Chip MacGregor

September 17, 2012

Does a writer need a critique group?


Someone wrote and asked, “As a beginning writer, is it really important I participate in a critique group?”

I highly recommend newer writers join a critique group. Often times at writing conferences I’ll have someone come up to me clutching a manuscript to their chest. “Here,” they whisper, looking around furtively. “It’s my manuscript. It’s fantastic. And no one has ever seen it.”

So I’ll look at them and ask, “And how do you know it’s fantastic?” They invariably answer with something like “I just know” or “people have been encouraging me to write for years” or“my mom loves it.”

Sorry, not good enough. I don’t trust your personal instincts unless you’ve had at least one bestseller, and your mom loves you too much to view your piece objectively. Every writer needs a critique group. New writer or experienced hand, you gain wisdom when you have other writers looking at your work. A critique group offers you an honest appraisal, and provides an on-going learning experience. The best groups have a nice mix of people, so that your group provides you with a variety of experiences, interests, and personalities commenting on your writing. People get together and offer insight into your work, which will help you improve your writing. It also gives you a place to hang out with like-minded folks — other people who also want to be writers. There is support in the group, and a sense of identity. Get thee to a critique group.

Now, at the same time, I’ve had a couple dozen people write to ask a related question: “When do I know it’s time to leave my critique group?”

I suppose it’s time to leave a group when you’ve absorbed what your group has to offer you. This may eventually come when you think you’re experienced enough and confident enough to go it alone — and, in fact, the others in your group may agree that it’s time for you to either go out on your own or start your own, more experienced, group. That said, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to leave — I’d be in a hurry to listen.

There’s always the danger a writer can become a critique group junkie, I suppose (just like there are writing conference junkies). I sometime run into writers who are always “about to” write. They go to conferences, and hang out with writers, and are about to get started on their big book. But they never do. And, of course, I don’t really care if someone wants to do that. If they want to spend their time and money coming to conferences so they can hang out with writers and editors, that’s their choice. They become conference junkies, hanging out with the ones they consider the beautiful people. Fine with me. Some people want to hang out at bars, others at basketball games, and others at choir practice. I don’t care if someone wants to spend all their time at conferences and critique groups. But I want to feel the people in my critique group are moving forward, trying to become better writers. Because that, in turn, will help me to become a better writer.

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  • Judith Robl says:

    A good critique group is probably easier to find in a more urban setting that this rural central Kansas area. My nearest groups are 30 miles out. There are two of them. One is east and the other is south. It’s something of a challenge, especially if the group is not focused on the same area of literature.

    The group I have recently been involved with has a preponderance of poets – not novelists – which is where my aspirations lie.

    Next best thing is an on-line critique group – if you can find one. Any suggestions?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Look for affinity groups — there are a lot of thriller writers who go to certain blogs, ezines, and websites, and you can sometimes connect with other writers there. OR go to a big conference and try to link up with writers in your genre while there.

  • Oh yes, a writer needs a critique group! Mine has been
    invaluable. Each member of the group came to the table with their own giftings
    and pulled out different weaknesses that I needed to work on. I’ve taken
    classes to learn the craft, but I didn’t really understand it as in depth as
    when my critique partners showed me what to do and why. They taught me how to
    write and I am truly grateful to them. I joke about how they slay my
    manuscript, but I couldn’t do this without them!!! It helps if they point out
    your strengths, too. A little encouragement goes a long way. My ladies are
    always good about this.

  • maegan beaumont says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Chip! A crit group can be a writer’s most powerful tool… as long as that writer has joined with an
    open mind and heart. I’ve seen my share of those who join groups, only to fight against the wisdom and experience that is being offered to them. Joining a crit group is a GREAT move for any writer… just make sure you’re ready to listen and grow in your craft.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      yeah, I think listening is the important part, Maegan. (That would be Maegan Beaumont, who just SIGNED HER FIRST DEAL with Llewellyn!)

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