Teachers Write Friday Bonus: About Critique Groups

Happy Friday, everyone! As always, Gae is hosting Friday Feedback, but we also have a special guest here to talk about critique groups..  Natalie Dias Lorenzi is a teacher, librarian, and author of the middle grade novel Flying the Dragon. She lives outside of Washington, DC during the school year and eats gelato in Trieste, Italy during the summers. Visit her at www.nataliediaslorenzi.com <http://www.nataliediaslorenzi.com>

The Care and Feeding of a Writers’ Critique Group

by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

First of all, let me just say that I agree with Kate who posted this to you all: “So many of you have come here nervous to write and terrified to share, and you’ve taken deep breaths and done just that.”

When we put our thoughts and feelings on paper, it is scary sometimes. But sharing those thoughts and feelings? With strangers?? Now that’s terrifying.

There are some authors who don’t share their writing at all; no one sees their manuscripts except for their editors. And this works well for them. But me? I can’t imagine bringing a story into this world without feedback from my critique group.

Back in 2005, I was a few chapters into a manuscript which would later (seven years later, to be exact) become my first middle grade novel, Flying the Dragon. I had joined SCBWI and perused the message boards trying to learn all I could about the craft of writing. One day I came across a message from another writer, Kip Wilson Rechea, who was looking to fill an open spot in her critique group. I emailed her with my first chapter, as requested, and waited. Would she hate my writing? Would she chortle at my beginner’s prose? Luckily for me, she did neither; instead, she invited me to join her critique group.

During that first year, members came and went, but eventually our group settled into four writers: Kip, Julie Phillipps, and Joan Paquette. A few years ago, we even came up with a name for our group: The Lit Wits. 🙂 Every Wednesday for the past seven years (give or take a Wednesday or two), one of us submits pages to the group via email. The others leave comments within the text itself as well as a paragraph of their overall thoughts and impressions.

Other writers have asked me how we’ve kept our group together for so many years. If any of you are interested in forming a critique group, this is what I’d recommend:

1. Get to know other writers.

There are several forums out there for kid lit writers: Verla Kay’s message boards and SCBWI (these messages boards will actually be merging in the near future). Although I hadn’t met Kip before responding to her call for a new critique group member, I did get to know Joan through an online writing course before she joined the group. You just might find a critique partner or two here at Teachers Write!

 2. Join writers who are at a similar stage of writing.

When my group started out, we were at the beginning of our writing careers. Over the last seven years, our writing has been published in magazines and anthologies, and we have picture books, middle grade and young adult books now out on the shelves. This isn’t to say that a beginning writer and a published writer can’t be in the same group. In larger, in-person critique groups, there’s often a greater mix of writers that swap manuscripts or snippets of stories. But in general, I recommend finding a group with at least one other member who is at a similar point along the writing path as you are.

3. Decide on a method that works for your group.

For us, we sub no more than ten pages per week. We had one critique partner who is such a prolific writer that she left the group because she needed someone for full manuscript-swaps, not 10-page submissions every month or so. She spends a lot of time outlining first, but when she’s ready to write, she cranks out at least 1,000 words a day and finishes a first draft in a few months. Neither method is wrong; just decide which one works for you, and find others who feel the same way.

4. Give constructive feedback.

This seems obvious, but isn’t always easy to do. We tell each other what works, what’s funny, what touched us, and what didn’t make any sense whatsoever. If you were to look at our critiques, you’d see comments like these:

? I stumbled over this line–maybe reword?

? 🙂

? Huh???

? This doesn’t sound like her—would she really say that?

? Lovely!

We had one critique group member years ago who only said positive things about our writing. She is a lovely person, but she wasn’t helping anyone grow as a writer. She ended up amicably parting ways with the group, which was a good thing in the end. If I want to hear all good things about my writing, I’ll share it with my mom. 😉 If you want to grow as a writer, you’ll need to hear what works and what doesn’t work from your readers.

