Critiquing my critique group

If I can’t get into a writers’ colony, I figured, I’ll join a critique group.

I found one pretty quickly in my area, through the Hudson Valley Writers Guild. And they met at my local library! How convenient.

But when I showed up at a meeting for the first time, I felt slightly out of place; I was about 30 years younger than everyone else in the room. In some cases, 50 years younger.

What did I expect? I was in suburbia, attending a meeting in the middle of the day. Of course all the other writers were retired. What other writers in their late 20s would be crazy enough to move back to suburbia and live with their parents so they could afford to write full time?

Somehow we got into a conversation about advice their mothers used to give them when they were little: Never get in a car when you’re not wearing underwear. Because if you get in an accident, and paramedics have to treat you, everyone will know you left the house without your panties.

(Yes, this is my life. I’m a 28-year-old living in suburbia with my parents and attending daytime meetings with gray-haired women who talk about their underwear. This book had better be worth it.)

I ditched the group even though they were a welcoming bunch. Not because they were old, but because they wrote poetry and haiku, and critiquing that type of writing requires a different eye than nonfiction. Then earlier this week, I tried a second group, one for nonfiction writers. And bam! We connected. I was still the youngest participant, but I left the meeting with a solid critique of six pages of a chapter. I felt like I helped the other writers, too.

A bit of advice for writers looking for a critique group:

Stick to your genre. Some writers like diversity in a group, mixing poets, and fiction and nonfiction writers. But me? I want people who are critiquing my work to understand the art of nonfiction, and that’s the genre I feel most qualified to edit. When it comes to critique groups, I’m all about homogeneity.

Keep it small. The fewer people in a group, the more time you spend critiquing each person’s writing. I think three or four is a perfect number.

Look for sparks. See whether you connect with the other writers. Are you on the same page? Do they understand your literary voice? When they suggest changes to your work, do your eyes occasionally widen in an Aha moment?

When all else fails, look for a critique group online. I recently joined Review Fuse based on a Twitter recommendation, and I’ve already gotten quality feedback on a piece I submitted. Virtual editors can be just as good as ones who are sitting right in front of you.

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17 Responses

  1. I’ve never been much on critique groups. They can be effective, that’s for sure, but here are a few reasons they don’t much work for me.

    I don’t mean for this to sound egotistical, but, I kinda know when I’ve done something good…or not. I’ve been writing long enough to know good from not so good—especially in my work.
    Many folks critique through the veil of their personal preferences and prejudices. That is, The fourth and sixth pages are bad because it’s not the way THEY would have written, not necessarily because it’s poorly done.

    To play nice, I need to critique their work. I’d rather spend the time reading and revising my work…lord knows it usually needs it.

    Now, having said that, I do seek out “test readers” for chapters, segments, or the entire draft. I ensure these are NOT authors or writers to avoid the personal preference bias and the application of arbitrary, “rules of writing.” I want plain vanilla, Jane Smith and Joe Doakes, the everyday reader to look at my work. They’re unencumbered with much except they like it, or they don’t, and a readers perspective of why. And isn’t it the readers, after all, that we’re trying to reach?

    Best Regards, Galen
    http://www.galenkindley.com

  2. You know, Alexis, I think we have a lot in common (although people who compare our bios will find me delusional.) I started my first book when I was 29ish. I had a background in journalism and wrote while abroad in England. I also doggedly attended critique groups and writers’ organizations. I was a stay at home mom and always, always the youngest person there. Now I’m writing book 4 and I’m 38 and STILL frequently am the youngest person at any writing group (hate to tell you that you’ll be stuck with that problem for a while.)

    But I have discovered a couple of things: Most serious writers are older, so we’ll just be unique. 🙂 And, also, I found that critique groups make me insecure. Silly, but true.
    Elizabeth
    http://www.mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/

    • Well, I’m a bit delusional, too 🙂 Glad to hear we have some things in common! That means I’ll probably be picking your brain down the road…

  3. It just goes to show that finding the right group is very important and will make a huge difference in what you get out of it.

    Elle Parker
    http://elleparkerbooks.blogspot.com/

  4. Hi Alexis,
    I’m one of those who is 30 years older than you, but I totally understand how you feel. I’m glad you recognized the first group wasn’t right for you and found one that is. My only experience with critiques in writing was when I went back to school at 53 to complete a college degree that I had begun in the 1960’s. I was almost always the oldest person in class (including the professors). It was very difficult, but that didn’t prevent me from learning from others as well as contributing to them.

    I’m kind of with Galen on critique groups for writing. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I know what I want to write about and will leave it to my editor to make sure I’ve conveyed what I intended.

