Every writer needs honest, constructive feedback to grow in their craft. Many will join critique or beta reading groups. These groups come in all sorts and sizes, some specializing in general fiction and some in genres like mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance.
Most communities have clusters of authors. In your community, you will find groups for beginning writers and some that cater to more advanced crowds. I guarantee there will be one to fit your needs.
We’ve all heard the horror stories regarding critique groups, and perhaps even experienced one. Making a poor choice can be devastating—it can undermine an author’s self-confidence and destroy their joy in the craft.
The seas are rough out there, but most writing groups are really good, supportive gatherings of authors who stay for years and welcome new authors into their group with open arms.
You may stumble upon groups who seem cliquish, unwelcoming, and daunting to new arrivals. Authors just beginning to explore this necessary part of the craft are not required to return to one of these groups if they were given the cold-shoulder the first time.
There is a difference in types of writing groups. Some are traditional critique groups, people who usually read a few pages aloud at their sessions and the others discuss it in detail in a round-table fashion, while the author listens. Often, these groups are large and because they are pressed for time, they don’t allow the author to ask questions or clarify points of confusion. Despite that flaw, this sort of focus on your work can be just right for some authors.
A group like that can tell you if you have made editing errors, and point out errors within the few pages they have sampled. For authors strapped for cash and unable to afford to hire an editor, this sort of group is an invaluable resource. What you learn about your writing habits in those pages will carry over into the larger manuscript.
However, because traditional critique groups focus only on 3 or 4 pages at a time they lack the context to be able to discern inconsistencies and flaws in the overall story arc. They don’t see enough of the work to tell if your protagonist is developed sufficiently by the first 1/4 of the tale, or if you have flattened your arc by placing your inciting incident too far from the beginning.
Unless you have submitted your entire novel over a period of time, formal critique groups usually can’t see subtle problems with
- the overall story arc
- character development
They can’t see these things because these larger elements can only be judged by sampling more than three or four pages of a novel. One way around that is to seek input privately from one of the members if you have found someone who reads the genre in which you write, and feel comfortable enough to share that much with them.
If you are looking for input on large issues, my advice is to find a beta reading group.
But how do you select a group? Before you join a critique or beta reading group, you have the right to know what that group focuses on. Attend one of their meetings as an observer.
What do I want from this group? How do they treat each other’s work? When you get home, ask yourself these questions:
- Did they address places where the submitted chapter bogged down?
- What did the group think about the characters?
- Did they address places where they became confused?
- Did the group point out spots they had to read twice?
- How did the group address places where the story become unbelievable or too convenient?
- Did the readers care enough to wonder what would happen to the characters next?
- How did the group phrase their comments? Was it supportive as well as instructional?
- Did they encourage conversation about the chosen work?
- Is discussion discouraged? If the author was not allowed to discuss their work or ask questions, it is a red flag that should be noted.
Ask yourself, “What vibes did I get from this group of people? Will I benefit from sharing my work with this group? Did the comments they made to each other sound helpful?” Hopefully, the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”
If not, run now. Run far, far away.
If you are considering joining the group, ask the leader/chairperson these questions:
- If the group is a beta reading group focused on first drafts, what do they consider a first draft? Do you have to hire an editor and have it thoroughly edited before you submit it to this group? Because that is not a first draft, and that group would be a waste of your time.
- Will you receive insights into your manuscript on points you hadn’t considered, or will the focus of the discussion center on minor editing issues that you are already aware of?
- Ask the leader to define for you the specific areas that readers will be looking at: Character development, pacing the arc of the scene, pacing the arc of the conversation, worldbuilding.
When you think have found a group you feel comfortable sharing your work with, and you trust them enough to submit your first piece to them, take notes on the experience. When you are home, ask yourself:
- Do I still feel positive about my work or do I feel like my work was treated as being less than important?
- Did I gain anything from the experience that would advance the plot or did I just hear a rehash of armchair editing from a wannabe guru?
- When I was discussing the direction I wanted to take the tale in, did I sense that they were interested in my story?
If the answers are anything other than a resounding “yes” you have the right to leave the group.
The answers to these questions have to be that you feel good about your work, that you saw through their eyes the weaknesses, and you now know what you need to do to make your story great. You must be filled with the conviction that you know what needs to be done, and you must still have passion for the story.
Authors attend their first meeting with a new writing group hoping to find likeminded people. We are filled with uncertainty and fear the first time we meet these people. At the end of the day, you have to feel as if you have gained something from the experience.
Hopefully, you will be as fortunate as I have been, and find a group of authors who will support and nurture you in the craft of writing. The way to repay them for their help is to support them and their efforts wholeheartedly.