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Strengthening Your Story Through a Critique Group

Updated: Jun 5

Women reading books - Melody Yates Author Kristin Noland Speculative fiction editor crime fiction editor

Picture this: a writer hunches over their laptop, staring at the screen with bloodshot eyes. They’re at a cafe, and a notebook of scribbles and three empty mugs litter the table. The writer’s head fills with thousands of words, none of which are good enough, or worse—no words at all. They’re fifty thousand words deep in a story they’ve poured over for months, but now a new idea has caught their eye.

Or maybe the writer wants to continue this story, but they’ve written themselves into a corner they can’t get out of without deleting pages upon pages or breaking an essential rule in the magic system. The writer is frustrated, overwhelmed, and wants to give up.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve faced all these problems and more during my years as a writer. The idea of perfection held me back.

A critique group is something I’d never considered. No one else had ever read my writing before, and I wasn’t sure I was ready. But as 2022 drew to a close and I looked to the new year ahead, I knew something had to change. Writing is and has always been my greatest passion and lifelong dream, but I was never going to get anywhere if I continued like this. So, I joined a critique group, and it changed everything.

What is a critique group?

A critique group can take many different forms, but essentially, it’s a group of writers (or other artists) who come together, share and read each other’s work, and provide feedback. Feedback from outside sources, especially other writers, is invaluable. It opens your eyes to your own bad habits, weak points in your story, and offers a springboard off of which to bounce ideas and solutions. And these are just a few benefits!

Okay, I’m listening. Why should I join one?

I’m glad you asked. There are too many benefits to list them all here, but I will try to hit the major ones:

● External motivation.

Humans tend to be motivated best by external sources, with some exceptions. I consider myself a self-motivated person, and yet I struggled to maintain the discipline required to stick to one story and drive myself to truly make it the best it could be. Thanks to my critique group, I now have a bi-weekly writing deadline I have never once missed since joining at the beginning of 2023. Not only that, but every submission has been the same story, and every submission has driven the story forward. By now, my group has read 70% of my story, so how could I be so cruel to drop them back at the beginning or into something entirely different? Constantly restarting and finding something new is a thing of the past.

● Train your brain.

You will become a stronger writer and editor if you join and commit yourself to a critique group. Not only will you receive feedback regularly on your own work and improve your writing ability, but you will also read others’ work critically, catching their bad habits and offering suggestions on how to improve. This doesn’t only benefit their work! You’ll find yourself catching similar errors in your own writing, or correcting yourself before the error ever makes it to the page.

● Extra eyes.

Odds are that your critique group has never experienced your world, your characters, or your story. Who better to find clunky dialogue, weak scene setting, infodumps, plot holes, or other story pitfalls than someone who has never read your work? You’ll be surprised at what they find. From overly repeated words and phrases to a meet-cute that is downright adorable until the character remembers she’s chatting away over a mangled corpse (guilty), your critique group is sure to bring it to your attention!

● Cut, cut, cut.

Do you have a tendency to be wordy? Me too. Staying within a reasonable word count is just one of the many storytelling aspects a writer must juggle. As a fantasy/sci-fi writer, keeping the word count low sometimes seems impossible. How can I possibly know which prepositional phrase, random character action, or unnecessary infodump paragraph I should get rid of? Lucky for me, my critique group is not afraid to highlight multiple paragraphs and leave the dreaded, beautiful, one word comment: “Cut.”

● Making characters come alive.

Let’s face it, transferring the people in our heads to paper is hard. In my story, I write in first person most of the time, and recently I’ve been called out for not having enough internality in my chapters. For first person (or any perspective, really), little to no character internality will leave readers in the dark about a character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. After your group spends a bit of time with a character, you could prompt them to describe the character in their own words. What does the character value most? What do they want? What is their personality like? This will help you ensure your vision of the character is shining through.

● Crystal clear.

We all sometimes write things that make no sense to anyone else. Whether it’s a description of a magical plant wall, a line of dialogue missing a much-needed dialogue tag, or something more abstract like a character’s motivation, your critique group will be quick to let you know if something tripped them up.

What does a critique group even look like?

