The first critique group I belonged to met weekly, which I liked. When I’m at it, I write fast and I crave feedback. Especially when I was just starting out. But it wasn’t just insecurity and the desire for praise, though I like praise, as a matter of fact. It’s also that I was/am intensely interested in the whole process and eager to improve. This group was large, varying from eight to fifteen people. Way too big, in my opinion. We sat around a huge table and went around the room, each of us reading our few pages aloud while everyone else read along on their own copies. I didn’t like this oral aspect for three reasons.
* One, I don’t particularly like to read aloud. The narrative is far more vibrant and interesting in my head than I can convey with my hum drum voice. Other people in the group were often poor readers themselves. (When the former drama major read hers, we all perked up!)
* Two, when someone else is reading aloud, it’s too slow and distracting and I just read ahead on my copy and ignore the reader. Also, I concentrate much better when it’s quiet, and I want to think and re-read a passage and think some more when I’m critiquing. So pacing is forced on you even if it’s not the right pace for you.
* And three, reading is a silent activity. It’s true that if you read your own stuff aloud you can catch awkward phrases and rhythms you might miss reading silently, but I’d rather do that in the privacy of my lair. The real, final test of effectiveness is when the reader buys your book and reads it silently.
So I don’t recommend reading-aloud critique groups.
The size of the group is also important. With a smaller group, you can read larger chunks of each author’s output since the last meeting. Since I can produce 30 or 50 pages a week, and since I want feedback on every single paragraph, that’s important to me. I also find that I need to follow my partners’ narratives so that I can look at things beyond any one page. Where is this thread going? Is it developed later? Is there a motif that could work in this section that might tie in with an earlier section? Do I understand why this character made this choice? Is the pacing too slow here? You need larger numbers of pages to make good recommendations beyond the paragraph level.
Who should your partners be? I’ve been lucky the last two years to have a most excellent critique group. There are four of us, all published, all seriously writing (if not writing seriously), and not too awfully far apart in skills. I have to say, though, that I have been fortunate to be the newbie writer of the group ( I have three published books, D has maybe eighteen, BB has dozens, and K has five or six) and have learned and learned and learned from my more experienced friends. It isn’t necessary that everyone be at exactly the same place in terms of talent or skill, but it isn’t much fun if you go home without having received much insight into your own writing. The critiquing of others’ pages, however, is rewarding in itself. I absolutely love to critique other writers. (I judge contests, too.) What may be more important than the writing levels in the group is the level of commitment. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you won’t get much satisfaction from meeting with writers who too often say, I only wrote a page this last two weeks, or I didn’t write any the last month – if that is their consistent pattern and not just a transition between projects, that won’t work. If you’re seriously busy, so should your partners be.
Critique is something you get better at the more you do. As a former high school English teacher with a master’s degree, I assumed I’d know how to do this. I wasn’t awful at it, but after six years of it, I am sooo much better at it and more helpful to my partners.
I know writers who don’t need critique partners, and my buddies think I am closer to not needing so much feedback. BUT, what fun would that be? I eat, sleep, breathe writing, and I want to talk about it, all the time, if I could. Who else can do that with you but other writers? And remember how many hours we writers sit alone at the keyboard – we need human contact, right? It seems healthier and certainly a lot more fun to have writing buddies.