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Writers’ Critique Groups

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King mentions that he isn’t a big fan of writing classes, seminars, or critique groups. But what the heck does he know? Yeah, right. The good thing: Mr. King’s overall message is not so pretentious as to portray the notion that the Stephen King method is the best and only method that every aspiring writer should follow.

From my experience, critique groups are beneficial. Since I began writing, I’ve had the privilege to participate in several critique groups.

Including myself, the first group was composed of two gents and two ladies, four gung-ho students from the writing class we attended. According to an article trimmed from one of the popular writing magazines, our quartet formed the ideal size. We met once a week at one another’s homes, where we each shared our latest bits of wordsmithing, followed by criticism from the other three members. Overall, we operated on a pretty standard format. In one session, however, one member was working on a play, so each of us took an actor’s part and read the lines as if we were playing the role. That meeting was, by far, the most memorable. At the next meeting, the hosting member chose to provide an array of snacks and drinks. Not to be outdone, from that day forward each of us felt a similar obligation when we hosted, which turned the regular critique meetings into more of a social gathering competition. Not long afterward, three of us felt we’d lost touch with our original purpose and the group disbanded. Fun while it lasted, but…

Several years later I became one of a core group of students attending sequential advanced writing classes. Under the guidance of our instructor, our skills continued to expand. We got to know and appreciate one another’s writer’s voice and characters. Though it wasn’t intentional, we also developed a bond that evolved into a family of writers. Then our mentor signed a three-book deal and the classes ended. Unable to let the good vibe and cohesiveness fade, four of us co-founded a critique group that would allow us to continue the momentum we’d achieved in class.

Similar to the first group I’d participated in, the second ensemble met for two hours, once a week where we shared pieces from our current writing projects. Each gathering was a gloves-off sort of affair. Everyone who shared received open and honest opinions about their work from the other members. Sometimes the remarks stung a bit, but they were always constructive. To prevent major meltdowns, we had one rule: If a member couldn’t offer both positive and negative critiques, then they shouldn’t offer anything at all. Yes, we each got beat up at times, but we always left every meeting with a smile and looked forward to the next gathering.

Because of our dedication to writing and promoting one another’s efforts, the second group continued to grow. Word flowed through our small community and attracted other aspiring writers to join. Thankfully, not every member could attend every meeting. Despite the fluctuation, weekly sessions often exceeded the “ideal” number of participants, but we always managed to accommodate everyone who had something to share. Each of us learned from one another, improved our writing, and had our work published. It was a wonderful group.

As they often do, however, lifestyle requirements can change––including mine. After eight years with the second group, I moved to a different state and left behind my wordsmithing pals and sources of weekly inspiration. As my writer’s fate would have it, however, I discovered another source of motivation in my present location by joining the local chapter of Sisters in Crime. At the time, the chapter did not offer a separate critique group. Because I missed the kick-in-the-pants enthusiasm and camaraderie my last group had provided, I got the ball rolling toward establishing my third (and current) troop of critics. Fortunately, many of my new writing pals were more than willing to share their time and talent.

Input from interested members influenced a format change from my previous critique groups that allows each member to more thoroughly review the other members’ works prior to the meeting. Grammar, characters, plot line, attention to detail––every aspect of writing a good story is considered fair game and evaluated with equal scrutiny. Similar to my prior group, we take a gloves-off approach, while maintaining the positive as well as negative critiques rule. After all, our goal is to help and support each member not shoot down one another in a ball of flame. For me and each member currently involved, the concept is working extremely well.

So, although Stephen King may not be thrilled by critique groups, based upon his book, On Writing, I’m pretty confident that he’d also agree that one method does not work for all. Each individual writer must find their writer’s voice and a system that works well for them. Because there are a few rules all writers should follow, some techniques among writers will surely overlap. But writers’ critique groups may not work for everyone. From my experience, however, I’d certainly recommend them. Yes, one of the critique groups I participated in failed, but the other two have been amazing––and two out of three ain’t bad. Though the many facets of life may still interfere from time to time, my critique group keeps me and my writing grounded and in face-to-face contact with the writing community.

For writers who choose to either join or form a critique group, I wish you well and hope the groups you work with are as beneficial as mine have been for me.

Thanks for stopping by.

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