How do you make sure your critique group is the right one for you? What makes a good group, and how do you avoid a bad one? How can you tell, before you waste a lot of time and energy, whether the one you’re considering will work?
If you’ve been relying on friends and family, don’t fire them as your beta readers. It’s fine to have people who know YOU read your stuff. But they may not be enough. It’s very helpful to have people who are also writers read and give opinions on your work. First of all, they’re going to be readers – maybe more frequent readers, or even more wide readers, than your mom and your best friend.
First, you have some decisions to make, based on what kind of career you plan on having, what kind of writing you do, and what kind of format you think will work best for you. One of the first triage questions to ask is: do I want to work face to face, or online only?
If you want to work online only, then of course you look online for a group. Consider further format questions: do you want to work on a chapter a month? Don’t forget that you’ll be giving out critiques as much as, or more than, getting them. That’s just as useful to your career, but it does add to the time it takes for each novel to be read. (You wouldn’t want to try to read and coherently critique ten novels per month yourself, for example.) Do you mostly work in stories, with the occasional novel? Is it better to have a few people read your novel faster, or more people read it slower? Each online group will have its own format, hopefully explained to prospective members ahead of time.
If you want to work locally, you can still start your search online. You can also look for local coffee shops, game shops, bookstores, libraries and teahouses, traditional places for such meetings. Check bulletin boards, ask the manager. If all else fails, start your own – I’ve done so in more than one location. All you have to do is post an email address for interested people to respond to in as many book or writer friendly locations as possible!
This is a good place to mention that you don’t have to pay for a critique group. Any group that reaches out to you in an overly eager way, or asks an entry fee, or worse, a subscription – often under a claim to be professional published authors, editors and publishers – is probably bad news. Peer readers benefit one another. If they are a service that you pay for, you have an instant conflict of interest: they are in it to keep your money flowing, not to mutually improve craft. (Now, some groups may have a request that people share costs for food and drink, or meeting places – it should be easy, with a little common sense, to recognize this versus an ongoing fee structure.)
Once you’ve located a few critique groups to try out, be aware that it may take some time with each one to decide whether they’re right for you, both in format and content. You can eliminate groups that only work on nonfiction, or only read 250 words per month, or whatever – but it’s going to take a tryout period to find out whether one that appears to meet your criteria is really right.
What should you look for in a group? It might seem like what you want is people who will appreciate and enjoy your writing, who will read the same kind of thing that you write, and who will support you 100% in your efforts. And all of that is true. But you don’t want a group that is entirely made up of that. Here’s why.
You’re at a certain place in your writing career. There is improvement ahead – for every writer, at every stage – and there is learning behind you. If you choose a group that is entirely composed of people who are not as good at this as you are, what can you learn from them? If your group is made up of people who only write within your genre, it’s just like reading in only one genre – you’re cutting yourself off from alternate viewpoints, new ideas, different styles. There is often more to be learned from people who are better, who disagree with you, and who are based in areas of writing that you’re less familiar with.
The best group, I find, is composed of a variety. People who are not as good as you (in your own opinion, and you don’t have to tell them), from whom you will learn to critique tactfully and with clarity. People who are far better than you, from whom you will learn to accept criticism you can’t help but agree with gracefully, and who will help you absorb more things about the craft than you knew before. People who love your work, who will keep you going and make sure you don’t have to hear all negative, all the time. And people who aren’t that into you, who will teach you how to appeal to a wider range of readers – and how to decide when to just ignore opinions you don’t agree with and vote with your heart.
It takes some time and effort to find a good group of peer readers, but they can stay with you throughout your career, and be of the greatest value to your writing craft. And it doesn’t have to cost anything at all.