Critique groups can be wonderful. They can offer accountability, professionalism, and take our writing to an entirely new level. But, like most, things, critique groups also have a dark side. They can become a crutch that prevents genuine growth. Depending on the problems, critique groups can create bad writing habits and even deform a WIP so badly it will lose any chance at resonating with readers, thus being successful.
The key to avoiding problems is to be educated. Not all critique groups are worth our time. Some critique groups might have limitations that can be mitigated with a simple adjustment in our approach.
Traditional Critique Groups
Many of you have attended a traditional critique group. This is the “read a handful of printed pages or read so many pages aloud” groups. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose.
When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for commercial publication.
In a good traditional critique group we learn that POV does not mean “Prisoners of Vietnam.” We learn to spot passive voice and “was clusters” and why modifiers aren’t always extra-nifty. We will hopefully learn self-discipline in that we need to attend regularly and contribute. We can also forge friendships and a support network.
So where’s the problem?
Traditional critique groups lack perspective.
Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see structural flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure.
Traditional critique groups can tell us nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context. So, my advice is to get a beta reader that you trust. Critique groups cannot do what only beta readers can.
***A beta reader is a regular person who likes to read our genre and will tell us about the story from a reader’s perspective.
Traditional critique groups can also hurt us in the following ways.
Traditional groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.
As we just mentioned, those in a traditional critique group sitting around the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Fifi end up in Costco wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.”
Well, duh, of course they’re lost.
They’ve missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Our job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections our critique groups can follow.
Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-by-Committee.
Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a Book-by-Committee, also known as Franken-novel.
One great way to know good advice is to READ craft books. Hooked by Les Edgerton, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell are a great start. In fact, ANYTHING written by Edgerton or James Scott Bell, just buy it and read it. You can thank me later 😉 .
That way, when someone offers suggestions, you will know whether or not that advice is supported by leading teachers in the industry.
They can get us in a habit of perfectionism.
The world does not reward perfect novels, it rewards finished novels. I still run into writers who have been working on “perfecting” the same novel for the past ten years. As professionals, we need to learn to LET GO. Either the project was a learning curve and it needs to be scrapped and parted out, or it needs to be handed a lunch box and sent off to play with the big novels via query or publication.
Scrap it, part it, shop it or ship it but MOVE ON.
Yes, I know NY publishes novels that have typos and grammar errors. But when writers are under contract, they don’t have 6-10 years to ensure that their manuscript doesn’t have a single misplaced comma. In fact, I would be so bold as to posit that readers don’t generally get to the end of a novel and declare, “Wow! That was riveting. Not one single dangling participle in the entire book!”
There are writers I know who have been working on the same book for four, five, even SIX years. I see them at conferences dying to land an agent and get that three-book deal. WHY? New York isn’t going to give them another 12-18 YEARS to turn in manuscripts. The hard reality is that, if we hope to make a living at this writing thing, we need to learn to write solid and we need to learn to finish…quickly.
Traditional critique groups can offer a false sense of security.
We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many successfully published authors has the group produced?
How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond that group for additional critique.
We must make sure our work is being reviewed by people who will be honest about any problems. Meeting once a week to sing kumbayah is not the best preparation for this brutal career. Once our book is for sale, we are open to the big bad real world of people with nothing better to do than skewer us publicly on-line in a blistering review.
You will know them by their fruits…
If your goal is to write great novels, make sure any group you join is producing successful novelists. I spent way too many years in a critique group that produced all kinds of articles and NF, but no one had published a successful novel. Then I wondered why the critique was…eh.
When I left that group for the DFW Writers Workshop, my world tilted on its axis because DFWWW is AWESOME and is known for producing professionals in all genres. In fact, I wouldn’t be here without them. I also STRONGLY recommend joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and find an RWA chapter nearby even if you don’t write romance.
RWA is by FAR the most professional group of authors any of us can connect with. They are at the leading edge of the industry and these folks will totally send in the flying monkeys if you don’t get back to writing.
