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  • Writer's pictureMatt Davies

Joining a writing critique group – part 1

Joining a writing group is probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing.

I’ve only ever been in one group, which I joined in 2012. I’d been toying with idea but didn’t know how to go about finding the right one. What if I didn’t gel with the other writers and had to bow out? That would be awkward. But then I was awarded a mentorship through Writers Victoria and the mentor asked if I wanted to join her group.

So that was six years ago. Over the years, writers have dropped out and others have joined, but the group has always had between five and eight active members. Most of us are writing novels and one writes short stories. Genre-wise, we’re a mixed bag. We cover YA, historical fiction and fantasy. One of our writers, Alison Goodman, straddles all three in her Lady Helen series.

The format of our meetings is informal. Every month one or more of our members submits a piece (usually a section of a novel up to about 15,000 words) to critique. We try to give each other at least a week to read the material before we meet.

As much as we try to take turns giving our feedback on the day, we often end up in group discussions about particular elements of the work we are critiquing. This inevitably leads to wider conversations about craft, which is where the real gold is. We might end up talking about particular aspects of building tension or character arcs, or the merits of flashbacks. This is one way that every meeting benefits all members, not just the writer being critiqued.

Building in some social time is important too. We always begin the meeting with chatting about what we’ve up to with our writing and any achievements since we last met.

Here’s some stuff that I’ve learned about making the most out of a critique group.

The benefits

I really look forward to the months when I have something to submit. I love getting feedback and I truly value the opinion of the writers in my group. We’re all different and all pick up on different things. This can be a blessing and a curse. It can be hard when there are disagreements among the group about a particular course the story should or shouldn’t take. Clear and consistent feedback is the ultimate, but of course that’s unlikely to happen.

We are pretty comfortable with each other in my group and I think (hope?) we are all honest with our feedback. We usually start our individual critiques talking about all the things we liked about the piece and then move on to the areas where we think some further work is needed. We are respectful, but candid. This is important. When it comes time to submit the work for publication, you want to make sure – at the very least – that obvious errors and oversights have been corrected.

One of the best things about being in a writing group (and the reason it has been so beneficial for my own writing) is that even in the sessions where someone else’s work is being critiqued you stand to learn so much about writing from the other writers. Talking about what works well, what doesn’t and discussing how to fix it, helps me in my own writing. As writers, we begin to read other people’s work as almost like pieces to study. This is of course beneficial but can sometimes take some of the enjoyment out of reading merely for pleasure. We are always looking at how an author achieves what they do on the page – how they seamlessly introduce a backstory or deftly move from one point in time to another, or how they manage to make us identify with the villain despite ourselves. There’s a lot to learn from reading great writing but also a lot to learn from pieces that aren’t so great. In the safety of a writing group, you can analyse why something is not working. You can then apply these lessons to your own work.

The challenges

As I said, most of the writers in my group are writing novels. This can sometimes make it difficult from a critique perspective because we can only read short sections in any given month (we have a limit of about 15,000 words, although we rarely get that high). And, if you missed the month where an earlier part of the novel was submitted, you might be a little in the dark about what’s come before. Usually the writer will provide a little summary, but it’s not the same. We end up focusing on that section as a discrete piece of writing rather than the novel as a complete work. As a reader, when you work your way through a novel you will experiences changes in tone and pace. You will build to the climax, bringing the reader along with you. It can be hard to achieve this same result when you read a novel in sections, sometimes months apart. Pace and that sense of building tension is very important in a book, and critiquing in the way that we do can mean the author misses out on getting feedback on this aspect of their work.

This is unfortunate but I’m not sure that there’s any other way workable way to do it.

In the next post, I’ll share some thoughts or how to know it’s the right group for you and cover some logistics like where and when to meet.

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