Excellent question! A critique group can look however you want! But if you’re like me and want an example before going off to find your own structure, here it is:

There are four of us in my critique group, and we meet every Thursday night on Discord. Two members submit a piece between 3-7K words each Thursday, and over the following week, all members read through and leave comments in a shared Google doc. Then, at the end of the week, we meet for an hour or two to dive deeper into our feedback.

The writer receiving feedback mutes themselves. This is essential in keeping the meeting productive and fast-paced, and eliminates the writerly urge to defend oneself. The other three members have a strict five minutes each to share how they felt about the piece. This can include what worked, what didn’t, favorite aspects of the chapter, potential questions and confusion, inconsistencies, predictions, or anything else. Once all three have shared, the timer is set at ten minutes, the writer can unmute, and an open group discussion begins. This is the time for the writer to ask for clarification or bounce possible solutions off the others. Once those ten minutes are up, we start everything over for the second writer. The entire process takes roughly an hour, but we usually stay on longer to talk more, usually about non-writing things. At the end of the meeting, the other half of the group submits their work for the week, and the cycle begins again!

You’ve convinced me to join a critique group! But where do I start?

There are tons of options to explore if you want to find a critique group, both online and off. If you’re fortunate enough to already be friends with other writers, be bold and pitch the idea of a critique group to them! If not, charge into the unknown and meet new people (easier said than done, I know). Apps like Nextdoor and Facebook offer a fantastic platform to find like-minded souls in your area. Reddit, NaNoWriMo’s website, and social media such as Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter are also good places to start. If there isn’t already a group for writers near you, try posting to the void of social media, and someone may answer! Additionally, your local library or bookstore may have resources for you or know of a group that already exists. Book launches and signings, writers’ retreats, and seminars are also excellent ways to meet other writers for the extroverted among us (and us introverts who want to push ourselves outside our comfort zones as well).

Finding a critique group online is probably the best way to go. My critique group found each other through a podcast called The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed, hosted by Richie Billing. I began listening at the end of 2022 and found the podcast extremely helpful. As I caught up to newer episodes, I learned that Richie had created a Discord server for writers to come together and join a smaller group of 3-5 people for critiques if they wished. I joined immediately and sought out a group willing to meet every week. Now, almost a full year later, my group has grown beyond just critiques. We recommend books, we play Dungeons & Dragons together, and we make writing less lonely. Most importantly, we’ve all grown tremendously as writers!

I’ve found a group, and I’m nervous about our first meeting. Any advice?

Every critique group looks different, so I encourage you to talk with your group members to set boundaries and discuss what each of you is looking to get out of the group. Here are some general rules of thumb I’d recommend for any group:

● DO discuss potential triggering content with your group members before starting.

● DON’T tear others down. Feedback should be constructive and respectful, always.

● DO seek out writers of similar genre and target audience. It doesn’t have to be an exact fit, but having a group who is familiar with the tropes and expectations of your genre is a huge plus.

● DON’T take it personally. Your group is not attacking you but offering you tools to better your story and your craft. What better gift is there?

● DO take the time to get to know your group. Work is always better amongst friends, and a trusting relationship allows both sides to feel more comfortable offering deep and honest critiques.

● DON’T give up if the first group you find doesn’t work out. Your people are out there!

● DO keep an open mind. Aspects of your story and your writing will change as you improve. That’s a good sign!

● DON’T agree to deadlines you know you can’t make. You know your life and your limits. Find a group and a commitment that meets your needs, even if you can only meet once a month. Any progress is better than no progress.

● DO have fun. Joining a critique group is a huge step closer to realizing your dreams as a writer. You can do it!

If you’re looking for a positive environment among other creatives, I absolutely recommend Richie’s podcast and Discord server. You can find a critique group of your own there, or you can venture elsewhere.

Critique groups come in many shapes and forms. In addition to my online group, I occasionally attend an in-person artist’s workshop in Atlanta called The Collective. It’s especially great for actors and playwrights who are seeking feedback on short sections of their work. The Collective is organized by a neighbor who invited me to join after I mentioned I was writing a book. I also regularly speak to my work colleagues about my story. Recently, one of them told me his aunt is the retired chief editor of a Big Five publisher, and he wanted to connect us. Wow! Two amazing connections came about just because I chatted about one of my passions. Take it from me: talk about the story you are writing. You never know who and what you’ll find.

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