Monday, March 22, 2010

Would You Like a CRITIQUE With That?

by Gina Sestak

OK, now you've got it written.  What do you do with it?  Do you pay some stranger mega-bucks for editing or do you beg your friends and relatives to read this, please?

Perhaps you should join a critique group.

Some critique groups can be brutal, sending aspiring authors whimpering into the night, resolved to never write again.  I've experienced a few of those -- they never make me want to sharpen up my writing skills, just practice some karate on the *!&^# s who've dared to dis my work.  But this post isn't about that kind of group.

The kind of critique groups I am discussing here are those made up of people who read and write, people who are willing and able to provide honest feedback, and to do it in a way that is neither too supportive nor too nasty.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not pretending to be an expert of critique groups.  I have, however, participated in a few over the years:

Intense:  This one met weekly at a private home.  Every one of four to ten participants would bring a chapter -- about 10 pages -- every week.  We would silently read every chapter to ourselves while chatting and eating*, then discuss each and every one -- all in about three hours time.   I found this very helpful with things like flow and logic.  It also had the advantage of getting through a book length manuscript in a few months, which made it easier for the participants to remember who the characters were and where the story left off last time.
* just as an aside, for some reason critique groups seem to double as eating groups.  The group I presently participate in focuses on one writer each week; that writer is expected to email the work to be discussed to everybody else ahead of time, and to show up for the meeting bearing snacks.

Read aloud:  Participants would read each other's work aloud to the group.  If you ever want to know whether or not your sentences make sense, get someone to read them to you!  This group was great for catching grammar goofs.  The group would provide feedback after the reading finished, unless something was so wrong it needed an immediate comment.

Read ahead:  Participants would provide a chapter or set number of pages ahead of time to the other participant.  This was especially helpful for line editing and catching typos.   The group members discuss the work in detail, then provide their written comments as well.

Directed/undirected.  Some groups are peer-to-peer, while others are under the direction of an experienced writer/editor.  I have been in both types, and have developed a slight preference for the directed kind in which the voice of practical expertise is represented.

All of these groups were helpful in one way or another with revision and editing.  Perhaps most of all, though, they provided like-minded people with whom to share the writing experience.

What do you think of critique groups?  Do you participate in one?  Why or why not?


PatRemick said...

I have to know -- if the snacks are great, are the critiquers more gentle? :)
I belong to an online short story critique group, which I find incredibly hepful. I like the distance the Internet provides -- you don't have to share dessert with someone whose critique you don't agree with -- and I've learned that you don't have to be a fabulous writer to be a really helpful reader. This is through the Sisters in Crime Guppies subgroup so the criticism is always presented in a positive way.

Annette said...

I belong to two groups. One is a face-to-face read-aloud group. The other is an online group. Both provide different benefits and both are extremely helpful.

Actually, I belong to a third group...another online one...but it seems to have fallen off the map.

Gina said...

Pat -
Critiques are honest no matter what food you bring -- but I think the warm-from-the-oven soda bread we had Saturday put everybody in a good mood!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

You all know where I stand on Critique Groups, so no sense in repeating myself.

Gina wrote:
"Read aloud: Participants would read each other's work aloud to the group. If you ever want to know whether or not your sentences make sense, get someone to read them to you!"

I think this is a HUGE bonus. There is nothing like hearing your work read aloud. Gina is right, you will hear those awkward sentences sounding off like a blaring car horn in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I always read my work aloud and I try to have someone like my wife read it for me.

Actually, the first time I had one of my short stories read out loud was at an Open Microphone night. Being self-conscious I refused to read my story, so a friend grabbed it from me and read it. After hearing it, I realized it was better than I thought and entered it in the Guild's short story contest.

Laurie said...

Well, I just met with a group of writers to discuss forming a small local critique group. Your post was timely because for our next meeting we are going to discuss how we want to proceed with the critique group. I'm going to keep your suggestions in mind. So in answering your question, I'm just beginning to get involved with a critique group. I think it's a good idea for me.

Joyce said...

I belong to the same online group as Annette and I also belong to a wonderful group that meets in person. We're all mystery/thriller writers, which I think can be very helpful--everyone knows the conventions of that genre.

We try to meet once a month, but lately it hasn't worked out that way. Everyone's too busy. Whoever has a chapter to critique emails it to the other members a week or so ahead of the scheduled meeting. All the critiquers take turns giving their impressions of the material. When they're finished, the author gets a chance to respond.

Sometimes we'll get together just to brainstorm if one of the member is stuck on something, or one is outlining their next book, etc. It's been a very helpful group.

I'm still a newbie in the online group, so I'm not sure yet how helpful it will be. The critiques have been good so far. I've only had one that was kind of off the wall.

Jennie Bentley said...

I've never been in a critique group, so I have nothing to offer. From what I hear, some are good and some are bad. Like everyone else, I'll say that reading stuff out loud - or better, having someone read your stuff out loud to you - is a wonderful thing. What I run into, though, is a time constraint: I write 2+ books a year, and I don't have time for a weekly meeting. A group that doesn't meet weekly won't be helpful to me, because I have to write faster than what they can cover in a monthly meeting. I average 30,000 words/100 pages a month when I write, which is much too much for any critique group to handle. So I'm surmising that critique groups are probably more helpful before you're published than after. Just my 0.02.

ramona said...

I personally believe everyone should pay mega-bucks to have work edited [wink wink].

I've belonged to a couple of critique groups. Some were great, some...not. My current one meets once a month, all published writers, very stringent. I learn something at every meeting and from every critique, so it's very much a boon to my career.

VR Barkowski said...

Critique groups are invaluable and I take critiques, both given and received, very seriously.

I participate in an online mystery critique group (same one as Annette and Joyce), and I'm a member of Critique Circle. I also have a critique partner and have participated in a number of critique workshops via UCLA extension.

I do not participate in a face to face group because in my experience, face to face critiquers are less forthcoming. What I do instead is to read ALL my work into a digital recorder, listen, rewrite, reread and repeat until I feel the rhythm and the voice is right. Then I have my partner read it out loud to me.

Jemi Fraser said...

I am lucky to have 2 online crit buddies who are incredibly honest and kind along with it. I've never participated in a live crit group - would be fun. :)

Paula R said...

Thank you very much for the insight into crit groups. When I first started writing, I was so scared to join one because I felt my work was just not good enough, but I am willing to try a face to face one now. I think it would be a good experience for a newbie, especially if the crit group was honest, but nice about it. Don't get me wrong, I don't want them to coddle me, but rather to tell me the truth about my writing with tact.

Peace and love,
Paula R.