By the way, if you want to get more out of your critique group, I have a class this Saturday (details below) that can make sure your larger structure is sound. This class can do what your critique group can’t and it will help you spend your time more wisely.
So what do you guys think? Have you had problems? Does your critique group seem to only run you in circles? Have you fallen for the perfectionism thing? Or am I off-base? What are your solutions? Ideas?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.
I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form 😀 .
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
Reblogged this on Wade Lancaster.
I completely agree with your take on critique groups, Kristen. I think the kind at the bottom of the food triangle are great for supporting beginning writers (I don’t mean writers new to publishing but new to writing) — but I mean that literally, supporting them. If no one in the group really knows what they’re doing, they’re not much use for guiding anyone’s writing.
Oh no. I just joined a critique group and tonight is our first meeting. Your timing is impeccable.
You had me grinning at the “dangling participle.”
When I started writing, I has several critique partners. Often they gave opposite advice. Talk about confusing to a new author!
Great post! I had a critique group that was instrumental in getting me writing consistently, but it ended up leaving me focused way too much on prose and polishing up finished chapters, rather than finishing my novel, and dealing with BIG STORY issues. As a result the novel took way longer to finish than it should have. I scrapped almost all of the stuff I’d spent so much time editing by the time I finished the second draft… However, I have found beta readers to be very hard to find, and even harder to find ones who will follow through. Do you have any recommendations for beta networking?
THANK YOU. I joined Scribophile and the Critique Circle. People have misunderstood things which others thought were perfectly clear. I added 300 words to clarify it. The next person said she didn’t understand why people hadn’t understood it and gave me a synopsis. Every. Single. Point. Was WRONG. I have no idea how she did that, but I think I need to delete everything I added.
And the thing with people saying they don’t understand things just because they haven’t read the rest of the book – YES. I want to say helloooo. The entire first chapter is setup. If I explain everything in the first chapter, the first chapter will be the entire 81k book in a 6k synopsis and it won’t be very interesting.
I ignore half the critiques now. I need to find beta readers instead. I have one critiquer on Scribophile who is awesome, and maybe I will find others, but… ah well.
I’ve had the exact same problem with Scribophile. Now I’m just using CPs and beta readers!
I met a fabulous group of writers at the last DFWCon, and we formed a critique group. We’ve taken the good bits that we like and created our group rules from there. We are all like-minded about our craft and our stories. We start from the standpoint that the prose is crap in the first draft and can be fixed later. We target story problems, consistency in characterization, and voice development. Then we ask each other to beta read the entire manuscript when we’re done. While not everyone has time to beta read, one or two always manage to find the time.
For anyone who has experienced horrible groups like the ones you describe (they do exist!), they should keep looking for the kinds of writers who can take critiques as well as they can give, who are supportive, and who are always looking to improve.
Your Antagonist class ROCKS!
Reblogged this on Lori Beasley Bradley my writing and commented:
This is very interesting, but I am still very much involved with my critique group the Central Phoenix Writers’ Workshop. I agree that reading only a few pages each week does not help an author with the pace of her novel. That is why I hired an editor.
This has been extremely helpful! I have been with a critique group for over a year now that meets once a week, 3 hours long, and half the time I sit and wish I were just at home working on my story. 🙂 Great perspective and as a member of RWA I am headed to find myself a partner today!
Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I joined a fiction writers’ workshop, which included lessons/writing exercises in addition to group critique. As another writer and I found out, however, the workshop was really geared toward short story writers rather than novelists. Whenever our work (in the form of a chapter) came up for critique – about every 3 weeks – we’d have to explain again and again why the protag did blah-blah-blah, and who so-and-so was, and the basics of the world-building we had done. Sigh. A monument with a magnifying glass, indeed.
