My First Critique Group
When I was a new young writer, a friend invited me to her critique group. I was told to bring a chapter of my work-in-progress to share. It was a casual group open to many writers. I had no idea what to expect and was so shy that reading in front of a dozen-plus writers terrified me.
Still, I did it—and fortunately this group of more experienced writers realized I was like a toddler taking her first steps; wobbly, trusting and hopeful. I needed information and encouragement, not a brutal critique. They applauded and encouraged me, offering suggestions to improve my work. I attended a few more meetings before moving out of the area.
And whenever I critique new writers, I remember this kindness.
Weekly Critique Group
A year later, I was at a writing meeting listening to an editor offer advice. She told us, “If you aren’t in a critique group, start one.” A writer sitting beside me asked if I was in a critique group. I shook my head. She turned to the women on her other side and asked the same question. They also shook their heads. “So, let’s form our own group,’ she suggested. And we did. We met (almost) every Wednesday for eight years.
We were all newbies and learned together. Although several had sold to magazines, no one had sold a book yet. We took turns reading aloud from our own work then discussed the manuscript with positive and helpful suggestions. We became close friends, rooming together at conferences. And thanks to their support, I sold my first book (Almost Twins (1991)) within a year. And the others eventually all sold [manuscripts], too.
But when two of our members moved away, the group faded to a fond memory.
Because I live in the country, meeting with other writers can be a challenge—so the perfect next step for me was to join an online critique group.
Our group of about ten children’s book writers was fun, encouraging and a great learning experience.
We didn’t have a schedule; anyone could submit a story when they were ready. The comments were helpful and lifelong friendships formed. But random submissions without group discussions often resulted in conflicting comments. Enthusiasm ebbed and flowed, and members dropped out.
I shifted to a smaller online group, and that worked great for many years.
By 2006, I relied on a few trusted online friends for critiques. Still, I missed belonging to a face-to-face group. So when I was invited by SCBWI friends to join their small critique group of experienced authors, I was excited.
I couldn’t just join, though, I had to attend a few meetings on a trial basis. If I wasn’t a good fit, I would be politely uninvited. Fortunately, I fit in great—and since then I drive an hour every two weeks to meet at a coffee shop.
We hand out copies of manuscripts (usually a chapter) at the prior meeting, line-edit and suggest improvements, then discuss the edits at the next meeting.
For me, this works better than reading our work aloud at meetings. The insightful suggestions transform a manuscript from rough to amazing. They teach me so much, and I’m grateful.
Our critique meetings have a routine. At first, we go around our circle and share professional and personal news. Then we discuss the chapters that were handed out at the previous meeting, taking turns to explain edits we made on the submitted pages.
If there’s extra time and someone needs help with an idea, we’ll have a brainstorming session.
(I’m proud to say I’ve come up with a few of the titles for their books—I’m usually good with titles.)
There’s time for fun, too! Whenever one of us has a birthday, we switch our meeting place from the coffee shop to the birthday girl’s home. We have gifts and dessert. And on one special birthday, my group gave me original art from my Curious Cat Spy Club series.
Seven Things I’ve Learned from my Critique Group Experiences:
1. When offering a critique, be honest but not brutal. Include positive comments and encouragement.
2. Evaluate the format and size of group that works best for you.
3. If you aren’t invited to the group of your dreams, start one of your own. Often one critique partner is enough. But I suggest three-to-five members as a goal.
4. When someone critiques my work, I’ve learned to listen, consider the advice, and say, “Thank you.”
5. Your book is your creation and you won’t agree with all critiques. Sometimes I disagree with a suggestion. Still I think it over. And often I realize during rewrites that the comment was right. So, never get defensive and argue. Reply with “I’ll think about that. Thank you.”
6. There are many kinds of critique groups, and you may find (like me) that different ones work best at different times in your career. You may belong to several groups, only one, or you might prefer to share with just one trusted friend. There’s no right or wrong, only what works best for you.
7. Never forget that critique group partners share the same goal—to write and publish the best books possible. And a supportive critique group can make dreams come true.
In the photo here, my current critique group is using audience stories to demonstrate how our successful critique group works. Between us, we have over 100 books published.
She wrote her first animal story when she was eight, dreaming of being a published author—and that dream came true!
She’s a longtime member of SCBWI and Sisters in Crime, and a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences.
She lives in the Northern California foothills, surrounded by a menagerie of animals including dogs, cats, peacocks, horses and pigs. Linda reports on writing and publishing children’s literature for Cynsations.