Copyright © Julie Elizabeth Leto & Susan Kearney
Are you considering joining a critique group? Are you already in a group, but are wondering if the situation is working to your advantage? Take a minute to go through this quick quiz and find out if you are clear on the best and most effective ways to manage a group for critique.
Answer T for True or F for False—Answer honestly and don’t peek until the end!
It’s important to note that this quiz is intended for people who have never worked in a critique situation before and are somewhat new to the process. Also, even though this is a test with “right” and “wrong” answers, please remember that these are simply suggestions from two writers who have been doing this for over thirteen years. In fact, we had to reach far back into our memories to put this all together, because we no longer operate in such a rigid manner, though we did in the beginning. As experience levels rise and life situations change, flexibility is very important. But to get off on the right foot to develop the level of trust you need for a successful critique situation, these guidelines might be helpful.
1. Critique groups/partners should be limited to no more than 4 people.
When you first start working with a critique group, it is very helpful to meet consistently. With today’s schedules the way they are, it might be hard to coordinate meeting times for more than four people. Also, we encourage the group to set a certain number of new pages to be brought for critique every session—and if you go over four people, that’s a lot of reading! Also, with a manageable number of participants, there is a better chance that you can keep the group together for at least a year, which will maximize your chance of success. Commitment to the group and to the craft of writing is very important.
2. Critique partners should include members at a similar level of experience.
At first glance, this might look like a good idea, but your needs could be better served if you have a diverse group. Try to include both published and unpublished members. Everyone has something to contribute, so long as the unpublished members are consistent readers of the genre. If the unpublished person is brand new and hasn’t even read much of the genres being discussed, they will not be able to contribute much to the group. However, it is very important to note that just because the person is published, they shouldn’t necessarily be designated as the leader or teacher…this pressure might push the published member away. Everyone should contribute equally.
3. Critique partners must live in the same geographical area.
In the advent of Online/Internet critiquing, this was a hard one to answer, I’m sure. But these long distance critique groups lack the “face time” needed to develop trust and familiarity with the people you are seeking to work with. With an in-person group, relationships will develop. Comments are less likely to be misunderstood, because the person is right there to explain and body language, so important to good communication, is visible. Online/Internet critiquing doesn’t leave much room for brainstorming with other members, since all they can do is right why they did/did not like something and how they suggest you change it. To start a dialogue at that point is time-consuming, whereas a face-to-face conversation can generate many solutions and possibilities. Frankly, working online is much more effective if you’re doing it with people you’ve worked with in person previously. However, if you are isolated, Online/Internet critique is better than nothing.
4. Critique groups should work together weekly, with each member contributing a set number of pages each week.
This might be one of the hardest aspects of our advice to swallow, but a successful critique group in entirely dependent on the seriousness of the participants. Discipline and commitment to your writing and the group breeds trust. This schedule doesn’t need to be forever and doesn’t have to be written in stone. Things happen. But flexibility and compassion can only be stretched so far. Contributing your pages to the group ensures that you are serious…and if you’re not, why are you doing this at all?
5. Critique partners should be working in the same sub-genres.
So long as everyone is writing romance, there shouldn’t be a problem. Or mystery. Or fantasy. Or science fiction. Each genre has its own inherent rules and if your critique partners are unfamiliar with these, you could end up wasting a lot of time. Within each genre, there are sub-genres. Here is where you can mix things up, though you should encourage your partners to read in your sub-genre so they understand the nuance themselves and don’t just take your word for it. You should be responsible for giving them recommendations of authors to read.
If you are a romance writer, we want to caution you about working with non-romance READERS. It’s no secret that there is a lot of undeserved animosity toward our genre and do you really need someone in your own critique group looking down their nose at you for your choice of genre? The best scenario is four or less romance readers and writers, with a diverse group within. There is value in broadening your reading and writing experiences outside of your own genre, and critiquing is a great way to do that.
6. The most important element of a critique relationship is trust.
We don’t think anyone got this one wrong! It seems so obvious, but I’m not sure it’s something that is verbalized enough in discussions of critique groups. Why is trust so important? It’s simple—trust allows you to take hard criticism, trust allows you to broaden your own vision, trust allows you to know when to listen and when to follow your gut. When push comes to shove, trust will get you through any rough spots with the group. If you don’t respect your critique partner’s opinion, then the whole process is a waste of time.
