Critique Groups: Why They're Necessary to Perfect Your Writing Skills (and Manuscript)
It was Spring 2018. I had just written Honey from 65 Roses, and I felt so good about it! "Burt's Bees will totally see the vision," I thought to myself. It was clear to me, anyway - my books at your local [insert store name] prominently displayed next to the Burt's Bees lip balm and baby wash. Why not? They have a baby box, the book is about bees, it's for a good cause (donating to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation), and there's even a spot on little Burt's beekeeper suit to showcase the company's logo!
I shared my story with some friends and family. They saw it too, pure genius bundled in a little bee with a purple oscillator vest.
Then I shared the story with two individuals who had authored their own children's books. That was the first hatchet - nixing little Burt completely. That was hard. I didn't really trust that they knew what they were talking about. I understand now that they did. It's much easier to nix nowadays, especially when I can save those old versions for myself juuuuust in case.
I don't quite remember how I went from 2018 to 2020, but I eventually found myself joining Storyteller Academy. I've mentioned it before on my IG account. One of the activities they encourage is joining a critique group of randomly selected members or one of the several mentored critique groups they offer, which are hosted by agents or editors or professional illustrators, etc.
I joined a peer critique group. We were from all different backgrounds - ages, races, religious beliefs, family situations, cities, and story interests. They encouraged me to apply the second hatchet - changing from rhyme to prose. They helped me with the third hatchet too - removing the bullying because that's not the point of the book (and let's not inadvertently teach kids how to be mean).
The reason I believe critique groups are invaluable... necessary is because these are other authors and/or illustrators who are wanting to improve their own knowledge of the industry and craft, who are working on sharpening their own skills. They're well suited to help you develop your story to reach the masses, whereas a consumer (my friends and family) may only be asking, "Do I like it?" A critique group member is looking at each word selection, the tempo of your rhyme, the color of your main character's shirt on this foggy day in the woods. I think critique groups are to writers what small groups are to church members - a way to know the material deeper and apply it better with much-needed accountability.
I've given glowing remarks about critique groups so far. But there's something I had to overcome to get to this point. My absolute biggest, scariest fear was whether they would steal my stories. I decided to use some stories I didn't care about as much as some of the other gems. It's natural to be terrified of someone stealing your art, especially when the art is unpublished and if, like me, you're not sitting on a goldmine to push it through faster than someone else can. But I quickly learned it was an unnecessary fear.
See, I believe God is the Creator and we're our most natural selves when we create (made in His image and all). I further believe that, just as we have dreams and passions in our hearts, so too has He placed these stories in there to be shared with the world.
Stated without the God part - I believe that your story can only be told by you!
These women had such unique stories I would've never thought of (excuse me for ending on a preposition!). And while I can-not-wait for them to get their stories on the shelves, many of them needing to be available for kids and families, the topics and storylines aren't where my passions lie. Not to mention that I know I wouldn't dare do them justice by stealing any for myself.
I can't promise every critique group operates like this. I can promise that, when you find a good one, it'll change your writing, your stories, and maybe even your life.
A few of us from that initial critique group stayed on past the one term of Storyteller Academy and now have a solid relationship. We meet every third Saturday at 9 a.m. CST by Zoom, which turns into quite a commitment for the West Coasters.
Where the Wild Writers Are, I am so thankful for our bond and commitment to each other and our stories and the souls that will be touched by them.
How do you conduct critique group?
The first meeting we probably introduced ourselves, backgrounds, story interests. Now that we're in a rhythm, we do our best to upload stories at least a day or so before the meeting, if not sooner. That gives everyone time to review so that our meetings are most productive.
Depending on how many people have manuscripts to share, we split time equally. Sometimes, only one person has something ready and we'll spend as much time as we need on that one work.
Usually a person other than the author will read the work out loud. When you hear your own story in someone's voice besides the one in your head, you can hear mistakes or hiccups that should be tweaked. We also screen share to read along as we're listening. It's fascinating how what we say, what we see, and what we hear don't always match!
After the reading, we critique around the group. Sometimes it's conversational where we volley between group members, but typically it's one by one. Oftentimes, the author will have specific questions for the group. We might even start the reading by pointing out an area for improvement to focus on.
How do you critique?
1. Share something positive about the work. It takes courage to share yourself with others. And let's be honest, putting your mind on paper through words or graphics is sharing yourself.
2. Ask questions - What are you wanting to share through this story? What's the inspiration? What do you see in the illustrations when you imagine this book?
3. Give constructive feedback. I like to give suggestions, give critiques using "we" or "I," or ask more questions. For example, "What if we change the word violet to purple on line 5?" Sometimes it's more helpful or necessary to just come out with it: "I understand x and z, but I don't quite understand this sentence. Would you help me?" I'm probably overly sensitive to hurting someone's feelings, but it's just such a precious thing for these women to be open and vulnerable and humble.
4. Take notes! Whether the notes are for your own work or you see your fellow group member doesn't have the ability, take notes. We are all well-intentioned about remembering some revision that makes perfect sense... until we sit down days later to do it and can't recall it from memory.
What if my critique group falls apart?
Mine did, sorta. It's a bit of a bummer when group members leave while you're in the middle of revising a work with those very people. On the other hand, having new perspectives from new critique members is helpful to further perfect your manuscript. People leave the group, some take hiatus because life has a way of doing its thing, and some stay on. It's such a joy to have the continuity from those who stay as well - to see them grow and for them to see your growth and report it back to you. Either way, you can't lose!