Monday, April 14, 2014

Lessons from a Critique Group Junkie

Patty here

I have been in one writers critique group or another for the better part of twenty years, long before a publisher bought my first novel. Some writers feel comfortable sending a first draft to their editors. In fact, some editors prefer that. My editor always got the best, most polished book I was capable of writing because I would have been embarrassed to do otherwise.

Critique groups are not for everybody, but I can’t imagine writing without one. Some groups had strict rules about the number of pages you could read, the time allotted and the way others were allowed to critique. In one group, critiquers could only say what they wanted more of or less of in the pages read. No one was allowed to “pile on” to another member’s negative comments. In some groups the comments were given in an orderly manner, traveling from one person to the next in the circle. Some were free for alls. In some groups, the writer read their pages. In others, each group member read the pages silently so the voice of the reader did not influence the written words. The lessons I learned from each group are essential to my life as a writer.

Group 1: This band of merry wannabes formed in 1992 after taking a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Write a Credible Sex Scene.” None of us had been in a group before. None of us were published. In fact, none of us had ever written much of anything. Our meetings were madcap free for alls. When the group dissolved, I realized:

Group members must be serious about actually writing something. 

Group 2: Before I joined, the group had hired a published horror author for the month to teach us the craft of writing. I left when he told me I shouldn’t be writing mysteries because so many others had done it better than I ever would. I learned:

Don’t attack the writer or his/her vision. Say what you like about the work and suggest constructive changes, acknowledging that even though you may have a book or two under your belt, yours is just one person’s opinion. 

Group 3: A well-known writer and teacher led the group. The members were talented writers (far better than I was) as well as students of literature. Every time I got feedback I felt as if I’d just had a masters class in writing. In the next nine years, I wrote two novels and part of a third and learned volumes about the craft of writing and the writer’s life. By the time the group disbanded, I had forged lifelong friendships and learned:

You have to complete a novel before somebody will publish it. If you hope to finish, it is better to learn about criticism and rejection among a supportive group of friends than to be alone when you realize the world does not always love your writing. I also learned not to take praise too seriously, either. 

Group 4: A published writer and teacher led this group by a strict code of conduct. All of the members were talented writers who had been in the group for many years. I dropped out when, for the third time, I arrived at the meeting place only to discover they had changed the venue without telling me. The lesson:

If you accept new members into your group, 
then accept new members into your group. 

Group 5: For a while I feared I’d never find another critique group. Then, by some stroke of dumb luck, I found this group, or maybe it found me. Most members are successful screen and TV writers, which gives me a whole new prospective on structure. Some have also written newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, novels and non-fiction books. They are talented, wise, supportive and funny people. Lesson learned:

Persistence is usually rewarded. 



  1. Group 1 sounds like a hoot. Is an incredible sex scene not credible? Another lesson from Group 2 might be that Stephen King has a thing or two to teach your horror of a group leader. Group 3 sounds oddly familiar. Group 4 just baffles me, while Group 5 sounds like exactly what your persistence and talent deserve. So happy you found it.

  2. I think an incredible sex scene is highly credible but maybe I should ask my writing group. Group 3 should sound familiar. Still miss everybody.

  3. James O. Born4/14/2014 5:03 PM

    This is a tough subject. Its not for everyone. I was always worried I'd get advice from someone who wasn't looking at it they I wanted. Now, with a little confidence, I would be more open to it. I prefer to do a rewrite after an editor's comments because I've done one set for an agent then a new set for an editor in the past. I'm not sure I'd want to do another set of edits from a writer's critique group.

    Thanks for the post, Patty.

    1. What I like about critique groups is sometimes they uncover a small detail that needs clarification or a profoundly original idea. But if you don't buy it, you learn to say no. That's the hard part.

  4. Like Groucho Marx, I don't want to join any club that would have me.

    1. You'd love my group if I told you who was in it.

  5. Great post!!