Even after two semesters with that workshop, Kristen was the first to really teach me about story structure in a 2-hour phone conversation after she shredded – oops, I mean, critiqued – my first 15 pages. (I think she was worried that I’d jump off a cliff, manuscript in hand, LOL). From there, I’ve read all of the books she’s recommended. Between her and Rachel Funk Heller, I’ve learned so much over the years. Of course, there’s way more for me to learn, but it’s a fun ride! 😉
I started a writing workshop with a couple friends two years ago. I’m writing novels and they’re writing screenplays. I’ve found their input helpful precisely because they don’t know much about prose and rarely comment on it. Instead, their critiques are on story, pacing, staging, and conflict.
Dear Kristen, What the HECK does DFW stand for?
DFW is the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Or Dastardly Fiction Writers. Your pick. 😉
Oops, assumption on my part. Dallas Fort Worth.
I worked with a great critique group for three years. One problem I noticed is that writing techniques that earn favorable critiques don’t necessarily work well for real novels intended to be read by average readers. I’d often be slogging through ten pages of lavish descriptions where nothing was actually going on, which may impress other writers, but not the average reader. Yes, even some of these writers’ finished works turned out this way. Prose and descriptions beyond reproach, but nothing to make you care about the characters,or what’s happening in the story.
Once you get your prose cleaned up enough to where your pages aren’t filled with red marks,it’s time to gear yourself to creating characters and worlds the typical reader (not just other writers) can relate to.
That’s another problem I have with the critique sites i’m on. Everyone wants me to add a ton of description and cut all of my dialogue. I have a notebook covered in quotes which say that dialogue is more important than description, and that readers should be allowed to imagine things more often than not. That’s how I write. I describe things, but I don’t fill twenty pages describing the setting. If I say they are at a villa on Mt Olympus, with a view of the sea, and can see Santorini from the veranda, which has a marble floor, and all of that is spread out over several paragraphs, to me that gives a decent picture without pounding it into their heads.
Stopping now. I could rant about reading comprehension all day. Need to do my taxes… lol
Donald Maass book Fire in Fiction or Writing 21st Century Fiction discusses this; it was like a light bulb for me. Description is great, if it’s *doing* something. If it shows the world through the character’s eyes with strong verbs to imply a tone, or provides movement to the story or development for the character, then explain away. Detailing landscapes for the sake of sounding pretty, readers skim. The balance takes practice!
One good rule: A first-person POV protagonist should (under normal circumstances) never describe things/beings they are accustomed to interacting with. This was hard on one writer in my old group who had a first-person protagonist on another planet. He wouldn’t be logically commenting on purple trees, crawling rocks or three moons, when those are part of his everyday world. A human POV on another planet, by contrast, would logically comment internally on every difference they observe.
I am the world’s cautionary tale on What Not To Do When Starting Out Fiction Writing. (Paying homage to TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” Stacey and Clinton).
I started writing fiction seriously in 2009 because I was inspired by a woman’s excerpts in an online romance writing course. She was so good, and highly intelligent as well, and so we started as critique partners. This excellent CP ‘spoiled’ me. Future collaborations with CP’s and groups wouldn’t be as fruitful. Sometimes, it’s not that they’re evil or that you are – the chemistry just isn’t there.
What I also learned along the way… is this.
Some of the nastiest people who comment on your work are clueless about their own writing. Some delight in humiliating others. If they dare expose their own work to scrutiny, they are very thin-skinned. Be wary of where the criticism is coming from, and trust your gut. Pay attention to those light bulbs that go off when you hear a comment that resonates, and discard the rest. Because it’s clutter and opinion. As screenwriter William Goldman once famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” Even a bestselling author could be wrong about your work.
Ideally, critique groups have at least two or three seasoned authors with a proven sales record. Note the word ‘sales.’ This is a sad fact, but some people stay amateurs. They enjoy the process of nitpicking and indulge in criticism as a competitive sport. A pro or two helps provide balance to the room.
