I love my critique group and feel very fortunate to belong in it. It’s composed of a group of writers from my SCBWI region, some published, some not-yet-published (but definitely will be). We’re an online group, because our region is vast and we live too far apart to meet in person on a regular basis. There are six of us, and each person brings something unique and special to the group, not only with her writing, but with her personality as well. I think what find most valuable though, from my critique group, is that they’re supportive in all the right ways. And I believe that any good critique group does the same.
A good critique group knows when to be honest with each other, to have the courage to say when something isn’t working in a story (isn’t that what having a pair of fresh eyes is all about?). Honest, thoughtful suggestions are what help to move one’s work forward. Blind, superficial praise does nothing to improve writing (although it might make the recipient feel good—but feeling good isn’t going to get your work published).
A good critique group also knows when to give each other a kick in the pants, on occasion. Members will look out for each other and not feel threatened by each other. Mutual respect is felt amongst the group along with a sense of helping each other toward their writing goals.
I have a friend who once belonged to a critique group and after every meeting, she would complain to me about them. She commented that they were either mean-spirited in their comments, or would blindly praise each other’s work—meaning, there was never any constructive criticism offered (“If I want to feel good about myself, I’ll let my husband read my work and tell me how brilliant I am.”) When she finally felt comfortable enough with the group to make suggestions for improvement on someone’s story, she was shut down. One person even told her that her suggestions were stupid.
My response? “That group is poisonous. Get out!” A critique group experience should leave you feeling hopeful, and anxious to dive into making improvements. You should feel a bit enlightened (“Hmm, I never thought of it that way!”). Your mind should be spinning with the excitement of digging into work, not like it’s been thrown into a ditch and there’s no way to climb out—whether you’re doing the critiquing or being critiqued.
So, what’s my point? Critiquer beware. Critique groups can be a valuable part of your writing experience, but enter with caution. Make sure that they’re helping you to improve your writing. And if not, politely “exit stage left” and move on. Maybe try a different group or maybe decide that critique groups aren’t right for you. The important thing is to find out what works for you.
Note: Check your local SCBWI chapter to see if they have a critique group coordinator to help you find a group in your area.