January 18, 2016

Commandment #1: Find a Good Critique Group

Photo credit: TheCreativePenn via Foter.com / CC BY
A good critique group is a crucial part of an aspiring author's (and even an established author's) success for two reasons:
  1. It teaches you how to deal with criticism—good, bad, and ugly.
  2. It provides both help in polishing your work and a support group as you enter the complex world of publishing.

Notice I didn't say, "Find a group of people who tell you your writing is amazing." A critique group exists to do just that—critique.  A good group will consist of people who are willing and able to point out the problems you're having, so that you can work on fixing them. While your group can consist of writers of all levels, you do want to make sure you're not all beginners. Also, don't be afraid of being the least-experienced writer in your group, as you'll almost certainly learn a lot about both writing and how publishing works. And if the first group you join doesn't seem like the right fit, don't be shy about trying a different one!
    If every writer you know is just starting out, consider taking some courses or workshops led by experienced authors or editors. Many of these are now conveniently available online.

Now let's look back at reason #1: learning to deal with criticism. Everyone in the publishing world knows that having your writing criticized can be difficult and sometimes even painful. It's also an inevitable part of the process. What experienced writers know is that it's a million times better to have a critique partner or an editor point out the problems in your manuscript, big and small, than it is to have those problems brought up in negative reviews after the book is out.

But taking criticism is a skill. You have to know how to cope with the sting (Commandment #2), how to sort through criticism and decide which suggestions to apply, and how to then go through and revise your manuscript accordingly. When going through submissions, the main reason I care whether someone has a creative writing degree or any relevant coursework is that that's a sign the writer has learned how to deal with critiques. Because sitting at a table with 10+ other writers while they tear apart your work is tough. Recognizing which of the comments you received are complete bogus and which, no matter how much they hurt, will help your writing improve is tougher. And being able to tear into the precious baby that is your manuscript in order to make it even stronger is one of your most important skills as a writer.

A writer who has learned to take criticism is one who has at least some idea of how much hard work it takes to get from a first draft to a polished book; one who will embrace working with an editor, rather than fighting every suggestion and refusing to make changes; one who knows editorial notes are a necessary growing pain on the way to making their manuscript the best story it can be; and one who can handle all of the rejections and negative reviews that every author has to face. And having a good critique group is the first step in learning and honing these skills.


Do you have tips on finding a good critique group? Share in the comments!

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