A personal example. I took a class last summer with a bestselling author. One exchange we had was like peering over her shoulder for five minutes and watching her work. Those five minutes were transformative. Lesson learned, I’d rather spend five minutes with a skilled, busy author, than waste three hours with a negative, smug, unpublished writer who wants to assert her superiority. Feminism and sisterly love aside, it’s a fact, some women are mean-spirited. It’s mostly women attempting to write books and 60% of women buy ‘em. Author Gillian Flynn wrote about twisted female relationships in a terrific, insightful essay. Mean Girls tend to flourish online, too – the Dark Tetrad personality. So, you’ve got to flush those folks out to stay in the game. Keep your head on straight. Because the rejections and feedback from the real pros – that’s where you want to invest your time. Toughen up for the real stuff, and avoid engaging Dark Tetrads. You won’t win. They’re like flippin’ Orcs! (continued)
(continued from #12)
Words do not sell a book. The story does. I’m a recovering wordsmith, and used to show off. Thought my cleverness would wow agents. Clever is fun, but it doesn’t necessarily move a reader to tears. Feeling emotion does. Pixar is usually outstanding at this, mixing humor with emotion, showing us flawed, even insecure characters. Too many writers – and I have no idea if this stems from some kind of narcissism – create perfect characters. Or maybe they do so, because they’re worried about blog reviewers skewering their leads for being “too stupid to live.”
Supplement your How-To books and critique groups by reading. And read outside your genre. I’m a romance writer, but admire George R.R. Martin, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, many, many others.
My current critique group is a mix of unpublished writers and agented/published authors. I feel extremely blessed and humbled to be a part of this group. What have the published authors said? Exactly what Kristen says in this blog. Beta reads are far more valuable to them now.
Yep. In hindsight, I did everything wrong – I internalized every criticism, whined too much, entered futile RWA contests (for me, anyway, for others, contests help). I sent too many impulsive, garrulous e-mails. (Kind of like I’m writing too much here, LOL) I whimpered after a blistering critique session at my local RWA. Over time, I got tougher and stayed offline. I avoided blog review sites and commentary. Reading such vitriol made me lose hope.
I worked hard. I held no expectations. I prayed to God to help me shut up and improve.
And on my third novel, after ten or so rejections from major agents, I didn’t give up. Didn’t whine. I moved onto a new project. And then, when I least expected it, I was offered representation.
If I can do it – and I may have had the most crooked path ever to publication – anyone can.
Great post, Kristen, and to everyone, stick with it. Fight the good fight. Don’t give up hope. Look for the good, bracing folks who’ll really help.
I’ve also had mixed experiences with RWA contests. And I don’t mean it in that I should have finaled or won them all–early on, I really needed the critique, and some contests have provided wonderful feedback. Some of it though is odd, like no comments on the story whatsoever, but highlighted 3 instances of passive voice, to one reviewer who was so utterly confused by things the only explanation was she must have skipped pages or skimmed. She also said my character should have picked herself up and solved her problem … in chapter 2. As if this is a pamphlet and not a novel! 🙂
What helped me even with the headscratcher comments is, what is it that is triggering their confusion. Maybe I don’t agree with a comment, but what is it that I could do to maybe even out that scene or phrase. Sometimes it’s one line someone just doesn’t get, can I rephrase?
My in-person critique groups works well because we work together on the same manuscripts over time and beta read for each other. We work on story elements instead of nitpicking using the word “was” once in 20 pages. 😉
Great comment Renee! I agree with so much of what you say here, and it is even more powerful that it is based on your experience (some bitter). I have been wary of getting into the wrong crit groups – I guess I have so little time for writing, that I try to use my time for talking about writing very carefully.
It’s true that to be a good writer, you really need to read widely – both in and outside your own genre. Learning about what makes writing good is key, and finding good, truthful and constructive beta readers and critics is nirvana. I will continue to seek it, and wish you great luck in the same endeavour!
May I suggest The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters
by Christopher Vogler? IMHO, it is the best book for plot points and gives writers useful myth-inspired storytelling paradigms and step-by-step guidelines to plot and character development. That said, when I discovered the original version, when it was published in 1992, it was also the worst written writing guide I had ever encountered. Since then, it has been re-writen and hopefully the rough-draft feel has been polished away.
