If you’ve been reading about writing techniques, you probably read a lot about “critique groups” and “writing groups”, but if you’ve never been a part of one, it might feel a bit mysterious. What are they all about? Should you be looking for one? Which kind?
First of all, let me explain the differences between the two kinds, because from what I read all over the internet, they get confused very often.
The writing group is a group of people who get together to write. They can sometimes do specific writing exercises or give each other prompts and challenges. They often encourage each other to participate in challenges like NaNoWriMo. They are a great source of encouragement, inspiration, and are often good for helping you through creative blocks.
The critique group is a group of people who get together to critique each other’s work. No writing takes place at their meetings, only group critiques. Sometimes they send each other their works in advance; other times, they each read a bit of work (either a short chapter or a scene) to be critiqued on the same evening, and others still focus on one single member per evening, permitting longer works to be read (whole chapters and sometimes longer). When they do read to each other, the critiquing members make notes of what they notice so as to not interrupt the flow of the story, and when the reading is over they comment.
The group setting is extremely useful when it comes to critiques because you can see whether or not there is consensus as to whether something is a problem in the story. The debates can sometimes get quite intense, and it is a great learning experience that while it is extremely important to get feedback for our stories, it is equally important to take some and leave some, which is important.
From experience, most inexperienced writers fall into one of two categories. The first type or writer is very insecure, and will make changes according to EVERYTHING that EVERYONE has to say. This becomes problematic very fast, because get enough feedback and you will very quickly get feedback that is contradictory. Not everyone enjoys the same thing, and when you’re getting feedback from laypersons (yes, that means your writer friends as well) you will get as much valid feedback as things that are based on personal taste, and it becomes important to know the difference. If most people bring up the same issue, or if there is a consensus in the group that something is a problem, chances are it’s a real problem. But you can’t take ALL the feedback you receive; you’ll drive yourself completely insane and spend the rest of your life obsessively editing the same manuscript over and over again.
The second type is just a little bit rarer, but not by much. They are the ones who do not really want feedback, but are showing their work to critique groups and beta readers and writing instructors expecting tears of wonder and sudden exclamations of praise, because they believe that their first draft is PERFECT and how dare anyone suggest that it needs revision, don’t they know that their first draft is like a symphony and if you change even that one word it makes the whole thing SHATTER? Why yes, that typo was intentional. In fact, it’s not a typo, it’s ART. I don’t expect you to understand, you just don’t get my genius.
Ok, end of rant. Sadly, I am not exaggerating. I have heard this very same speech (ok, maybe not the part about the typo) from more than one novice writer seeking my “advice”. When I gave it, they argued furiously that the very thing they identified as a potential problem and asked my advice about was not a problem at all, and that they had meant to do it.
Bottom line, no first draft is ever perfect – especially if it’s the very first first draft you’ve ever written. It’s normal to be proud and passionate about your work; in fact, it’s expected. But it’s essential to understand that people spend time and effort reading your work and giving you feedback; you might as well at least consider it. And honestly, this response as much as the first one is born out of insecurity, and chances are you know which feedback is valid and which one isn’t, because deep down, you know which parts of your story might not be as strong as the rest. I know I’ve said all this before, but honestly, it bears repeating, and as many times as possible.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a writing group and a critique group, by all means, take advantage of both. They’re great for different aspects of the process, and if you’re experienced, you know that 1) you never stop learning, 2) having people around you who encourage you is essential to your mental health, and 3) writing is a very solitary action, and it gets easy to get lost when you’re your only guide.
Just remember to respect the group’s etiquette. Try not to miss too many meetings, and always contribute as much as you receive. That means, for a writing group, that you provide others with as much encouragement as you receive. That you bring in prompts and exercises if you’re expected to take a turn doing so. That you participate at challenges when they happen. For the critique group, it means you offer feedback as honestly as you can. Be nice and impersonal, talk about the work and not the person, but don’t hold something back because you want to be nice! The best thing you can do for someone is tell them when you think there is something wrong. You might not know how to fix it, but the group might come up with suggestions.
Last but not least: if you have a choice between having only one kind of group, make it a critique group. Encouraging each other to write is fantastic, but truth is, if you’re passionate and serious about your craft, you’ll write, whether or not you have encouragement. You can’t do without feedback, though, and it’s the one thing you really can’t do all by yourself.