You’ll learn about the following types of group.
? An open or closed group
? A general or genre-based group
? An in-person or online group

There’s one important thing I want you to remember. As you look at existing groups or talk to people about forming your own, you’ll hear the phrase writing group used as often as critique group. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, but other times a writing group is just that—a group of people who get together to write. Spending this kind of time with other people can be incredibly helpful and productive, and I encourage you to find writers who are interested in joining you with their laptops. A group that gets together only to write, though, and never exchanges feedback about what they’re writing is not critiquing. Right now, you’re looking for a critique group, and that’s what we’re talking about.

Choosing an Open or Closed Group

What’s the difference between an open group and a closed one? In an open critique group, the “doors” are literally open to any writer who wants to join. In a closed critique group, the members choose a specific set of writers who will meet and critique together. To get the best growth and productivity from a critique group, I recommend a closed group. However, both groups have pluses and minuses—keep reading to find out what they are.

Open Critique Groups

Most open critique groups are “sponsored” by somebody, either by the bookstore at which they take place or by an individual who runs critique groups out of her office or home. The groups typically meet at a regular time and place, and any given meeting may be a mix of writers who have been critiquing together for a while and new members who have just started attending.

Open groups are not the best solution to getting your work critiqued or developing your own critique skills. If you are a continuing member, you may spend a lot of time getting acquainted with new stories and bringing new writers up to speed about your own project. After you’ve committed time and energy to critiquing, you might have to wait for an author to make it to another meeting, or watch him decide critiquing isn’t for him and just leave. If you’ve taken hours away from your own writing, only to find that time wasted, you will feel frustrated, even angry. Of course, these problems can come up in a closed group as well, but the structure of an open group demands a lower commitment level. This can create a drop-in/drop-out feeling about the group, which is one of the worst atmospheres for solid critiquing.

Because of their flexible nature, open groups tend to have members read their submissions at the meetings. Each writer may read a manuscript to herself, or one member may read the pages out loud to everybody else. I’ll talk more about this in chapter two, but reading submissions at the meeting doesn’t create the best environment in which to produce thoughtful, constructive feedback.

If you are just starting out with critiquing, however, and you’re looking for early motivation and support, you may decide to try an open group. You’ll be spending time with other writers, which is always a good thing, and—if the group leader is a good teacher—you can learn some important critique tools and techniques. Also, if you’ve tried to find a closed critique group in your area and haven’t succeeded, you may step into an open group for a while. Odds are, you’ll meet another writer or two who are “shopping” for critique partners, and, if you feel comfortable with them, you can leave the open group and set up your own, closed group.

Closed Critique Groups

The boundaries of a closed group let a specific set of writers develop relationships that support strong, productive critiquing. All the writers meet on a regular basis, committed to developing their writing projects and skills together over time. New writers can and do join these groups, but not at random. Existing members carefully choose and add writers they all agree will add to the strength of the group.

For the writer who is committed to making steady progress in her writing, and I believe that’s you, a closed group is usually the best choice. This kind of group offers stability and consistency. Members get to know each other’s projects, through multiple drafts, and they learn the strengths and weaknesses of their critique partners. In a closed group, writers develop a working relationship with depth as they help each other with short-term writing problems and long-term writing goals.
The challenges of a closed critique group are finding one that is a good match for you, as a writer and critiquer, and then making sure that group grows and develops in strength. Both these challenges, though, are worth the time and energy you put into them, because the group you build will become one of the most important resources of your writing life.

Choosing a General or Genre-Based Group

Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Children’s books or adult romance? Short stories or epic novels? When you’re looking for a new group, or deciding who you’re going to invite to join your existing one, you’ll want to think about how “wide” you want to spread the doors of that group. Do you want to be reading and critiquing all genres, or do you want to narrow your focus to the genre in which you are writing?

General Critique Groups

In theory, a general critique group is one in which members can submit any type of writing. In reality, these groups often put some limitations on the range of writing genres they will accept. One group might accept any genre of fiction, but no nonfiction or poetry; another group may read anything under the nonfiction umbrella, but no novels or short stories.
A general group can be very welcoming. Members are excited about all kinds of writing and interested in learning about the different specifications and styles that go with each. If your own writing and reading choices are broad, a general group can be a great fit. Or if you’re just starting out with your writing, and your genre plans aren’t set in concrete, a general group can be a great place to take your first steps. The group can help you explore your own writing and make choices about which paths you want to take.

A general group does present some limitations, however. Some of the members may not be familiar with the kind of writing you’re doing. If you are writing a mystery novel, and the other writers don’t read mysteries (other than a few Agatha Christies, of course), they won’t be familiar with the structure and flow of books in that genre. Similarly, if a member of the group is trying to write chapter books for beginning readers, the other members may not be able to give constructive critiques about the vocabulary and rhythm a young child will need. If a group mixes fiction and nonfiction, it’s difficult for all members to concentrate their reading on the genre their critique partners are exploring.

One of the most important things in a critique group is that the members know, deeply, the genres in which everybody is writing. This kind of knowledge, this understanding of a form, doesn’t come from reading one or two example books but from immersing yourself in that genre, reading stacks and stacks of books because you love them and can’t help yourself. As writers, we need to do this for our own genre; as critiquers, we need to do it for the genre we’re critiquing. In a general group, this is a tough challenge to meet.

Genre-Based Critique Groups

In a genre-based group, though, the writers are already meeting this challenge for themselves, not just for their critique partners. In this kind of group, all the members are writing within a specific writing “world.” One group may critique romance, while another reads only young adult books. A nonfiction group may focus on magazine articles; the memoir writers get together on a different day.