BTW, Vogler originally wrote this when he was working for Disney Studios, so it was focused on plot points for movies. But these also work perfectly for books.
I’m finding it difficult to find a writer’s group where I’ve just relocated back to (from New York). I agree that writing groups can hinder rather than help. I’m thinking of starting one of my own via Craigslist where I list the terms of what I hope the group is and what we hope to accomplish. I’m surprised by your recommendation of Romance Writers of America! I was under the impression that one would need to write within that genre to benefit, so thanks for that tidbit. Enjoy your tips and thanks!
As a member, you can be an associate member with non-voting rights in RWA, but to join as a full member they are looking more closely at whether you write romance-themed books for publication (I write YA which is not strictly romance, but I have romance themes).
You can also attend their regional or national conference w/o being a member.
Thanks Stephanie. I don’t write in the romance genre but like you, my short stories and book I’m writing has some romantic themes. Good to know and thanks so much for your input.
If anyone on here wants to trade betas, let me know. I have one person on Scribophile who does a fantastic job for me, then one other (a published author) who has beta read, but I am still paranoid about putting the first book out there. It became a Frankenbook-by-committee at one point. When I realized that, I went through and tried to fix it… I think it’s back on course. I have two other short novels and three finished novellas plus a half finished novella in the series, and I really want to get them published this year. I just need beta readers. Sigh.
Another great post, Kristen… and thanks for the shout-out–I appreciate it. I totally agree with your recommendation of RWA. I don’t read or write romance novels, but as you know I talk to a lot of groups and they’re nonpareil in professionalism. Those folks are true pros and know their stuff.
If I had been in a writer critique group with Dan Brown back when he was writing his first novels, I would have told him that he doesn’t quite have the hang of this writing thing and perhaps he should try another hobby. If Mr. Brown would have taken my advice, he would not have gone on to became the international bestselling phenomenon that he has become!
I have always been a solitary writer but am going to my first critique group next week so your advice is well timed. I feel better prepared and will be looking out for potential pitfalls. As always, thanks for the advice.
OMG, you hit a sore point with me. I tried the writing group stuff, I got bored out of my skull as someone who is reading their poetry doesn’t help me one whit. The old guy who has written a memoir that rambles on and on about how he did it, not what he’s doing next. And the woman who thinks her stuff is so good, a major publisher is going to call her because they’ve heard how her novel is better than anything most of the NYTBSL authors have ever dreamed of publishing. She will be fabulously wealthy and don’t worry, she’ll still hang out with us “little people” since someone has to show us how absolutely horrid our work is in comparison with hers.
There is a story being circulated (and has for years) that once the word processor came out, Issac Asimov refused to use it. He said it was too easy to change things and he would never be “finished” if he used it. There’s some wisdom in that.
I do like the beta reader method best, you get a whole picture and honesty. I’m looking into RWA but the dues are pretty steep.
Thanks for this post, Kristen.
I have to add one thing. RWA has had a change in membership requirements that might make it difficult for anyone not writing Romance to join a chapter. And because of that, some smaller chapters are folding. RWA chapters are very supportive of writers, no doubt about that, but a potential member should check what is needed for membership.
Reblogged this on Mitzi Flyte.
Thank you so much for this insight! I have yet to join a group. I have just recently stepped out of my shell (sort of). I am actively cleaning up my novel and playing with ideas of what to do with it.
Thanks Kristen. As a new author still learning the ropes this is sound advice. I am particularly looking forward to your reading recommendations. I will look them all up. Thanks again. Mark
I’m so glad you took on this topic today. I teach creative writing and the subject of critiques and critique groups comes up often. There must be as many opinions about this as there are writers and critiquers, but I enjoyed your balanced view. One issue I’ve had to deal with is group turnover. It seems once a person finishes a novel, he or she becomes too busy with publishing tasks to continue with the group. Have you ever experienced this?
