Critique groups have gotten some bad rep lately – I’ve read articles that say they do more harm than good. That can certainly be true, but it depends on how you use a critique group. Professional authors I have spoken to or heard from at conventions, followed on Twitter or their websites, often thank theirs. What makes it work for them?
Peer readers, critique groups, beta readers – all words for the same thing. People who trade fiction back and forth, offering comment and suggestion. Note that this definition doesn’t make any mention of format, size or regularity. The core of it is simple: read one another’s stuff, comment.
How does a critique group benefit the craft of writing? There are two major aspects: receiving feedback, and giving feedback. Both are powerful tools, useful to the beginner and the professional alike.
Receiving feedback is helpful for many reasons. What works for a large group of people and what doesn’t, and why? Do those whose opinions you respect more agree with those whose opinions you don’t? And getting constructive criticism can help toughen your skin for the rejections and the negative reviews that are inevitably in any author’s future. Above all, getting feedback is an enormous motivator to keep going. Many a novel has been finished under friendly threat of death if the story is left on a cliffhanger.
Even imperfect feedback can be useful in its own way. If nine out of ten peer readers think the character needs some more depth, then maybe they’re right – or maybe what’s going on is something different. Maybe the word choices, or the author’s voice, or the dialogue, have failed to engage the readers in the character, who may have the depth needed, just not properly expressed.
However, without those nine out of ten people being wrong about that, would the author have noticed that the character failed to engage? Often, learning how to interpret the feedback you get is just as important a skill as learning to accept it gracefully and make the revisions needed.
Giving feedback is a crucial tool that will benefit a writer lifelong. Learning what works for you as a reader and what does not, learning to clearly and tactfully express why, and keeping those skills honed will improve the craft and keep it in shape over the long term. And being on the giving end of the criticism can make it easier to live with when things flow the other way.
In future articles, I will offer suggestions as how to best find or form a peer reader group, discuss fears and concerns that may arise when you’re considering a group, and offer some resources you can find online to assist in the process.