Critique Groups: How To Find Your Dream Team

By Sharla Rae

I’m very proud of my critique dream team here at Writers In The Storm. We started out liking each other, but we’re now sisters both in the family sense and as professional writers.  Unfortunately, not all critique groups are created equal.

We’ve all heard critique group horror stories: unprofessional back-biting, petty jealousies and nit-picking a writer’s work to pieces.  At the same time, we’ve heard of critique dream teams like here at WITS. These groups give constructive criticism, share professional information, cry and hold each others’ hands after rejections, kick a partner in the behind when needed, and when a fellow member wins a contest or publishes, they break out the champagne. Not only do they care, they also share in the accomplishment.

Last week, Jenny talked about supporting your critique partners in 10 Power Tips For Critique groups. But what if you don’t have a critique group? How do you find your dream team?

I’ve belonged to three different critique groups in three different states. All were different in both culture and the way they worked. I learned that finding or forming a great critique
group is like writing. Both take time, effort, determination, patience and yes, a little luck. So don’t waste time.

Start by being honest with yourself. Ask these questions:

1] What do you expect from a critique group?

Line edits, grammar, punctuation
Story construction and characters
Plotting only
Sharing up-to-date Industry knowledge
Developing writing technique
All or some of the above

2] What can you offer critique partners?

What are your writing strengths? Even newbie novelist bring something of value to
the table. Maybe you’re an English teacher, an executive secretary, the editor
of a company newsletter, a whiz kid at computers or selling yourself. You get
the picture.

3] Are you willing to join a mixed-level group of writers?

By mixed-level, I mean, newbies, pros and published. If a mixed-level group doesn’t appeal, stick to your guns. If you don’t, you won’t be happy and neither will your partners. At the same time, beginners need to understand that while having a published author in their critique group is beneficial to them, they may not have the expertise to meet the author’s needs.

When I moved to California, the first thing I did was join my local chapter of Romance Writers of America - OCC/RWA. Then I looked for a critique group. Finding one proved more difficult than in the past – different culture. Californians don’t come to you; you must go to them.

I inquired about critique groups at chapter meetings, but the chapter is large, and I’m shy with new people. When I did muster the courage to ask about crit groups, nothing seemed
a good fit. Next, I ran an ad in the newsletter. Still, no go.

Finally I joined the chapter loop and advertised for a critique group. Because I didn’t want to waste more time, I decided I needed to be forthright and tough about my needs. Easier
to do online than in person. <g> The ad read like a job want ad including the implied “no loafers need apply.” It read something like this:

I’m a published author starting a critique group in the Irvine area. You must be actively writing and serious about a writing career. Please no newbies. I don’t want to be a writing teacher.

Must be willing to e-mail a chapter for critique and consideration. I’ll also submit a chapter to applicant for critique.

If I like the writing, we’ll meet and critique each other in person to learn if we’d make a good fit as critique partners.

As ads go, it sounded mean and stuck up, but I was determined to gain as much from my critique partners as I was willing to give them. Despite my rude manners, I received responses from like-minded writers who liked my honest approach. And so the interviews
commenced.

What I Looked For

Personality:

Is this person open to constructive criticism or are they defensive to the point of only wanting to hear the good stuff?

Do I think I could like this person or did they rub me the wrong way? Liking a critique partner is no petty wish. Personality clashes do not belong in a critique group.

Writing Level:

Is the writing on a par with mine or at least close? Again, I didn’t want to teach writing 101.

Genre didn’t and still doesn’t matter to me at all. I may not write a particular genre, but I read all of them. If genre matters to you, then say so upfront. Personally, I think a mix really adds new depths to my own writing, but that’s another blog.

If the writing isn’t quite up to my level, does this person have potential? What else can they bring to the table? I know, I know, sounds mean. But this is a profession, not a hobby. I’ll give, but I want something in return. An English professor or teacher who is new at writing, earns mega kudos with me. Same with editing experience etc. Something else that goes a long way is enthusiasm.

Critique Style:

Does this person critique me on all the aspects I expect to be critiqued on? Do they understand the basics of plot, characterization, emotion, setting etc.? Did they suggest something interesting that I hadn’t considered? Was the critique constructive without petty nit-picking?  Did they find my critique helpful — too little or over the top?

I was lucky to find Theresa, Deb, and Jenny. Together, we decided on a central location, time and place to meet. We’re somewhat flexible for holidays and vacations. When Theresa, our English professor moved away, we lost not only our grammar queen but also a wonderful friend with a nutty sense of humor.

When I looked for Theresa’s replacement, I didn’t do it alone. As a group, we interviewed and critiqued new applicants. It took us three whole months! Why? One rotten egg, spoils the cake.

Although we hadn’t started our blog yet, word had spread about how well our group worked. We had a huge response. Still, the way we work, we decided adding only one person was for the best. That was when we discovered we had a problem. We fell in love with two of the applicants. We finally agreed to make things easy on ourselves and invited both of them. Laura and Fae joined the group and boy oh boy did we luck out.

Our WITS method of recruiting and interviewing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do believe the method is way better than jumping into a group situation, not knowing if
you’ll fit their culture and methodology. It would be like taking a job without truly knowing the job description.

Three Rules For Those
Gun-shy Of Critique Groups

1] Don’t give up on critique groups. Get tough!

If you’re a member of the critique group from hell, depart with due haste! Then try another group or start your own.

