Chip MacGregor

January 23, 2013

Why do you think a critique group is important?


Someone sent this: “You often encourage writers at conferences to join a critique group. But I joined one at a conference last year, and I didn’t think it helped much at all. I’m published, nobody else in the group is, and I didn’t really feel the others in the group gave me much help or offered a lot of insight. Why do you think a critique group is important?”

Well, if you’re a good writer, and you’re in a critique group with bad writers, I think it’s fair to question if that’s beneficial. Perhaps that’s why most writers, once they attain some measure of success, often leave their critique groups and look for a writing partner or mentor.

HOWEVER, I’d have three thoughts for you.

First, there’s probably value in listening to what others have to say, even if you’re not sure they have great craft. Some excellent writing teachers are just okay writers — their lack of craft doesn’t mean they have nothing to say on the topic. So consider at least going through the process for a while. As we Scots say, “Learn to unpack a rebuke.”

Second, look for a better writer in the group, so that you’ve got one person in the group you can listen to, and whom you can help. Then pay attention to what they have to say, and do your best to try and help him or her improve. That will build your trust.

Third, by all means search for one writer (perhaps at a conference or workshop) who is ahead of you a bit. Find a writer who is a bit farther down the path, and develop a friendship. That would give you someone to go to, to share your work with, and to offer you advice. You’ll have to be patient with this one — nearly every good writer is bombarded with requests for help (though it’s usually “help by introducing me to your editor or agent”). Relationships take time, and are built on wisdom and trust. But given time, you’ll find having good writers in your life nearly always pays off.

Hope this helps.

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  • Janet McLaughlin says:

    I write YA. When I first started writing I
    searched the net looking for some kind of support. I was fortunate in
    finding The Society for Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)
    at the very beginning. Through them I found my first critique group.
    Most of us were beginners and were learning as we wrote. It was the
    right group for me at that time. We all learned a LOT from attending the
    SCBWI Conferences as well. (Kudos here for Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld who founded and runs the Florida SCBWI. It’s an incredible organization.)

    about six years, the critique group fell apart for various reasons, but
    again I was fortunate. I had found a writing partner whose skills
    complimented mine perfectly. Her strengths were my weaknesses and vice
    versa. In the next couple of years both of us found a publisher for our
    respective books. Her book was picked up by Scholastic and is doing very
    well. My path was more convoluted, but, since I believe that everything
    happens for a purpose, is the right one for me.

    My friend’s
    critique group, again for various reasons, had been whittled down to
    three women. This past fall they invited two other writers and me to
    join them. We alternate our meeting places since we live in two
    different cities about an hour’s distance from each other. Three of us
    are published and three are not. In my opinion, the best critiquer in
    the group is one of the unpublished members–not to diminish the value
    of the others.

    I guess what I’m saying is, there are many roads
    to becoming a good (if not great) writer. It takes time to hone your
    craft. Time and patience. With each piece of copy I critique for my
    group, I learn something. In fact, I learn the most from the weakest in
    the group, because every time I see where she’s weak, it reinforces in
    me to watch out for that in my own writing.

    One final thought.
    Sharing all that hard earned knowledge is often reward enough in itself.
    And, in the sharing, you can’t help but learn. But I think you already
    know that, Chip, since that’s what you do every day!

  • Dan Walsh says:

    I agree with your advice, Chip. I’m working on my 10th published and/or contracted novel right now, and I belong to one of the Word Weavers groups Eva mentioned. I think I’m the only published author in our group, and I certainly didn’t need the critique group to get published in the first place, since my first three books were already on the shelves before I joined one.

    I do believe part of my enthusiasm has to do with “giving something back” to newer writers still on their journey. But it’s certainly not a one-way street for me. The writers in my group may be at various stages in their writing skill levels, but they all love to read. And THAT’S my audience, not writers but readers. They can articulate if something is unclear, where the pace is too slow, if the dialogue doesn’t “feel real,” and for me, one of the most important things of all…the places they are tempted to skip.

    Why would I not want that kind of input from people who are also becoming my friends?

    A word of advice to unpublished authors who’ve never been through the experience of a thorough editing process (after your book has been accepted)…a little humility please when giving your comments in these groups. Haven’t experienced this in my local group, but have often when traveling and visiting others.

