So begins the famous and stirring quote by Theodore Roosevelt, which goes on to praise “the doer of deeds” over the one who “points out where the strong man stumbles.” I certainly agree with TR when it comes to uninvited criticism, but what about the case when you seek it out?
In a writing critique group, Teddy, everyone intentionally takes turns being the doer of deeds and pointing out where he stumbles. More than any other method I’ve used to improve my writing, participation in a critique group has been the most effective. I’ve subscribed to writing magazines, attended writing conferences, read books about writing, and gone to writing classes. Note that each of those other venues features a writing professional, an expert with some stature as an author. How is it that a critique group formed spontaneously from a group of rank amateurs, without any money changing hands, can be superior to the other methods?
I don’t know that answer, and it may not be true for you. Certainly one can have a bad experience with a critique group and get soured on the whole idea. But if you live in a populated area, or are willing to travel to one, it can be easy to start up another group. Perhaps that new one will suit you better.
In a later post I’ll discuss various critique group arrangements and rules, but for now I’d like to concentrate on what you bring to it and what you get out of it. What you bring to it are: (1) your written stories or chapters, (2) an open mind and a thick skin willing to receive well-meaning criticism about your work, and (3) a willingness to provide good critiques of other people’s work.
Notice I didn’t say anything about bringing money. Most critique groups are free, or nearly so. I’m amazed at what you can get people to do for free. Among fellow amateur writers, if you’re willing to critique their work, they’re willing to critique yours. It’s said you get what you pay for, so maybe each individual critique is not as comprehensive or as accurate as if a professional had done it, but you’ll be getting more than one—generally you’ll get critiqued by every other member of the group. The combined thoughts of the group (even when some thoughts contradict) will come close to the quality of a professional’s critique.
I’ve listed the things you bring to the group. What do you get out of it? (1) Taken in combination, you get well-meaning written reactions from a group of readers to your work. Some of these criticisms will sting, but remember that these people are criticizing your work, not you. Their only interest is in helping you get published. Wouldn’t you rather hear the sad truth from a group of friends than realize it later after enduring many dozens of rejections? (2) You get the supportive urging of a group to write more. It’s strange how the looming date of the next critique group meeting can serve as the prompting force making you churn out some text. (3) You get the benefit of learning from others about the business side of writing. Depending on the expertise of the group and the time available, talk often turns to experiences they’ve had with agents, editors, submitting stories, their website, the conference or workshop someone just attended, etc. (4) You get the invigorating and energizing atmosphere of just being among fellow writers, people going through the same private agonies and ecstasies, people who get it. Most of us don’t enjoy that atmosphere at home, unless you happen to live with a group of writers. (5) Over time, you’ll find you grow as a writer, and as a critic of other people’s writing. While editing your own work in preparation for the group meeting, you’ll find yourself making corrections you just know the critique group would have recommended.
When I first joined a critique group, I thought the objective was to wean myself of the need to be in the group. After all, I imagined, the world’s greatest writers aren’t in critique groups, are they? Now I’m not so sure. It’s hard for me to imagine being a writer and not being in a critique group.
One final thought. There’s an aspect of critique groups that I find intellectually appealing. These groups form spontaneously; they are essentially self-generating. Order emerges somehow from what were, at one time, several writers working in isolation. Out of nothing at all comes shared wisdom and shared growth. That creative magic of critique groups is, to me, akin to the writing process itself. Maybe, President Roosevelt, it is the critic who counts, too.
Tell me what you think about writing critique groups. In the meantime, with limitless gratitude to my own group, I remain—