The Pros and Cons of Critique Groups

Pros and Cons of Critique GroupsThere’s some debate about the merit of critique groups, especially for novelists aspiring to write at a professional level. Some people are eager advocates of critique groups; others have added critique groups to the “don’t waste your time” list.

I am neither a critique group proponent nor opponent. Whether or not I recommend joining a critique group to a particular writer depends on the situation.

Here are some things to consider if you’re deciding whether or not to join one yourself.

Pros

  • Participating in a critique group can help you establish discipline as you learn to produce work regularly and revise diligently.
  • Regularly submitting your writing for critique can help you learn how to emotionally detach from your work. This is absolutely essential if you want to improve your story. You must learn how to dispassionately evaluate your own work so it can get better.
  • If you approach things correctly, you’ll learn how to check your ego at the door, and see constructive criticism as helpful instead of as an attack.
  • You can learn from the successes and failures of other stories presented in your group, and apply those lessons to your own writing.
  • As you provide feedback to others, you can learn how to look closely at a manuscript, and how to articulate what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Critique groups can be a good way to progress as a newbie. If you’re still working on the basics, a good group (approached with the right attitude) can act as an incubator for new writers.
  • Good groups offer camaraderie and support.

Cons

  • Any critique group is only as strong as its strongest member. If everyone in the group is a beginning writer, you may get helpful advice, but you will not be able to depend on feedback from the group to make a manuscript ready for an agent or publication.
  • You may be subject to poor behavior from other members. Snarkiness, competitiveness, and lack of commitment to the group are all problems you may see from others. (Good groups do not tolerate this behavior.)
  • Bad advice. New writers are especially susceptible to this. The group may be able to successfully identify a problem in your manuscript, but their proposed solutions may not be valid, or just may not be right for you and your story. (The up side to this is you’ll eventually learn to inoculate yourself against bad advice. Experience in critique groups is one way to learn if you’re rejecting advice out of hand due to pride, fear, or ignorance, or because it’s truly bad advice.)
  • False sense of success. This is a particular hazard of many online groups, which tend to be populated with very new and/or teen writers. It is common to see members gush over a story that’s very poorly written. This is a huge disservice to everyone involved, particularly the author.
  • For logistical reasons, critique groups are better suited to polishing short stories than novels. Groups can, and do, critique novels, but usually only a chapter at a time. How long will it take a group to read your entire novel at that pace?
  • Because you’ll be critiquing the work of other members, there can sometimes be a significant time investment to be part of the group. Depending on your situation, this may be a prohibitive factor.

Take these issues into consideration when deciding whether or not to join a critique group. Ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of it, and what you’re willing to give.

Often, critique groups are an important part of the learning process for new writers. Beginning writers who are struggling with such basics as dialogue, description, characterization, and effective scene building, can make a lot of progress working with a good group. Aspiring novelists may not be able to put their entire novel through a group, but they can still work on improving these basic skills by submitting a chapter at a time.

If you’re working on a novel and struggling with plot, pacing, and overall structure, your critique group will be very limited in what they can do for you. Unless you have a group willing to read your entire manuscript in short order, you will need to find other ways to master these larger elements of the novel.

If your goal is to get your manuscript ready for publication, keep in mind what I said earlier. Any critique group is only as strong as it’s strongest member. If you don’t have members writing at a professional level, don’t be surprised that they’re unable to help you get your story to that level either.

HOWEVER, even if your end goal is publication, if you’re a new writer and haven’t mastered the basics I mentioned above, a critique group can be a helpful intermediate step.

So how about you? What do you think are the pros and cons of critique groups?

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    For a few years I was a member of a critique group. It was interesting – useful – for a while. We had problems with varying levels of commitment, as well as subjective tastes. I’d say the biggest challenge over time, though, was the fact that after a while, we knew each other well enough that we were often giving the same advice, and it became clear that what we really needed at different points were beta readers for full novels, which was beyond our scope. Still, I met some great people that I continue to be in touch with, and made some valuable contacts.

    I probably wouldn’t do it, again, just because of the complexity of finding the right people, right skill level, right level of commitment, and so forth, but I’d recommend it as something worth doing, even if perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as a permanent thing.

    • 2

      Donna CookDonna Cook says

      That sounds about right. It can be a helpful part of a writer’s development and a good way to connect with people, but definitely has its limitations. Like you, I’m glad I did it but am not looking to do it again. At this stage, it makes more sense to use my editor and beta readers. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      • 3

        says

        One message I would give to writers looking to write novels is to (by whatever methods make sense) find people whose opinions you trust (or at least understand) who can beta read for you. It’s incredibly valuable. That said, because it takes so much time, it can be a hard thing to ask, which is why paying for focused reads (high-level/developmental) becomes a legitimate service: there’s a meaningful gap between what even a good beta reader is going to give you, and what you can get from someone knowledgeable who’s really focusing on it.

        • 4

          Donna CookDonna Cook says

          Exactly. Beta readers fill in gaps editors may miss, and vice versa I think once you’re going professional, you need both on your team.

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