Critique Groups: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
You’ve written a book—congratulations! Maybe you’ve even shown it to a few people you trust—your mom, your college roommate, your dog. That’s awesome.
But what’s next?
Feedback, my intrepid authorial friend. And not just any feedback—honest, unbiased feedback from people who will put your story above your feelings.
Welcome to the world of critique groups. It’s only a little bit scary, and only at first. Your book will thank you, we promise.
What is a critique group?
Critique groups come in many formats. Some groups ask you to print off copies of your chapter so members can follow along as you read aloud; others may want you to email the text out beforehand so people can read it and gather their thoughts prior to meeting.
Be prepared to give feedback, as well. Many groups will feature multiple readings and critique sessions each meeting.
When should I join a critique group?
That’s up to you—some people wait until they have a completed rough draft before they share, while others may share chapter by chapter as they write. Before you go, ask yourself this: Am I ready to receive honest—and potentially harsh—feedback without defensiveness? Some examples of feedback you may receive:
There’s a lot going on in this chapter. I’m struggling to follow along.
Do these characters all have to be here? I can’t keep them straight.
The protagonist annoys me.
If you’re able to listen with an open mind, this kind of honest feedback can inspire real improvement in your story.
I’m ready! Where do I find a critique group?
That depends! If you live in a busy area, chances are good there are some groups already going on around you. Check out meetup.com or your local library and see if anything comes up.
If you don’t see anything that fits the bill in your area, good news: there’s no shortage of online critique groups as well. Try starting with something like NaNoWriMo or Scribophile.
Some groups will be focused on a specific genre, whereas others will be open to stories of all stripes. Genre-specific groups will allow for more insightful, targeted feedback on tropes and genre conventions, such as whether your aliens are a little too Aliens-y. But it can also be refreshing to step outside your genre, since the feedback you’ll get in open-genre groups will likely focus on universal storytelling elements like narrative tension and effective dialogue.
Is it the right critique group for you?
Some critique groups will be fast-paced with strict time limits for critique, while others may allow the conversation to meander. Sometimes the author will be encouraged to join in the discussion; sometimes they will be asked to remain silent and simply absorb. After your first meeting, ask yourself some of the following questions to determine whether this group is a good fit:
Did the feedback motivate you to work on your story?
Were you comfortable speaking up? (It’s okay if you’re intimidated at first, but a good group will have a respectful atmosphere where everyone’s opinion feels valued.)
Do you think you can learn things from the other participants?
Don’t be discouraged if the first meeting you attend isn’t for you. Keep trying different groups until you find your people.
Critique Group Dos and Don’ts
Your first step should be to track down any published rules for the specific group you plan to attend. If nothing is available, here are some quick tips to guide you through your first meeting:
If you disagree with someone else’s critique, voice your opinion (politely). One of the strengths of critique groups above one-to-one critique partners is the diversity of opinions present, so don’t worry about being “wrong”—at the end of the day, taste is subjective, and there is very rarely a right answer.
If you’re given a hard copy to write on, make a note anywhere the story becomes confusing or difficult to follow, even if you can’t pinpoint why.
Keep in mind genre conventions. Don’t tell a historical fiction author their story would be more exciting with aliens, and don’t try to convince a fantasy author that dragons aren’t aerodynamic.
Remember that people are critiquing this particular book, not you or your writing career. Their feedback only reflects the writing you shared, and it’s entirely possible that they would feel differently if you shared a different piece.
Say thank you! People are putting their time and energy into helping you improve your story, and it’s important to acknowledge the work they’re doing.
Stay for drinks afterward! Critique groups will often migrate to a more social setting once the official meeting is wrapped. Networking with other authors can lead to great opportunities and valuable friendships down the road.
Be afraid to speak up. Remember: diverse opinions are important!
Point out technical errors like typos or the errant comma. You can note these things on a hard copy if one’s provided for written feedback, but keep the conversation focused on content, not technicalities.
Insist that the author take your advice. If the author wants to engage with your feedback, they will—otherwise, say your piece and let the author come to their own conclusions.
Argue with those critiquing you. Even if you disagree, say thank you. Ask clarifying questions if you like, but don’t let your hackles rise—everyone’s here to help.
Act on the advice immediately. Take some time to think it over and reflect on how you want to incorporate the feedback (if at all). You’re the only one with the full picture; be open to changes but hold on to what you love about your story.
More than just critique
Writing can be a lonely endeavour, and these groups are a great way to find other writers for support, commiseration, community, and lots of nerdy conversation.
No matter what you write, chances are good you’ll find other writers who share your passions. Go forth and investigate the critique group opportunities around you. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself wanting to start your own niche group eventually.