The important thing about these groups is that the writers know their genre. They haven’t just read a lot of books, they’re reading more every week to keep up with the newest titles. Every genre changes and grows with time. Fantasy may have sprouted from the root of Tolkien, but magical creatures he never heard of walk through today’s pages. Biographies used to be reserved for famous people; now you can write about anyone from a fisherman to a forensic scientist. And the critiquers in a genre-specific group know about these changes because they’re constantly reading and sharing their knowledge with each other.

The weakness of a genre-specific group can be the same as its strength. If a writer decides to try writing in another genre, he may run into some bumps in the road. The group formed to focus on one genre; some members might be uncomfortable with or unsure about reading and critiquing something else. If everyone in a group has been writing memoirs, and one writer gets an idea for a commercial science-fiction novel, the members are looking at a big gear shift, both in their reading and in their thinking.

A good, solid group can handle this kind of change if they have worked together for a long time and are committed to supporting each other’s writing paths, no matter which direction those go. Before you join or start a genre-based group, though, you should at least take a peek into your writing future and see where you think you’re headed.

Choosing an In-Person or Online Group

When I first started critiquing (yes, I’m dating myself here), in-person groups were the only choice. The Internet, though, has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for online critiquing. Which type of group you decide is right for you depends on a wide set of variables, from where you live to your personality.

In-Person Critique Groups

The biggest advantage of an in-person group is just that—that you meet, physically, on a regular basis with your critique partners. When you deliver a critique, you can watch the writer whose pages you’re talking about, and you are able to gauge his or her response. You can see whether he’s nodding, as he understands your feedback, or if he has that little frown on his face that says he’s confused. You know when to clarify, and you know when to keep rolling on. At the same time, if you’re the writer receiving a critique, you have the chance, right when the feedback is fresh, to ask questions and make sure you understand exactly what your critiquers are telling you.

An in-person group also gives you a reason to get out of the house. If you are writing at home, by yourself, you can start to feel isolated and even trapped by your writing. A meeting at the coffeehouse every two weeks gets you up out of your chair and away from your computer, forcing you to join up with other writers in a cheerful, social environment that can give you just the boost you need to go back and write some more.

Many writers like the more intimate setting and atmosphere that an in-person group provides. They want to develop a local community, a circle for themselves and their writing. For other writers, though, this intimacy isn’t a draw; in fact, it can be a negative. These writers may find their friendships elsewhere and see the social, emotional aspects of an in-person group more restrictive than expansive.

Even if you would like to join an in-person group, the time restrictions may create more of a problem than you are willing to take on. If you are working outside the house, or if you have young children at home, the hours you can schedule a regular meeting are probably limited. Even if you are willing to add two to four more hours of committed time to your monthly calendar, finding a group that meets within your available “free” time is going to be tricky. Finally, you may live in a small town or a rural area (or in a different country!), and “nearby” critique groups may be few and far between. An in-person group may just not work with your current lifestyle.

Online Critique Groups

Luckily, those writers who either can’t find an in-person group or who feel those groups don’t fit their personalities or their schedules now have options. Great options. With the Internet, online groups have blossomed into the hundreds, probably even thousands. Any problem you might face finding a local group, whether you live in a small town or a large city, disappears when you go online. Whatever choices you made in the earlier sections of this chapter—whether you decided on an open or closed group, general or genre-based, you will be able to find that kind of group online.

Many online groups do require a certain number of submitted pages per month, and most put a limit on how long you can take to return a critique. In general, though, these groups provide a freedom from schedules that can be a huge relief to someone already struggling to fit her writing into her busy life. For writers who already have a big enough social life and are looking for less intimacy in their critique group, an online group can provide a happy solution.

Writers confident in their ability to give and receive critiques may find that an online group serves them well. If, on the other hand, a writer is still feeling his way, uncertain about how to express his own feedback or interpret that of other writers, the anonymous aspects of an online group can be a problem. Because you can’t see the author to whom you’re sending a critique, you may hesitate to give thorough, detailed feedback. Similarly, you may find yourself with hurt feelings when you are critiqued, because you only have your critique partner’s words in front of you, not his reassuring smile and voice.
Also, while the looser schedule of an online group may suit some writers, others may find that it takes away the slight nudge they need to actually write. An in-person group that meets every two weeks can be a great motivator to get a rough scene or chapter on the page and into e-mail. If you don’t get those pages done, you’re still going to the meeting and facing, in real time, the other writers you’ve committed to. The distance of an online group, even with submission requirements, can make it easier to ignore “deadlines” and push your writing aside.

Some writers who have been unable to find a local group worry that an online group won’t give them the connection, the creative relationship they are looking for. I have seen in-person groups where the members remain formal or shy with each other, and I know members of online groups who have annual retreats and chat online with friendships as strong as any other in their lives. A group is defined by its members, and you can help build the kind of group you want, whether you’re meeting in home or across a computer network.

Finding the right critique group for you is a journey—an adventure or a trial, depending on your attitude and your luck. One of the biggest factors in finding the best fit are the people in the group, and this isn’t something you can make decisions about ahead of time. The choices I’ve talked about in this chapter will help you examine your own critique goals and requirements and give you a starting point for your search. Be flexible and stay open to various possibilities, and you will find a group that looks interesting and exciting. Invite yourself to test the waters. You’ll be happy you did.

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