Critique groups, are they helpful or harmful?
That is the question and here is the answer—yes and no, or should that be no and yes? Anyway, it’s always helpful to have your raw manuscript read by someone other than your mother, brother, sister or spouse. So in that respect, critique groups are good no matter who sits on them. But when it comes to something beyond catching grammar mistakes and punctuation errors, unless there are writers in your critique group who are knowledgeable publishing professionals and who write what you write, critique groups might not be that helpful. Let me explain because I can hear the grumbling already.
Let’s take a worst case scenario first. Suppose you write non-fiction and everyone in your group writes romance, for instance. Let’s make this even more difficult by saying that they all write category romance—you know, those ones that measure 50,000 words and have a shelf life of about a month. Now I am not knocking category romances as they have a huge audience and many very professional authors make a darn good living writing them (and Sharene represents them and is glaring at me right now). What I’m going for here is contrast and hopefully I’ve succeeded.
As a writer on one of the boards said recently (and I’m paraphrasing here), “As a fiction writer, I’m having a horrible time writing a query letter. As far as I’m concerned, writing them is completely left brain and I’m a right brained individual.” This is the problem a non-fiction writer of say a how-to book is going to have in a room filled with category romance writers. One type of writing is right brain—very creative—and the other, although it also takes some right brain activity, much is left brain-power because what you’re writing about is tangible and less imaginary.
But let’s look at this a different way: your critique group is made up of all beginning writers who write romance and you write mainstream. Are you going to find much help in this mix? Probably not because they are, although both fiction, two different types of writing.
So the writer who is entertaining joining a critique group should first find out what the other members of the group write and, secondly, where they are in their writing life. My advice, if you are beyond the beginning stages, would be to find yourself a good beta reader or two. What and who is a beta reader and how does a writer find one? Beta readers are people who love to read and who are not writers. The easiest way to find them is to go to your local library and ask if a reader’s group meets there. Usually librarians are aware of these things. If you cannot find a readers group locally, try to locate one online.
But why not let your fellow writers read your book and offer criticism? Yes, that will work, but remember you’re past the checking for mistakes stage and just want to know how your book reads and the problem with many writers is that they want you to change your book to suite the way they write, whether they are conscious of it or not. Usually the first thing that goes when writers critique a book is the original author’s voice—something every writer should try to maintain at all cost as this makes each book original. A beta reader, on the other hand doesn’t understand or offer suggestions on how to fix things, they just read and tell the writer whether it’s a good read or a bad one. Some betas might also point out problem areas, but not how to fix them. For example, if your beta reader is confused by a scene where the setting changes, you’ll need to consider why the reader was confused and decide whether to revise.
So, a couple of important characteristics in a critique group, if you choose to go with one, is finding the right mix, including writers who write what you write and who are at about the same level. There is much, much more to consider. This just scrapes the surface.