Five Areas to Consider before Joining a Writing Critique Group

Today, we’re honored to have Terry W. Ervin II as a guest blogger.  He is an English teacher who enjoys writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is an editor for the speculative fiction magazine MindFlights and a guest contributor to Fiction Factor, an ezine for writers.

 Gryphonwood Press released FLANK HAWK and BLOOD SWORD, the first two fantasy novels in Terry’s First Civilization’s Legacy Series in 2009 and 2011. Look for the third novel in the series (SOUL FORGE) in early 2013 and the release of GENRE SHOTGUN, his first short story collection, in November 2012. 

Now, on with the post:

One useful activity a writer can engage in to improve his work is participation in a writing critique group.  While active participation in a crit group (whether online or in person) can take a significant amount of time and effort, the payoff can be well worth it—if the author finds the right crit group.

I suggest five areas to consider before stepping forward and joining a crit group.

1.  Motivated Writers

Being around other writers can be infectious. But, if one is going to spend time with a group of writers for support, insight, and advice, the focus should be the discussion of members’ writing projects. The writers in a crit group should have goals, and each member should be actively working to achieve those goals. A goal may be as simple as finishing a novel by a certain date, or achieving the submission of three short stories for publication by the New Year.

An effective crit group isn’t a social club. While friendships may form, the group’s main focus should be on writing. This may include networking, discussions on market trends, and sharing research in addition to reading and critiquing writing submitted by members for evaluation.  Keeping the atmosphere professional and on track will promote what the group was formed for in the first place—to improve writing and achieve goals. A professional, writing-focused, goal-oriented structure also makes it easier to dismiss a member for failing to live up to group expectations.

2.  Minimum Requirements

A crit group should have established minimum participation requirements. Clear guidelines (some would call rules) regarding submissions for member evaluation and guidelines for critiques are essential. Having them reduces misunderstandings and hard feelings. Guidelines should be structured to keep every member an active participant as well restricting one or two writers from dominating the group’s time and effort. The guidelines (or rules) must be enforced, including a mechanism for removing members that fail to meet the established guidelines. A method to alter or amend the guidelines should be included when the group forms. As any longstanding group will have some turnover, a clear procedure for adding new members is important as well.

A writer may argue that lists of rules are unnecessary. They inhibit creativity and the free flow of ideas. They are tools which an unhappy member can use to bludgeon other members over the head.  In reality, well-crafted guidelines will insure a fair, stable, and smooth-running group. If members continually reference a guideline infraction, either it was an ill-conceived rule in need of modification or they have a legitimate point.

3.  At the Same Level

While it may initially appear a blessing for an aspiring writer to be among a group of accomplished pros, the disparity in writing ability can easily become a barrier for success. How much will the aspiring writer be able to constructively contribute?  What weight will the aspiring writer’s input carry? A crit group should be a benefit to all members. Will the pro writers become bored with the aspiring writer’s efforts and frustrated at the time it takes to critique writing far below their current ability? Such disparity can lead to discontent among members, disrupting the effectiveness of the group.

This is not to say that varying levels cannot work. If the less experienced writers submit stimulating and interesting work and are quick learners, and if the more experienced writers are able to garner useful insight from the less experienced members, it can work. These, however, are major ifs.

4.  Good Mixture

Strong crit groups have well-read participants with a range of experiences and opinions. This variety of views and input is invaluable to a writer. Some things like punctuation, clear antecedents, internal consistency, and proper dialogue tags are straight forward. A writer can read his work a dozen times and still overlook these things. Other areas such as pace, plot structure, and characterization are more subjective. It’s up to the writer as to which suggestions and modifications they will implement.

While some writers work in pairs with a single dedicated critique partner, a crit group can be more valuable due to its broader range of experience and input.

5.  Interest Writing

One thing that should not be overlooked by a writer interested in a crit group is that the works of the other writers must be of interest to him. While the writing itself may be solid, there is little worse than having to read and carefully analyze something that totally disinterests the reader. A reader who favors hard science fiction may have trouble working through a classic whodunit mystery or a steamy romance.

Many crit groups are genre focused in an effort to avoid this issue.  They may consist of only fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, or romance writers. A writer who works in multiple genres or writes stories that straddles genres may have some concerns. But, in general, good writing that contains elements of a crit group’s specific genre focus is welcome.

***

Membership in a critique group can have lasting benefits beyond the immediate assistance and opportunity for growth and development offered. Just be aware before joining one and don’t hesitate to move on if a group is dysfunctional or is proving to be less than beneficial. Beyond being a drag on motivation, among other aspects of writing, every moment dedicated to crit group participation is one less minute available to focus on a writing project. The time and effort put into the group has to be worth the input and assistance obtained from it.

 To contact Terry or learn more about his writing endeavors, visit his website at: http://www.ervin-author.com/ and his blog, Up Around the Corner, at http://uparoundthecorner.blogspot.com

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2 thoughts on “Five Areas to Consider before Joining a Writing Critique Group

  1. Terry,

    Thanks again for this post. I had my writing group last night and wanted to wait until after it to leave this comment. Your thoughts made me look at it in a different way.

    My group is an open one that focuses on fantasy/scifi. It’s on meetup.com, and anyone can come. We have a core of three people who are there every week, and the rest of the members fluctuate a lot. We usually end up with 6 – 7 people each time.

    I like your concepts, and I’m trying to figure out if that’s what I want or not. Is it worth the effort to try to form a new group? I’m still pondering.

    Thanks.

    Brian

    • It’s a balance of time and what you get out of it. If this group isn’t for you, you’ll eventually find the right one, although it can be hard to do. One of the most difficult things is when over time a group changes from what it was, to being not as valuable to its members.

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