Great article. I was once the member of an online writing/critique group. We used Google Docs to share our writing and input feedback, but people always got hung up on grammar and punctuation instead of content. Plus, they did not equally give feedback as they did receive it. I enjoyed our weekly online chats and the forums, but there was just something lacking from the group. Glad you could put it in perspective.
Painfully true. Living in a small town limits my possible critique partners, so I have relied heavily on two separate groups…both are the “traditional” type. Over the last THREE years of PERFECTING my WIP, it is still not perfect. So I plug along. I have gotten a lot of help from the groups, but realize the need for a beta reader and professional critique. Where do I find a reader I can trust?
Interesting discussion on critique groups! One thing I’ve realized from being a member of an online group relates to the danger of perfectionism – that, in the attempt to please everyone’s criticism, you end up smoothing out all of the edges of your story until it’s dull. As a way to counter this, the wonderful “Booklife” by Jeff VanderMeer suggested separating criticism into those that fit your vision for your story and those that do not. So editing particular scenes in your story because you received criticism that they don’t fit the pacing would probably be a constructive change, but changing the theme or message of your story because a member of your group didn’t agree with it might not be as helpful.
Yes I fall in the perfectionist trap!! I am way too slow. But in my case it is not the fault of my critique group.
I’m trying to evolve…
My experience of group feedback is that people are too nice (or conflict-averse) to point out the weaknesses to your face – so they tell someone else in the group instead. Sigh…
“Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid.”
I wish more people understood this.
In a traditional critique group, anyone who leads with, “I really don’t like the genre of this story…” probably doesn’t have much USEFUL criticism to offer. (I cannot count the number of times someone has told me that the one thing wrong with a story is that it’s science fiction. Um… Yeah. I write science fiction; it’s what I do, at least when I’m not editing or proofreading science fiction. Telling me that I’ve got talent as a writer and that my story would be “pretty good” if it was anything BUT science fiction? Not helpful.)
“I spent way too many years in a critique group that produced all kinds of articles and NF”
The last face-to-face critique group I joined (and left soon afterward) was like that. About 30 people,and fewer than half wrote fiction of any kind. Memoirs, poetry, school papers, how-to books… It was a mess.
I think perfectionism is a problem, but so is deciding that, if a manuscript will NEVER be truly perfect, there’s no point in making it as CLOSE to perfect as it can be before publishing. The trick is finding a balance, and honestly saying, “This is the best I can do right now.”
I needed to hear this. I stopped going to my critique group because of the whirlwind effect. I wasn’t advancing. I decided to go it on my own and seek out writers that have published to look at my work. It works so much better for me. Thanks for your tips.
I did an online writing workshop years ago ago, it generally operated like an ineffective critique group. I realized after a while that the advice was usually canned and unhelpful. I didn’t grow at all during the experience. In fact, I didn’t start growing as a writer until I became a researcher and started to value the editing process and also came to see that even if a reviewer is wrong, it doesn’t mean they haven’t observed a problem. The biggest thing that’s helped me though, by far, is the beta reader. I have asked 4 people to do this for me, in fairly early stages, with the instructions to stop as soon as the story starts to suck. Their insight has helped me to better analyze my story and see where the structure is weak, and also work out what was resonating.
As musicians we were writing songs and very inspired. Then we joined a critique group and it all came to a halt. Maybe I’m just too sensitive, but who says they knew better than me? They offered opinions and none of them were accomplished songwriters. Thanks for the post. I am going to read the books you suggested.
It was nice and refreshing as I am new to all this but I got one thing for sure education is the key. Appreciate reading this.
When I first started writing a did a writing workshop like the one you’ve described. What a nasty experience! I stay clear of them. Working with a seasoned editor one-to -one gives the best results for me and my story. I’ve worked with a few beta readers to get feedback but again, they are not going to help me with structure and building character; they are good readers for immediate reaction but not much more. Working with an experienced editor and doing my own self-study about writing through books and blogs (like this one) is a pretty good path.
Reblogged this on K. L. Romo.
