On Writers’ Critique Groups
by Vaughn Treude
When novice writers ask their brethren for advice, we frequently recommend joining a writer’s group. Believe me, it can be very helpful. There are two kinds of fiction writers who resist this advice, and they usually happen to be the ones who need it most. The first type is supremely confident, convinced of their own genius. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see one’s own mistakes and flaws, and that is where a constructive critique is essential. The second type of writer is shy and fearful, not wanting to show their work to anyone. For this person, the community of fellow writers is even more essential. If the thought of criticism from a fellow writer is daunting, how much more frightening will it be when your work goes before the public?
Where can a beginning writer locate a critique group? Since the advent of the internet, it’s become easy. Just search on sites like Meetup.com or GroupSpaces.com. It pays to be selective, however, because not all critique groups are created equal. It helps to look for like-minded folks who are interested in the same genre. Years ago I joined a group of fellow students from an ASU writing course, and I was the only sci-fi writer there. Though they did their best to give me feedback, it wasn’t nearly as useful as the critiques I’ve received from fellow sci-fi and fantasy writers.
Another very helpful aspect of the internet is that it enables the reading of everyone’s work in advance, which saves resources. I’ve been in groups that insisted on paper printouts and read them for the first time at the meeting. It’s much better to have some time to digest the writing ahead of time. I try to read all submissions at least twice, as subtle issues may not be apparent the first time through.
It’s important to approach critiquing, and being critiqued, with the proper attitude. Some people become defensive and argumentative. Regardless of whether you agree with it or not, one should accept such advice gracefully. You can decide later whether or not you intend to follow it. There are times to stick to your guns and times to defer to consensus. My rule of thumb is that if three people ding my submission on a particular issue, they are most likely correct.
Critiquing is also a fine art. Novice group members are subject to two temptations. The first is to adhere blindly to arbitrary rule of style, such as “all adverbs are bad.” The second is to try to coax others into your own writing style. Some writers like terse, fast-paced prose while others lean toward the more descriptive and flowery. I liken these differences to musical genres, each of which has its time and place. Sometimes you may be in the mood for jazz, and at other times feel like metal.
Critiquers should catch grammatical errors, of course, but an experienced writer should have few of those. Courtesy dictates that we strive to give the group a polished submission. Besides my word processor’s spell and grammar checkers, I use the website Grammarly.com as an additional resource. (So far I’m still using Grammarly’s free version.) As for critiquing others’ work, the most useful feedback concerns plot and substance. Does the dialog sound natural? Does the plot make sense? Will readers be interested or bored? Did the author change the spelling of a character’s name halfway through the story?
Writing may be a lonely pursuit, but it can benefit greatly from the advice of other writers. Though some may be able to produce first-rate fiction without help, most of us are not so brilliant. Writers’ groups come in as many types as writers do. It pays to be selective and find one that best fits your genre, personality, and writing style.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Find his works on amazon.com, including two new steampunk novels co-written with this wife, Arlys Holloway.