    My only advice would be to test it out and see if the feedback you are receiving is valuable or not.

    Wishing you the best with your travel memoir so you can leave your parents and suburbia and be on your own.

    Blessings,
    Karen
    http://www.karenfollowingthewhispers.blogspot.com

  5. “What other writers in their late 20s would be crazy enough to move back to suburbia and live with their parents so they could afford to write full time?”

    LOL – love it. 🙂

    You probably do need a group more of the demographics of your intended readership. But don’t discredit us older folks – you don’t get to be old bein’ stupid ya know! (smile) – I think it was Richard Prior said that – but I edited it of course, don’t want your blog to lose the family friendly rating (wink)

    • Ha. Thanks. I was making a joke out of the older writers, but honestly the reason why the group didn’t work was because of our different genres. And I WILL get out of suburbia! Living here is all the more motivation to write quickly.

  6. I’ve got a good writers group but feedback tends to be spotty. Sometimes critique can be hurtful without being beneficial. It’s the old “constructive criticism” routine.

    First find something to commend, before you find something to recommend. And yes, I’m one of the old gals.

  7. You’re very lucky to have found a good group. I’ve had esperience with one group, but didn’t find it helpful. They all to polite to give their unvarnished opinions. I like people with and edge who say what they think. I have four friends that I share with when I think my current work is ready.

    I also think you’re lucky to be writing full time at your age. Living with mon and dad can be tough, but writing without having to worry about paying the rent should make it worth it, IMHO.

    alan chin

  8. I agree with Alan, that you’re very lucky to find a good group. Writing/critique groups are hard work, but I believe they are worth it. Of course, I haven’t found my group yet, but I do go to writer’s conferences and do some read and critique sessions there.

    Like Galen, I know when I’ve written something good; however, when I read it aloud to a group, I can get great insights from the other readers. And I love to hear their works – all the unique voices!

    Do I like to hear that I’ve gone over the top in this section, or I’m lacking in description in that paragraph? No, but when I give the critique some time to “gel”, I can often make my work stronger.

    Good luck with your group!

    Gayle
    http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

  9. I not only swear by the value of a good critique group, but i’ve begun setting up critique groups for Northern Colorado Writers, training members in self-editing and critiquing skills, and emphasizing the need to be honest about the written work without bashing the author. The idea is to encourage, improve, motivate and mentor.

    It works best, in my opinion, to have a variety of ages represented in a group of six or eight members, and I have discovered the group is better if it includes both men and women.

    Good luck with the new group, Alexis.

    Patricia,
    http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com

  10. Hi Alexis,
    Just wanted to thank you for your comment on my blog – you’re right and I’ll pay more attention to that.
    I don’t know how to reply to a comment on my own blog. Sorry.

    Karen
    http://karenfollowingthewhispers.blogspot.com

  11. I have belonged to a wonderful critique group for about a year and a half now. It is an online group, all writing in the same genre.

    I think it is very beneficial to have a group like this. They are supportive, but honest in their critiques. It helps to have a fresh pair of eyes reading the work, particularly after you have finished your self editing phase. They make sure the revision flows smoothly with no holes in the plot line. When you know your own story, you anticipate what happens and may miss something something important you edited out in the revision process.

    It is a very positive thing to have this group of people in your corner. They become your support system if you get the dreaded rejection letter (they understand how it feels better than anyone else in your life will) They pass along things they hear within the writing community (ie news regarding publishers or a writing conference that is about to take place) My experience has been a wonderful one. I wish you similar success.

    NA Sharpe
    http://nasharpe.blogspot.com

  12. Cool, must check out the online one. In my case, it’s great to have a second opinion on any plot hole.

    In Quest of Theta Magic

  13. Jeez, Alexis, I didn’t realize you were only 28, but I’ll try not to hold that against you. I’m one of those much older writers, and a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild as well. My experience is that the majority of readers, at least in the mystery genre, are menopausal at the very least, so it behooves you to be careful what you say about us!

    Re: writing groups, they can be invaluable if you find the right one. I’ve been in three good ones. But I agree with the folks above who said they don’t need a writing group. I’ve come to the point where I feel confident enough in my own writing and editing skills that I no longer need a group. And it can be extremely time-consuming to comment on others’ work. There always seems to be at least one person who’s an abominable writer and needs English 101, and bringing them up to speed is a waste of time, especially because they usually think they’re great.

  14. […] offering TMI. I’ve already posted embarrassing tidbits about myself, both on writing and my personal life. But unlike Penelope, I will not be delving into the bedroom behavior of the men I date nor will I […]

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