Hmmm. Currently rewriting my prologue and first four chapters on the advice of a respected beta. Good betas are like gold dust. Pure gold dust. Even when (especially when) they smash you to the floor with their (totally justified and valid) criticisms. She was right – damn her eyes! Critique groups: I haven’t found one that works but did find a good writing friend through an online one. Worst experience? Reading as a beta and having to go back to the writer with the tactful words “I don’t think this is beta-ready; I suggest you tighten up the writing along the (fifty-two) suggestions I have made for chapter one.” Surely, in order to write a novel one must have done fairly well in English at school! But evidently not in some cases…(And please, guys, I was tactful, supportive and encouraging. And honest.)Thank you Kirsten. So very pleased one of your (successful) fans directed me to you.
In architecture, we have a saying: “Colour by committee is mud.” I think we can probably say that writing by committee can often be gibberish.
I forget, do you have a post on how to find, treat and thank Beta-readers?
Reblogged this on jean's writing and commented:
Need help with a critique group? Read Kristen Lamb’s latest post.
You’re spot on about RWA. Their conferences are sold out every year; more and more men attend for the superb workshops (as well as other good things). Novel-by-Committee is a disaster for most writers and I’ve heard horror stories that remind me of the photo at the top. New writers are particularly vulnerable. Very few of us make a living from writing but I believe the importance of writing what you want/must is paramount. That may not always lead to fame and fortune but it is the most satisfying.
Reblogged this on Leigh Verrill-Rhys: EverWriting and commented:
You know how it is when you read something and wish you had written it? Here’s one example I want to share… (Don’t let the image at the top scare you!)
Excellent post, Kristen! I do like learning from mistakes (gaps in the story I might have forgotten to fill) or maybe an approach to writing (‘showing’ vs ‘telling’ . ) But as soon as we start knit picking at various ideas, because of what WE might think would work, we stifle the creativity of others and ourselves, because we get too worried about who will like such and such an idea. As soon as that happens, kiss creative freedom goodbye.
I have seen some movies reviewed by Nostalgia Critic that made me wonder what the financial geniuses of various studios were thinking…or drinking when they green lit certain movies. TRY (I DARE you!) to get through ‘The Room’ (Tommy Waseau ) or ‘Garbage Pail Kids’ and you’ll feel like J.R.R. Tolkein or Daphanie DuMaurier by the time those masterpieces are over. (Assuming you get through them! 😮 )
I am so glad someone reblogged this on my feed because this can not hit home at a better time. I write romance and YA and most times they go hand in hand. And I love my critique group. I’ve grown attached to them, but out of the 10-15 that show up regularly, only three of us write YA and maybe two others read it. So the other 60% (sorry I’m a writer not a mathematician lol) don’t understand the format or the characters. They ask ridiculous questions. They think teenagers aren’t too bright (I like to consider them flawed and constantly thinking about boys 🙂 And sometimes I fall into many of the pitfalls you mentioned above. I try my best to ignore invalid critiques, but sometimes I struggle and I’ve put my work on the shelf for a few months because these critiques have left me with some self doubt. But I continue to write. And if anything, I’m going to join RWA! Thank you. I’ll be sure to reblog!
^ come find me on twitter; I’m in RWA and the YA online chapter! @StephScottYA
And honestly, I never expected to join romance writers 3+ years ago because I didn’t write romance. .. except I did. I had a very narrow view, apparently. SCBWI is great too, just for me they did not have a local chapter near me that met often enough so I let my membership lapse.
Hey thanks for the info. I looked at the RWA membership. Do I really have to have that much writing under my belt? I have romance short stories published but it said 20k? I’ll check you out on Twitter. Thanks
They just changed that rule. I thought it said combined works totalling up to 20k words counted. If you have any manuscript at all that’s unpublished that’s 20k words or more, that counts. I believe the requirement for full status does not kick in until later this year anyway.