2] Know your own expectations and stick to them.

Critique groups are like jobs. How they operate varies as does employ/writer culture. Don’t settle. If you don’t love your critique group, soon you’ll hate writing too.

3] Be patient.

Finding the perfect fit takes time, but the rewards are great when you do.

So how about you? Are you looking for a critique group, leaving a bad one? Do you have a great story about the critique group you’re now in? Tell us how you found your dream team.

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18 Responses to Critique Groups: How To Find Your Dream Team

  1. “Californians don’t come to you; you must go to them.” So true! I spent my teens in the mid-west, but other than that I was born and raised in So Cal, so while I do have that personable, helpful side to me, I still won’t “go” to anyone! lol For me, I think it has more to do with being incredibly shy than with anything else ;p
    Great post, Sharla – thanks!

    • Thanks Kate. I was raised in Iowa and also lived in TX for 10 years where Southern hospitality is far from dead. CA was culture shock big time. But I have to say, it was a good kick in the rear. Now, I’m more likely to chase down my goals at full speed. Shar

  2. Sharla, this post came at a time when I am deseprately seeking a strong group. Locally, it has proven not to work. Part of the solution came to me from Edie Ramer when she directed me to Amy Atwell for GIAM. Amy asked me some of the same questions and decided to put me into one of their PRO loops. At least they share weekly progress. I am waiting to see if I find a good fit for a critique partner. Your ad was great, your outline better. Although I am unpublished (I might sound a bit arrogant also) I am hardly a newbie. The best I can do at this time is try to find like-minded writers on line. What do you suggest about finding a good fit with someone on-line?

    • Laura Drake says:

      Oh Florence, wish I had a perfect match for you – I’ve tried several online groups. If you’re a beginner (which you’re not) Writing.com is great – very supportive.

      More advanced? Have you tried the crit group at RWA-WF?
      I know there are others out there – but it’s the luck of the draw on skill level/personality match.

      Don’t quit though – you may not click with many in a group online, but over the years I’ve found a couple of wonderful online crit partners that way!

      The good thing about online is there’s no such thing as geographically undesirable, and you can work at your own pace.

      Keep looking!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Florence, have you tried looking outside your genre? In our WITS group we all write something different but it really does work. Don’t worry about the labels of published, pro, etc. too much. Most advanced groups are picky gut tell them you believe your writing will sell them and offer to submit a chapter or two. Couldn’t hurt and may help a lot.

  3. Jenny Hansen says:

    I’ll confess that I didn’t even really know I needed a critique group until I got one. Seriously. I’d never been in one before and I just liked Sharla’s ad – very professional and a little snarky. I knew we’d be a good fit. And here we are, almost 7 years later. :-)

  4. Absolutely love, love, love the ad you posted, Sharla! Every critique group I’ve joined (so far) has been a disaster. I usually ended up sitting on sidelines watching in sick amazement as ‘Rulership’ battles ensued, writers of one genre demeaned and tried to push out all other genres, one individual usurped every other members abilities and time, etc, etc. Once –at our initial meeting, no less– had a founding member hand me her 150K MS with orders to ‘clean it up to prove I belonged’. I would critique (and edit) contest entries and partial submissions of several thousand words, but couldn’t get three paragraphs even read by anyone. (I’m minimally pubbed in paranormal romance, but out there trying, with a magazine Staff Writer background.)

    I know there’s a measure of give and take; I even understand the give and take may be unbalanced at times, dependent on where a WIP or submission may be in the entire writing process. I expect to carry my weight and pay my dues. So it wasn’t as if I walked in with unrealitic expectations. But I joined for a little exchange, dang it all!

    I admit it. I’d given up.

    But, Sweetie, your post restored my hope! I’m off to try again, working to find what you and your critique partners share. Wish me luck!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Runere, I’m so glad my blog inspired you, and I hope you dumped that critique group from hell. Life is too short to put up with that kind of abuse. Critique group members should all be on an equal keel with no one named boss. Even after I started our group I dropped the leadership reins. The same holds true with our blog. We take turns running the show. One partner runs it for a month then turns the reins over to the next gal. :) No one is stuck doing all the work all the time.

      If I were you, I’d definitely start your own crit group. Don’t be afraid state exactly what you want out of it. You’ll be respected for doing so. Good Luck!

  5. Angelyn says:

    Informative post. Good advice to newbies (I think I’m still one).

  6. deanna says:

    What a great post, Sharla. I love your ad, too. I’ve had terrible luck trying to find a critique group, but now I’m inspired to start looking again :)

  7. Sharla Rae says:

    Deanna, thanks for the kind words I hope your luck with critique groups changes.

  8. Becky says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve been with several critique groups at different times and I agree that being patient can pay off. Know what you want and look for the right mix. It’s great when the various members have different things to offer.

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  11. dirkmcfergus says:

    I recently attended a critique group, hoping to work out an issue in a short story. After the criticisms, which were fine, the leader suggested I buy the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I said that I would check it out and I had a book recommendation for him, How to Write a Hook in the First Chapter of your Boring Stockbroker Thriller. I wasn’t invited back.

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  13. Hi,

    I’m plodding through my first PNR novel and was checking out sites for a critiquer in this genre when I came across this post.
    It seems very rewarding, but I’m a bit scared now – after reading about those cautionary incidents.above. :(
    TT

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