It’s hard to write when you’re isolated; you need new ideas and experiences, especially when you’re a new author and the whole craft is unknown to you. Understanding how other people go about writing is important, and writing groups are a great way to do that. If you talk to a hundred authors, they will tell you a hundred different ways to write a story, but if you analyze what they tell you, you’ll realize that they actually all cover the same steps from A to Z; they just cover them in different orders or call them by different names. So when you interact with a lot of authors, you start to say things like, “Oh, that’s how you do it. Yes, I do the same thing, but I do it after this other step.” When you’re new to writing, talking to other authors is a great way to get a feel for what the craft encompasses. Writing groups also have a networking element—they’re a way to meet new agents and editors and marketing experts. There’s a wealth of knowledge that you can’t really get anywhere else. For both of these reasons, critique groups play an important role in helping me hone my craft.
The process that worked for me (and that I think should benefit most people) is to create a small group of about three to six fellow authors. You don’t all need to write in the same genre, but it’s helpful if you’re all fiction writers or all nonfiction writers. Once you’ve formed your group, there are different ways of going about the critiquing process. You should meet on a regular basis, maybe once a week, and you should have goals and deadlines to make sure everyone is being productive and not just showing up without anything to share. When you meet, each of you should bring a piece of your story to read, and then each member of the group can offer constructive feedback in turn. As an author, it’s your job to take that information in without taking it personally so that it can be valuable. You’re the only one who can decide whether a particular critique is useful or not, so you have to learn how to do that. If you’re trying to improve your skills, a critique group can act as an educated third party to give you some perspective. And it’s important that it’s an educated third party and not your brother who thinks everything you do is great. You need somebody who is willing to tell you, “You know what? This isn’t working for me, and here’s why.” If you’re new to writing and don’t have a reference point for determining what advice is useful, just go with your gut. The criticism should feel productive to you.
There are much bigger writing groups that can be useful in different ways than your local critique group. For example, I’m from the northwest, and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association is kind of a mother organization for the area. It brings together agents and authors and editors in an annual speed-dating event where you get the chance to pitch your book. At the same time, they put on workshops about craft, about how you get into publishing, about the differences between traditional and independent publishing, and so on. It’s good to be part of a bigger body, because it can provide you with a lot of resources.
Personally, I’ve found value both in small, local groups that provide critique and in larger regional groups that provide networking opportunities.
Most of my experience has been with face-to-face groups, because I live in Seattle, where there are a fair number of writers, so it’s not too hard to put a group together. If you live in an area where you don’t have the luxury of having enough authors around to form a weekly group, online writing groups are another option. In general, the online experience is never going to be as personal—and maybe as productive—as a group that meets in real life, but it’s better than nothing. Of course, you should apply the same caution to an online group that you would apply to a group that meets in person; you want to make sure you feel like the group is benefiting you and that it’s not just about one particular person getting all of the attention. In other words, everyone involved in the group should get as much as he or she gives.
One of the things that’s useful about face-to-face interactions is that you get an immediate emotional reaction from the audience. Online, you don’t have a way of knowing how long it’s been since the person offering feedback read your work, so the feedback is less fresh. So if you have a choice, definitely go with face-to-face interaction.
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