Being a part of the Lit Wits has definitely informed my teaching. When it’s time for one of my students to share his or her writing, I understand—really understand—how intimidating that experience can be. As a writer, I also understand what kinds of comments help me to become a better writer. We need to hear what we do well, and we need to hear, in a constructive and supportive way, what isn’t working.

If you flip to the acknowledgements page in any children’s novel, you’ll almost always read the names of those who have helped shape a manuscript into a story. Joan (who writes as A.J. Paquette) sums it up perfectly in the end pages of her just-released middle grade novel RULES FOR GHOSTING, when she says:

 “… to the many others who have had a hand in critiquing, guiding, shaping, idea-brainstorming, and otherwise helping make this story what it is, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Joan goes on to name the members of the Lit Wits and other critique partners, including Kate Messner.

Best of luck to you all in finding whatever type of feedback works best for you. I look forward to one day peeking at the acknowledgements section of your books!

I’ll be around today to answer any questions you may have about critique groups. We’re in Italy for the summer, which is six hours ahead of EST in the US, so any questions I miss after bedtime here I’ll answer in the wee hours tomorrow morning.

Happy Writing!

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15 Comments

  1. Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Natalie,
    Thank-you for sharing your expertise in this area. I would like to add to it and encourage others to join a critique group.
    I have been with my critique group for two years now. Today we consider ourselves a tight-knit group, although we didn’t start out that way. I move heaven and earth to get to those meetings once a month – it’s the coffee, the feedback and the friendship.
    In the two years we have worked together two of our seven members have been published in magazines, one signed a book deal and is completing final revisions now, and another placed in our state writing competition for YA. We have grown as writers because of our sharing and honesty. I am sure that receiving the “yes” from an editor is a tremendous experience (and I look forward to hearing that one day!), but the success of a critique member is also the success of the group. It is so exciting to watch a friend and a manuscript you helped grow “make it.”
    The most important thing we did that cemented our group? Attending the NESCBWI annual conference this spring together. Most of us had gone as singletons the past few years. The shared experience this year pulled us together. We all felt changed by the experience and our communication is even better now because of it. In fact, at our last meeting we had two total strangers walk up to us (umm, we were a little loud and laughing at our writing). They both asked about our writing, what we write, asked for advice, and wished us luck. How cool is that?

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing, Kim! That’s excellent advice to meet at a writers’ conference–it’s fun to “talk shop” with friends, as well as meet new people. This reminds me of another perk of being in a critique group–when we’d go to different conferences, we’d share what we learned with each other. That way, it felt like I’d attended way more conferences than I ever would have been able to afford on my own.

      And you’re so right about the celebrations for each other’s successes–they’re all the more special knowing that you had a part in helping someone along their writing path.

      Best of luck with your journey, Kim!

  2. Kristin Russo
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Natalie.

    I have been away for a few weeks, and was delighted to find, on checking back in with this workshop for the first time today, your piece on critique groups. My teaching schedule is changing in the fall leaving me with more time to devote to writing and working with other writers. Your description of your own group has inspired me to reach out to others to form a group with a similar structure. I love the regular online meetings, and I love that only one writer contributes each week. I’m going to check in with those discussion boards you mentioned.

    Thanks again!

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      I’m glad, Kristin! Best of luck in finding a group, and remember that if you don’t find a good fit immediately, keep looking! It’s a bit like finding your soulmate. 🙂

  3. Kristina Paustian
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Your comment about being critiqued by your mom made me laugh, because my 23 year old daughter and I serve as a critique group for each other, no holds barred. She doesn’t always listen to my feedback, so you have a point there, but I do listen to hers! She writes dystopian stories, which I am not really into, so it broadens my interests to hear her ideas. Otherwise I do think it has to be strangers; friends and relatives generally just tell me what I want to hear. Not my little girl though! : )

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Kristina, what a gift to have a critique partner in your own family! I’ve also been stretched when my Cps write things outside of genres that I usually read, but I think that it’s made me a better writer and critiquer, in the end. Happy critiquing!