7. Critique partners are not allowed to steal ideas from each other.
Okay, this should be true. Really, this is something that should be discussed by the group at the beginning. However, as you develop trust, you can start playing with each others ideas without stepping on each other’s creativity. And even then, ideas must only be stolen WITH PERMISSION. Case in point, Sue and I, for a long time, worked in completely different subgenres with her writing futuristics and romantic suspense and I was writing short contemporaries and paranormals. If Sue had the idea in a futuristic to work with a story idea about a woman searching for her long lost sister, it would likely be very different than how I might handle that same search in a fun short contemporary. Now, however, we’re both writing romantic suspense, so we have to be very careful. So, ideas should be stolen if you’re working in different genres, not if you’re competing for shelf space and especially not if you’re working with the same editor. And even then, ideas should be altered so they are “original”—and with your critique partner’s input.
8. The democratic process should determine whether or not an author must accept a suggestion from the critique group.
If three out of four say something is wrong, then something may be wrong, but you have to trust your instincts on how—of if—to fix it. This isn’t a democracy. You are the empress of your own work. But you can’t discount these people out of hand—you have, remember, chosen them to help you in your career. Maybe the problem is not what your critique partners has identified, but something else that relates. Bottom line is that the work is ultimately yours, with your name on it.
Without meaning to, critique partners can critique “out “your voice…and voice often comes from the choices you make as a writer—not just the writing style. So that trust in number six applies to yourself as well. Let your critique group speak their piece, then trust your own instincts about how to proceed.
9. Critique sessions should be professional, with little chit-chat.
True…but it won’t happen!
Schedule in time for socializing…this builds trust. Designate someone to keep the discussion on target, so everyone gets a chance and alternate who this person is every week, so no one has to play hall monitor every time. And watch the clock! If your time isn’t productive, the critique group could fall apart.
10. In today’s competitive marketplace, every author should work with a critique group if they want to sell or continue to sell.
Critique groups don’t work for everyone. That’s the honest truth. Some people who THINK they don’t need a critique group actually do, and vice-versa. If you are published and publishing regularly and well without a critique group, you’re likely okay without one. If you are unpublished and have tried more than one critique group with no success, the process may not be for you. Don’t feel better or worse about your writing because you “don’t play well with others.” Everyone has a different style.
11. Accepting critique or “rewrites” word-for-word from your critique partner is less work and better for your writing.
Your critique group can’t write in your style…and shouldn’t be expected to. Reword when needed. Sometimes it is easier, and the more you trust, the more you can accept changes without making any alterations. Sue and I trust each other pretty implicitly after all these years…I often go through her critique and put in her line edits without a second glance. However, when it’s whole sentences, I know I have to rewrite. Her voice and mine are very different, as it should be!
12. Once you start with a critique group and the dynamic works, you should remain with this group for as long as you can.
Consistency is good, but lack of growth is not good…sometimes you may need to work with someone else for fresh perspective. Also, this business is very hard on people and a lot of writers don’t last. So change is inevitable. Besides, you might outgrow the group…that doesn’t mean you have to leave the friendships behind, but you might have to save your critiquing for someone who better fits you at the current time.
13. Honesty is the best policy.
The truth sometimes hurts. Get over it. However, everyone can learn to critique with kindness. The main focus should be to keep your eyes on the prize—publication, improved writing, a stronger readership. Someone who is just going to tell you how brilliant you are isn’t going to be of any use to you because trust us, editors are not put on this earth to stroke the egos of writers. Believe me, you’ll have readers for that. But first, your book has to be its best, and that means subjecting yourself to honest critique. On the other hand, you also need to help your critique partners develop a tough skin to match yours. Criticism comes easier from trusted critique partners than from editors!
14. Refusing to make changes makes you a bad critique partner.
You have to trust your own instincts, too. It’s your book. However, pay attention. If you are CONSTANTLY refusing to make changes…why are you in a critique group? Are you simply wasting everyone’s time and ratcheting up the tension in the group? If so, bow out graciously. It’s the professional thing to do.
15. Critique groups should be very aware and conscious of not trying to dictate, change or influence an author’s voice.
Next to trust, this is the most important aspect of critiquing. Of course, you have to understand what voice is in order to protect it. Voice is not equal to bad or difficult to understand writing. Voice is not equal to characters who are unsympathetic or situations that are unbelievable within the realm of fiction. Voice is a combination of many things that makes your book yours…and it rarely has to do with one or two words here and there. Learn about voice. Read the article about it here on my webpage, or from other authors. Then, once you know what voice is, protect yours AND your critique partners. Understand their voice. Learn to recognize it. Once you do, your group will be a finely-honed, critique machine!