Oh I think you’re right, it’s combined. If that’s the case I have enough published and unpublished romance short stories and flash fiction to meet half the requirement. And the rest in unfinished MS (I don’t know if that works, but I’ll email them). Thanks again. 🙂
Reblogged this on Romance Done Write and commented:
I couldn’t have come across this at a better time. I love my critique group, but sometimes you have to ignore the comments that you feel doesn’t help your work. I am guilty of trying to implement everyone’s suggestions – it’s daunting and discouraging. You have to write what’s right for your genre and this couldn’t have been said in any better way.
I started in a free public library critique group that was run by a teacher–he does a phenomenal job, but like others mentioned, the group was big, and contained every kind of writing from poetry, memoir, picture book, personal essay, etc. Most were self professed hobbyists, which is wonderful, but after six months or so I determined I needed to align with writers pursuing publication since that is what I decided I wanted.
I have an in-person group who has been meeting for the last year and a half. We write differently but all within various types of romance and women’s fic, which helps since we know the trends and nuances. Someone asked to join our group and we tactfully declined; it’s a tough spot to be in because I hate excluding people. But what they wrote was vastly different, and also this person’s professionalism within our larger group I have questioned. When you have a group that works, you don’t want to lose that dynamic.
I like having a writing buddy. What’s more is that she lives in another country (still the English language though). Everything she has to tell me about my WIP is laid out for me using comments in either Docs or Word, plus a note in the email that my piece is attached to. I have time to digest what she has told me about my writing and get past the defensive mechanism that usually pops up automatically. Of course, she is just one person but until I have a complete manuscript I feel assured and helped. When I pick my beta readers, I’ll be choosing writers. It won’t be until after all this that I’ll be hiring an editor.
I’m a believer in workshops as vital for a beginning or even an experienced writer. When a novel hasn’t been workshop-tested, you can tell. Sadly, many people misuse their workshop. My pet peeves: People who re-read their entire novel to the group. It’s like they’re saying, “You told me what was wrong with my novel and I fixed it, so now tell me how to finish it from here.” Arrgh. Even worse: People who reread a chapter that still contains many of the mistakes it had when they read it the first time. Or authors who write works containing allegedly factual material that they haven’t researched. Or children’s books with bad grammar or wretched rhymes: “Jake and him fell off of the horse. If I fell off, it would be worse.”
Reblogged this on liz dejesus.
Reblogged this on This is your real mother speaking… and commented:
Great advice! I’ve been toying with joining my local RWA…Writing groups have never worked out well for me. Beta readers, on the other hand…(Can you hear a chorus of holy angels singing here?) have worked miracles/been a huge blessing for my novel writing! Thank you my betas! You’ve been there throughout the entire novel writing process and it’s because of you that I finished it. You know who you are. 🙂
Fantastic post Kristen – again, lots to think about. It is tricky to get the balance right between accepting useful constructive feedback that helps improve your work while avoiding the pitfalls of advice that undermines your vision or creates an overworked monster out of your writing. Good luck everyone (and I hope you can all find good advice).
Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
Another great blogpost from Kristen Lamb – it is so important to get the balance right between seeking and acting on constructive, helpful feedback (to improve writing) and avoiding the pain and pitfalls of unhelpful feedback which ends up derailing a writing project. Good luck find the balance!
How much do beta readers charge for critiquing full-length novels and for novellas?
Good ones likely don’t charge anything. Content editors will charge but betas are just people who like to read.
Thank you so much for letting me know–I thought they were the same thing.
I really appreciate all of your blogs and read them religiously. Whenever I recommend you to someone, I find out they are already following you! Your advice and guidance are vitally important to sooooooo many of us. Thank you!!
Have a blessed and peaceful day. 🙂
I discovered that most critique groups were more concerned about getting new writers (not experienced writers) to pad their numbers. In other words, there was a lot of “That’s really good” and not much “Here’s how you can improve”. I live in the middle of fumblebuck and have to drive a couple of hours to participate, so I save the gas money and spend it on beer and big macs.
Reblogged this on The Compass Locket.
Great article, Kristen – I linked to it on my post as I thought it had great points to consider and wanted to share it with my readers – thanks so much for putting this out there. I’m also following and love W.A.N.A.