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: and his blog, Up Around the Corner, at

The Ethics of Marketing

Great news!  We have a guest blogger today.  JC Farnham, the blogmaster extraordinaire from Supercritical – The Alchemy of Writing, has written an excellent post for us.

Being in a similar self-publishing situation as Brian, I’d like to talk further about something mentioned on the Ethics of Marketing a few days ago. As a graduate of marketing, I thought it might be particularly useful for me to add my thoughts on the subject to provide a different point of view for the followers of this blog.

First, a bit of technical background.

Marketing Ethics is a strangely tricky subject, as I discovered during the aforementioned course. Even for an official governing body to make a ruling on an incident is oddly difficult. To this end each case is often settled on the merits of that case alone. On occasion a precedent is set to which judges are compelled to act but, only when these pre-set rules come into question, can that be done. People have to make mistakes.

We are in a position today where the market is in flux, more so than in the past (though it remains to be seen, it may be settling)—particularly with the advent of new and easier self-publishing routes. Previous rulings on matters of ethics have to be transferred to fit these new cases. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but research, logic and experience from my degree modules tell me that things are always somewhat uncertain. This is probably why we find an awful lot of stories coming out about fake or dishonest reviews and such similar devious situations. Unfortunately it’s easy to cheat, tempting perhaps… thankfully our industry tends to police itself. To wit, when an incident comes to light, people tend to stop buying those products—the books go without saying of course, but people also stop buying into the brand itself, the author.

It regularly falls to the individual to discriminate between what is right and what it wrong. Don’t make it hard on yourself. If you are looking to publish, you probably aren’t looking to do it just once. You need to acquire a kind of staying power, and that doesn’t come from a good campaign for one book. Be a brand to be believed in.

I particularly find the subject of reviews interesting. It has been shown time and time again that people typically use reviews as a way to inform their decision making processes. While I don’t like to think I rely solely on the opinions of others when it comes to choosing on which books to spend my limited funds, I’m well aware that if a product has more reviews I’m more likely to take the risk of buying…

Regardless of what those reviews said.

Now like Brian showed in his post, it’s easy for a rather crafty author to get this glowing reviews. I would like to go on record saying that, any review is better than no review. People seem to worry that bad review could mean the end of their income, and though that is a warranted worry, if you have a professional quality product all exposure is good exposure. One only has to read about Lady Gaga to realise that. My point is that all reviews carry weight. One may want more glowing reviews than bad, but the fact one has either shows your product is engaging. The problem comes when you do something off and you can’t shake it. The United Colours of Beneton come to mind with their increasingly morally grey advertising campaigns (I’m not sure how showing pictures of dying men helps them sell their services, but each to their own…). It makes people wary of striking up a dialogue with them. Controversy certainly helps garner some kind of interest it seems, but it’s usually best not to be that kind of brand… That should go without saying. Common sense.

To ask people to provide you with favourable reviews therefore is rather dishonest and it doesn’t show you, the brand, in a good light to do so. Strive for honest reviews.

If you “trade reviews” with fellow authors, you have to expect an “unfavourable” review or two, but that never stopped anyone. Meyer and her Twilight fans care little who tries to trash them. Paolini didn’t (and doesn’t) worry about what people thought of his writing in the early days. He published his novels, caught the hearts of his readers and fought to improve with each succeeding book. Their success isn’t based on ensuring the only reviews they have are favourable. Their success is based on firstly having a product that speaks to their target audience, and secondly on being a brand to be believed in.

Let’s summarise. Don’t worry too much about your reviews or your critics. You shouldn’t need to pick and choose. You’re bound to get some harsh ones, some weightless, uninformed but ultimately good ones, some almost-too-perfect ones… but all that matters is getting those reviews (that’s another subject altogether of course). Unless you’ve found the winning formula of pleasing everyone (and let’s face it, there probably isn’t such a formula) there will always be someone who didn’t engage well with your story. It happens. Everyone is different and entitled to their opinion.

Things being uncertain in self-publishing is not an excuse to bend or break the rules. There are precedents, albeit ones previously related to traditional publishing, but, if you get found out, it will come back to haunt you. Even if you don’t let to progress to court level, bad stigma is exceedingly tough to shake.

It’s difficult to name names on those who did this badly, but here’s an example that should relate well to the subject of stigma effecting opinion. It remains to be seen whether J.K. Rowling enjoys success with her adult fiction (for the price set financial security should damn well be certain however many units she shifts…). She is known for being a children’s author, a good one at that, but one never the less. She has a stigma, good or bad, attached to her. “Can she really transfer the same skills over to adult fiction?”, “Will it be worth it?”, etc. Only time will tell. The great thing is she’s trying none the less.

Let your work stand up for itself without being pushed alone with the more “glowing kind of solicited reviews”. I hope you catch my meaning there. If not here it is, spelt out:

Don’t force the good reviews. It’s not worth it and people will be suspicious of such complete praise.

That being said, word of mouth buzz is ridiculously efficient. Get people talking about you and you might well find your sales rising rapidly. China Mieville seems to have managed this on the strength of his imagination alone. He’s often tipped as being tremendously creative and a truly remarkable talent, and that reputation whether you personally think it’s earned not (I do, but who am I) allows him to sell to people who would be otherwise unsure of his subject matter. You have to pick up his fiction to find out, and therein lays the trick.

Achieving this means getting your brand out there. Whatever you decide that means for you. Reviews are a must, as are many other marketing tools, but remember to reach your target customers where they hang out, and do it honestly, and with really weight behind you. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than your words seeming hollow whether you mean it or not, or for that matter falling on deaf ears.