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Critique Groups and Critiquing

by Collyn Justus

There comes a point in every writer's life when you consider the merits of joining a critique group. Before deciding, it is important to look at what a group has to offer, what you want from a group and what you're willing to give. Some writers find little value in joining a group, while others find attending a group has measurable effects on their writing. To help figure out if a critique group is right for you, this article will cover the basics: who, what, why, where, when, and four hows (yes there are four of them) of critique groups.

Who - joins a critique group? Writers who are serious about their work and earnestly want to make it better. Writers who are open to receiving constructive feed back as well as dedicated to giving it. If you're not emotionally prepared to present your work to a group, it may be to soon to join one.

What - exactly is a critique group? A critique group is a group of writers that are committed to gathering regularly; whether in person, by mail, or via Internet, to share work they wish to improve and eventually publish. It is important for children's writers to find a group that focuses primarily on children's literature. Writers of other genres can provide general help, but only children's writers can understand and advise on the unique requirements of writing for children. It is also helpful if the members of a group are at similar experience levels. That way everyone feels comfortable and can identify with each others' issues.

Why - join a critique group? Writing is an isolating profession. By gathering together, writers find support, encouragement, motivation, deadlines, informed comments, technical help, marketing information and a safe place to try out ideas. One of the most valuable things you can gain from a critique group is a fresh perspective on your own work. Every critique group offers something different and some writers find it helpful to attend more than one. No one is sure if these writers are extremely dedicated or just masochistic.

Where - do critique groups meet? The specifics of critique groups are as varied and unique as the stories written by their members. Some groups meet in cafes or libraries, others gather at bookstores, and many are hosted in the homes of members. Some groups meet at the same location every time, while others rotate sites.

When - do critique groups meet? Many groups choose to meet once a month, while others meet as often as once a week. Some organize morning meetings, other groups prefer nights. Again the flavor and texture of each group is based upon the needs of its participant. As membership in a group changes so can its parameters.

How - to find or start a critique group? One of the first and best ways to locate a group is through your local chapter of SCBWI. They may be able to refer you to an established group or other individuals looking to start a one. Critique groups are also known to sprout from writing classes, and don't forget that children's librarians and book stores employees may know other writers your area who are open of critiquing.

If you're unable to find an existing group, take the next terrifying step and start one yourself. Your best resources will be the same people and organizations listed above. The national chapter of SCBWI will even provide you with informative two page handout called "Starting a Critique Group". Once organized, you'll be surprised by how many people show up nervously clutching manuscript pages.

The internet is also a growing place to meet writers and exchange work. You can find writers through chat groups, children's writing web sites and online classes. However, many writers still prefer to establish a writing relationship in person before sharing work online. Attending a conference is a great way to meet people and make this kind of connection.

How - to join an existing critique group. If you find a group that's open to new members, ask to attend one of their meetings. This first meeting enables both sides to try each other on for size. Most group meetings run two to three hours and divide the time equally between members. Because of this ask what length of piece to bring. Many groups use four to five double spaced pages as their standard.

If you enjoy the meeting, ask if you can come back and allow the group a few days to consider your request. Critique groups are delicate things and not every person will be right for every group. If that group doesn't work out, look for another one or, again, start your own.

How - to be critiqued. It can be mortifying experience to expose your work to feedback, but try to relax and remember that other people's suggestions are just that, their suggestions. You, the writer, have final say on any changes you make and why.

When preparing to read or pass out copies of your work, give only the basic information: title, type of book (picture book, chapter book, middle grade etc.), and what draft it is (if you feel like it). Do not apologize or make excuses for your work and avoid summarizing the story, the story should represent itself. The one occasion a summary is acceptable is if you're reading an excerpt and need to set the scene.

If you know what kind of feedback you want, such as: does the character come across well, how does the dialog flow, or do the transitions work, feel free to tell the group that's what your looking for. After you've read your piece, or had someone else read it, listen to everyone's comments and take notes. Do not respond to remarks, unless asked a direct question. If you disagree with a critique that's fine, but arguing the point won't help anyone.

How - to critique others. When critiquing other people's work listen attentively and take notes if it helps you. (Some writers will appreciate receiving your notes, even if they're hard to read and full of misspellings, so feel free to offer them.) After the piece has been read everyone should take turns responding. Do not interrupt someone else's comments. When it's your turn make sure to start and finish with positive statements about the work. Be specific with your comments, vague statements do not help the author, and keep your comments focused on the piece rather than the writer and their skill. If something has been said that you agree with, simple say "I agree with _____" and move on. But if you disagree with someone else's point be sure the author knows you had a different opinion and why. After all the comments have been made, make sure to thank the author for sharing. They deserve credit for their bravery.

When it comes to deciding the validity of critique groups, writers develop their own opinions. Some conclude that sharing a "work in progress" doesn't help them, like Lynne Reid Banks, author of "Indian in the Cupboard" and "Angela and Diabola". While other authors join a group that stays together for years and years, like Jane Yolen, author of "The Devil's Arithmetic" and "Owl Moon". When deciding if a critique group is right for you, take your time, weigh your options, and most of all have fun.

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