    I’ve often heard writers give very strong advice about things, as if what they’re saying is legit in the publishing world, to younger writers who wouldn’t know better, and I’m thinking, “My editor has won ACFW’s editor of the year award, and she wouldn’t care two cents about that.” Then that younger writer feels like they have to make major changes in something that doesn’t even matter. Meanwhile, something that does matter a lot, is never even discussed.

    When I hear things like this (and it’s happened quite a lot), I do my best to tactfully redirect. But I do wonder how often this goes on and how easily it can sour people to critique groups.

    My advice, from Peter’s epistle actually…”Everyone, clothe yourselves with humility toward each other.” Or what Paul said, “Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” Make it your motto, “NO strong advice until after I win the Pulitzer.”

    Sorry for the long answer. And…since I haven’t won that coveted prize yet myself, take what I say with a grain of salt.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I really appreciate your thoughtful response, Dan. And for those who don’t know, Dan Walsh is the award-winning author of several books, including the bestelling THE HOMECOMING. Nice to have you take part in the conversation.

  • Ginger Garrett says:

    I prefer a critique group that meets in a home twice per month. Magic happens when we argue and debate and ask the what-ifs. If I was forming a new crit group (and I probably am, for a women’s genre) one question I would ask each prospective member is what they are currently reading. And what the last three books were, too. If the answer is “I don’t have time to read,” or “I am only interested in haiku for rabbits,” I’d suggest they go elsewhere. What people read, and how much, is the best indicator for me of whether they can bring worthwhile insights to the work. I am not so interested in publishing history or success.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good advice, Ginger (even if it DOES discriminate against rabbit-loving poets). And for those who don’t know, Ginger is the author of several novels, including the popular IN THE SHADOW OF LIONS and IN THE ARMS OF IMMORTALS. She’s widely respected as a novelist, so you’ll want to hear what she has to say. Thanks for coming on and posting!

  • evamarieeverson says:

    So glad to see some of our Word Weavers chime in. As the president of Word Weavers International, Inc (a multiple chapter face-to-face critique group organization), and as someone who is multiple-published and multiple award-winning, I continue to find it important to attend critique groups. Not only do I now have the opportunity to help someone who may be in the same shoes I once wore, but I also have the chance to continue to learn. So often when I bring a piece to be critiqued, my critiquer says, “I can’t offer you anything!” To which I reply: “You read, don’t you? You can tell me if it works!”

    In other words, sometimes it’s not about what we get. It’s about what we give. But even when the majority of what we do is give, we never walk away empty handed. Right, Word Weavers?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for that advice, Eva (and for those who don’t know, Eva is also a multi-published novelist). Want to tell everyone about Word Weavers?

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Dear “Someone,”

    I understand the desire to be a critique group of accomplished writers. There’s merit in that but remember your readers will be at all levels, so receiving feedback from all levels will help broaden your book’s appeal.

    I think the moment we decide a person has no valuable input for us, we’re one short step away from becoming unteachable. Everybody has something valuable to share, if we are willing to listen.

    By all means look for a different group, but don’t dismiss the one you’re in.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hmmm. Interesting take, Peter. I’m not sure I agree with the basic premise, which suggests all advice is worthwhile (in my experience, some advice is great; other advice is awful), but I understand your point on offering everyone respect.

    • Peter DeHaan says:

      Chip, you are right, of course. Advice exists on a continuum and it needs to be applied — or ignored — as appropriate.

      What’s important for me is to never summarily disregard someone’s input because I’ve prejudged them to be an unsuitable source.

  • Yes, I learned tons of helpful info from the ABA histfic crit group I was in. If you don’t have time and can’t find a good crit group (I liked online groups b/c you can’t digress into chit-chat–I have NO TIME for chit-chat! Ha), like you said, Chip–find a crit partner who is a little ahead of you in this game. Someone whose writing you admire–and someone who represents your TARGET AUDIENCE. My writing is so much stronger for crit partners. And my advice to ANY newbie writer is to have other writers look over your book BEFORE querying it. It seems to take longer (incorporating edits, fixing problems), but in the long run, it saves time because it shortens the distance between you and that “yes” from an agent.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Heather. Glad you found some folks to serve as crit partners with you. Appreciate you coming on to respond

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Great post and great comments from all.