  4. andrea p
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Natalie,
    Finding the right critique group is a little like dating. When I first started writing, I joined our local group (RACWI) and got together with a few people. Members came and left, and the group changed several times, until finally I found a friend who has been critiquing my work regularly since then. I didn’t know much about writing or critiquing, but I think you’re right when you say that it’s nice to be at the same level of writing experience. Eventually, my friend and I found 2 more people and formed another group which worked well. But then we “broke up again” due to work schedules and other issues. Working with a trustworthy critique partner/group is so important to growing as a writer.

    I really like your group’s schedule and how you critique each other. I really appreciate your posting how you found your group online…and how it works.

    I do have a question….I know some people work well with one partner, while others have 3-4 members. But then some of the other writers I know have large groups, more than 5 people in their group. How many people in a critique group is an ideal number? It seems like the larger groups may work better as an online group.

    Thanks for your suggestions and congratulations on your (and your group members) hard work.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Andrea P., I had to smile when you asked about optimal group size. I think different sizes of groups have different benefits. I actually blogged about this a couple of weeks ago–see “Big Group Benefits” at writersrumpus.com.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        Thanks for commenting, Maryanne! I’ll paste the link to your post here for others to read: http://writersrumpus.com/category/critiques-critique-groups/

        You’ve done a nice job of listing the benefits of a large group. I also noticed that you’re in a smaller group–sounds like the best of both worlds to have two separate groups.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, Natalie! Yes, I definitely benefit from the best of both worlds. And who knows, maybe I’ll add a third group at some point…

  5. Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Hi, Andrea,
    Thanks for stopping by!

    It may seem like a pat answer, but the ideal number of critique group members really does depend on the needs of the group. Whether you’re critiquing with an online or in-person group, the drawback to large groups is that you’ll likely be submitting and getting feedback on your work less often than you would with a small group. The advantage is that you’re getting feedback from more types of readers. Although my critique group has a submission schedule, not all groups do; some just sub either an entire manuscript or excerpts whenever they’re ready. That wouldn’t work for me, because I need to have “deadlines” to keep myself on track. Even though your critique group “broke up” due to scheduling conflicts, you could reach out to them to see if they’d be amenable to looking at full manuscripts. That way, you could sub on a more regular basis with your critique partner, but share a full manuscript once it’s ready with the others. It’s good to have others outside of your regular subbing group who haven’t seen the story develop in starts and stops–they can offer a fresh perspective as first-time readers of your manuscript.

    Best of luck to you, Andrea!

  6. Mike Jung
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I found critique groups especially vital during my early attempts to write my book, partly because having that structure in place really helped me maintain discipline and keep working, and partly because I just didn’t have any idea HOW to write a novel – working on it within the critique group structure felt a little bit like working within a more formalized educational context. An autodidactic context, sure, but I need structure, so it helped a lot. Also, don’t underestimate the value of the “cheerleading” aspect – moral support is very, very important. Sometimes it can make the difference between doing any work at all on a given day.

    These days I have a differently organized situation with 2 critique partners who I really, really trust to be completely honest and highly constructive – I couldn’t do without them. We work on a more loose “hey, I have these pages, could you take a look at them” process instead of a concrete, regular schedule, but we’re all in a place where that works really well for us. I also have a group of friends who I call on for more occasional help – if I want to get a third opinion on something, for example, or if I think they might provide some specific kind of insight. For example, there’s one friend whose sense of humor is very similar to mine; another who I know will examine issues of race and ethnicity with a lot of insight; and so on.

    Your feelings about/need for a critique group may evolve as you grow in confidence, master your craft, and become more knowledgeable about the industry, but keep in mind that if you’re pursuing publication, there’ll always be a point where your work is read by someone else, whether it’s an editor, agent, or reader. The stakes are higher when you get to that moment, and the right critique group can really enhance your readiness for the arrival of that moment.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Mike, all great points! It’s nice to get to the point where your critique partners know you and your writing well, and you’re able to trust them 100%. Sometimes instead of subbing pages, we’ll just put out a call to each other for brainstorming ideas–for titles, plot twists, etc., which is always extremely helpful in getting the creative gears going.

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