It’s impossible for me to be my own critic. It doesn’t matter how much self-editing and revision I do sooner or later it becomes important for independent others to judge the big-picture needs of my work …
And, I think it’s better for this to happen prior to consideration of a manuscript assessment for a fee or/and prior to submission to a publisher.
It took me a long time to agree to join a critique group because I hadn’t found the group that suited my needs. I’d heard of some of the pitfalls of traditional critique groups and was wary:
- Group too large, too many submissions to read and comment upon in the time period allocated, lack of continuity with submission or attendance, too far to travel;
- Dominant personalities in a group hogging the time allocated and criticism not always directed at the work;
- Comments being destructive rather than constructive;
- A writer being trapped into the morass of others’ ideas and losing their own direction;
- Different skill range and experience in the group leading some members to believe they know more than others and the others feeling intimidated and self-conscious about their work etc.
But, I knew of the value of being in a critique group – Libby Gleeson has said to me more than once that her writing would not have developed in the early days of her career had she not had the good fortune to be in a critique group of three members for ten years. One of Libby’s fellow group members was Nadia Wheatley.
Then, last year I decided to participate in a course at the NSW Writers’ Centre called “Fiction Feedback: Critique Group”. It ran for three months and was led by a professional editor. Parameters were set and rules put in place to avoid the pitfalls and to create a positive, learning environment.
At that course three of us decided to form our own on-line critique group – during the course we’d developed a mutual respect and trusted each other’s opinion and we’d already experienced that each of us recognised individual voice and unique story-telling. We’re all female, of comparative education, varied work experience but at senior levels in our previous or current employment, have all been writing and studying our craft for years, aim to be traditionally published and the three of us own and love cats! Purrrr … fect for me!
This is how we run our group:
- We selected a leader who sets the dates for submissions (allowances for Christmas and Easter holidays), follows up, keeps us motivated etc but when we email anything we email all three of us. We decided to be a “closed group” (no new members), committed to each other’s work, and we call ourselves the Fic Chicks;
- Each second Saturday we submit any piece of writing of any length but up to 6,000 words, not necessarily the next section of our current novel. I’ve submitted adult poetry, picture books, articles, YA and junior novel pieces. We can submit a re-worked piece. It's okay not to submit, but we've promised we will critique the work we receive from other group members
- In our covering email each fortnight we ask for direction on specifics if we want it e.g. Does this character work? Does the dialogue ring true? Can you suggest improvements to the prologue? Is a prologue needed?
- By the following Saturday we return our comments by way of “Track Changes” in the document
- Once we receive the critique we can email asking for clarification or we give feedback on the critique and we always say ‘thank you’
- We suggest revisions in our area of expertise e.g. one of us is stronger in the mechanics of grammar, another in sentence structure and vocabulary, another in POV
- We point out the great moments as well as the problems but we don’t re-write for each other
- We don’t feel we have to change our MS to suit the critique. However, we are often surprised that the two critics of the third person’s work will comment the same way and then the alarm bells go off and we’d be foolish to ignore the suggestion.
The three of us know each other quite well now and have lunch every three months for a general catch up. We all look forward to that. I believe my writing is improving because of the valuable insights the Fic Chics offer and I appreciate their time as we’re all time-poor.
So, when a new writer asks me if they should join a critique group I always say yes but stress how important it is to find the right one to suit individual needs.