    I have been guilty of being too sensitive to a critique partner. I wish I’d spent more time unpacking the rebuke and less time getting angry about it. I blew that critique partnership (though we’re still friends, thank God) but I won’t make the same mistake again. I do have a great critique group who help me so much, but that one nit-picky writer who sees all your flaws–he or she is invaluable.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re right, Robin — one person who sees stuff in your work, and who is strong enough to tell you about it, can be incredibly valuable. Thanks.

  • Ane Mulligan says:

    I’d add this one bit of advice to that, Chip. If you’re a new writer, don’t be afraid to find critique partners who are also new. learn together. Gina Holmes, Jessica Dotta, and I did that. We were all on the same level and learned the craft together. The thing that made it work was our dedication to mastering it and the determination to publish. That helped each of us to “unpack the rebukes.” ;o)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Ane. Gina has gone on to hit the bestseller lists. Jessica is about to. Now it’s your turn!

  • Policeartist says:

    Great Post. As Kay pointed out, members of the critique group are also readers. Writers have a real chance to get feedback on how a reader understands your writing. Sometimes passages that are clear to you, as the writer, are muddy to the reader. A writer’s ego can block genuine, valuable feedback because he/she feels “I’m published, you’re not.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Policeartist. And yes — having others tell you honestly “this isn’t clear” or “this isn’t very good” is one of the best parts of a critique group. Hard, but valuable.

  • Kay Camenisch says:

    The people in the group may need help in knowing how to critique. If you ask questions, you can train them to be better at critiquing. Ask, “Do you see any problems with transitions, or the order?” “Does it make sense to you?” “Does it stir your emotions?” “Is the title something that would attract your attention?” “Do I show instead of tell?” and so forth. You know your own weaknesses and you know where you have questions, so target questions in those areas, but also ask for suggestions for improvement.

    They may also need to know that their thoughts matter before they risk saying something. The unpublished can feel like, “Who am I to give advice to someone who is already published?” However, they are readers and they do have reactions to what they read. If you ask for specific input and are appreciative of their responses, you will probably begin to receive more helpful information.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent, Kay. Thanks. Yes — sometimes we need to educate each other on how to share helpful advice.

  • Mary Kathleen Johnson says:

    I fully believe in writing groups and critique partners. The question is, how do we find the right matches for us? Because I live in a small town with a paucity of writers available, on-line work is my option, but I’ve had limited success in finding folks who are both serious writers who write regularly and relatively competent critics. I’ve met some delightful people, and so it can’t be counted as loss, but well…I’m just sayin’…it isn’t as easy as it sounds to find even one really helpful partner in writing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No, it’s not easy, Mary Kathleen. That’s why encourage authors to consider a writing conference, or to participate in an online group, so you can discover some other writers who will be a fit.

  • Leah E Good says:

    Great post! I totally agree that it is important to find at least one writer who is better than you to critique your work. I’m privileged to have several writing buddies to brainstorm and critique with. I also find it helpful to have avid readers who do not write critique my stories. Readers who are not writers look at stories differently and come up with fresh observations.

    Thanks again. Great post.

  • Anne Love says:

    I learned a lot from the ACFW crit group I started with. But I couldn’t keep up with the demand to crit 2 for every 1 you submitted, and I found the level of skill difficult to measure it’s value for the effort I was putting into it.
    At this point I have a great writing partner who is my main CP. We brainstorm, plot, crit each other’s work and have writing weekends together. But I have another person to do a read through for overall flow and someone else to attack the line by line edits.
    Recently I just had a published author agree to do a read through and sent my first 50 pages for a paid crit. to another published author.
    I think a new or midlevel writer needs to think about what value each CP is for them.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — many writers find it’s better to have a solid writing partner than to have a group (and that doesn’t diminish the value of a good group). Some personalities work better than way, in my view. Appreciate the comment, Anne.

  • Lee Thompson says:

    Great post! I’ve been part of two internet crit groups (Editred and then Zoetrope). I was fortunate to hook up with two writers who have some of the same heroes and tastes, as well as being as serious as I am about the craft. And I found it equally beneficial to have two pre-readers who don’t write at all but just love fiction and read all kinds of it. So yeah, my ‘crit’ group is invaluable to me with two serious writers and two regular readers. The mentoring thing you mentioned has helped me too. Bantam author Tom Piccirilli has been incredibly gracious with his time, encouragement and feedback.

    Have to shoot you an email, Chip. I got a new phone and new number!

    Thanks for the terrific post!


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