Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Thee To A Crit Group

I've been asked several times by my lovely readers how to find a crit group/what makes a good one/do I really need one/etc.—maybe because I have the most awesome crit group in the world. (I really believe that, too.)

So today I present you with:

The Mostly Complete Guide to Crit Groups
If you're a writer seeking publication, you need a crit group. No, really, you do. And not just for the technical support, but the emotional support as well. A good crit group can propel you to the next level in your writing, can motivate you to finish that book, can bring friendships of a lifetime (teehee, sorry, inside joke). Working with my now-close friends has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had.

I think we all know this, but when I first started my journey I remember how scary it was to try and find people to read my book. Not only are those first crits terrifying, but you initially aren't sure you can trust someone, if you're a good match, if they'll "get you." It's like trying on clothes—sometimes they just don't fit and that's not anyone's fault. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, and you have to find what works for you.

Tips for Finding Crit Partners:
1. Get Around
In this age of social networking, it is so, so easy to find writers on the web! When I first started my blog, I would just stalk blogs, read a post or two, and see if I "clicked" with that person. I followed a lot of agent/industry blogs and tried to participate in the discussions. If I read a comment from someone and liked it, I would check out their blog, too.

I ultimately found Kiersten and Renee this way—through Evil Editor. (See? He ain't so evil after all, but don't tell him that.) Kiersten had posted her query over there and I noticed we both went to the same college (and later realized we went to high school together, too!). Renee found Kiersten the same way, and then we started visiting each other's blogs. After getting to know each other better, we decided to exchange work.

I've also found my other crit partners through blogging. Kasie and Sara found me after a certain contest, and once we got close enough we started exchanging work, too. It's turned out quite well for me, and I feel very luck for that.

Blogs aren't the only place to find writers though. I've heard many people connecting at conferences, at local writer's groups, on writer's forums like Absolute Write. But the key is to get out there, get to know people.

2. BUT. Be Careful
There's always a "but," huh. Not everyone on the internet is, shall we say, sane. Sometimes you don't know that right off the bat. You have to be protective of your work—don't ever send it to someone you've just barely met or whose identity seems sketchy. Trust your gut, take your time to get to know the person, and if possible confirm in some way that they are who they say they are.

You can never be too careful with your work. I've heard a few stories that make my blood curdle. All of them could have been a avoided by being a little more careful about sharing your work. I always get nervous when writers call for betas on their blogs. Not only do you not know who you might get, but you don't even know if they'll be helpful to you. I recommend seeking people out you think would match your style and asking them personally (huh, like looking for an agent).

3. Try Not To Take It Personally
If someone declines to read your work, try not to take it to heart. Most writers are busy people with day jobs or families. They also might have a crit group that keeps them busy, and they can't take on more. I, unfortunately, am in this situation now. I used to have time to read more from my fellow writers, but now I am limited to my own circle. I feel very guilty about not being able to give more of my time, but that's just how it goes.

Also, when you're first trying out crit partners, you have to take into account that they might not be a good fit for you. That's okay. Not everyone will make a helpful partner. Just cross them off the list for the next project. I've had this happen a few times. I am still friends with these writers, but we just realized that we're not a good match for one reason or another.

4. Don't Go Overboard
You don't need a throng of readers, just a few trusted ones who get your work. Really, you don't need 20 beta readers—you don't even need 10. The more you have, the more confusing/overwhelming your crits will be. I have about 5 or 6 total. I now send my MS in rounds of two, so I get three beta rounds out of them and they don't have to waste time rereading.

What to Look For In a Crit Partner:
1. The "Click"
It's so important to find someone who gets your work. Who gets you. It's a hard phenomenon to explain, but you know it when you feel it. I really think crit partners should be friends in some way—not critics. Real friends are honest with you, but not in a way that hurts your feelings. They know how to tell you your butt looks big in those pants without saying you're fat. They have your back.

2. Some Skill
You can have non-writer friends and family read your work, but your crit partners need to be writers. They have to know books, know writing on a technical level. They should at least be around the same skill level as you and be working to gain more skill. Usually I see writers of like skill/journey level gravitating toward each other, which is how it should be, I think. You grow together, experience the same ups and downs together.

3. Genre Similarities
It doesn't hurt to have a few crit partners who write in the same genre as you do. They should know the tools of the genre and be better able to tell you if something works for that type of book. I admit I'd feel a little "fish out of water" if I was critiquing an adult thriller—I just don't know what's expected. I've never actually read one...for reals. But give me a YA MS and I can tell you exactly what will and won't work.

4. Positive Vibes
Crit partners should never leave you feeling AWFUL about your book. They should be able to point out problems in a way that makes you want to fix them. They don't try to make your book into their book. They find good things to say along with the bad things.

Most importantly, they make you think differently about your book. The help you see what you can't and approach problems in ways you'd have never thought without them. They get you thinking. This is what I particularly love about my crit group (and my agent). For the most part, they don't tell me how I should fix things—they tell me what they struggled with and trust that I'll come up with the answers. And because of that trust, I know they respect me and my work. And because of that respect, I don't feel defensive about their crits. And because of all that, I can and want to make my book better.

That is how a crit group should work—through inspiration and encouragement, not criticism and belittlement.

So get thee to a crit group! They rock! It's incredible to watch my little group of writer friends progress. So many of us have agents now or are getting close to that. Some of us even have book deals. It has been so rewarding to experience these milestones with my closest friends and to share my own with them. I don't think the journey would have been as good without them, and I am grateful everyday for their support, intelligence, and humor.

To all my writer friends, not just my crit partners—love you guys!


  1. This was advice...for a lifetime.

    Seriously though, yay good critique partners!

  2. Wahoo for critique groups. I completely agree with the fact that writer's MUST have them. There is no way to look at your own work objectively. It's impossible. (And for the record I met you a couple months before that certain contest). ;) And I'm so glad to have your awesome support in my journey.

    I get to see you in 2 weeks! Yay!

  3. Excellent points! Thank you.

  4. Kasie, was it? Ack, my memory is going and I'm not even 26 yet. Crap.

    Can't wait to see you! We can whine to each other IN PERSON. Wee!

  5. Awesome advice!!!!!!

    I found my group almost 3 years ago. I knew I needed something...I needed to connect with other writers. At that point I knew no one else that wrote. I didn't blog back then...I was still quite a newbie. I did an online search and found Very cool site that helps you find people in your area with similar interests. The group meets in person, which was important to me. I wanted/needed a face to face group. I met some amazing people and also lifelong friends!! I call them my writing soulmates!! I would NOT be where I am today without them!!

    I love them to death but now I am considering finding or starting my own online critique group...just for chick lit/ contemporary romance writers. No one in my group writes the genres I sometimes I feel like I really need to connect with writers who do.

    We'll you said...kinda hard to know who you can and can't trust on the internet.

  6. Great thoughts, Natalie. I recently discovered your blog and have appreciated your ideas and advice. They've made me take a long look into my writing soul to see who I am as a writer and who I want to be.

  7. Thank you for sharing this advice! Can't wait to find my own crit group :)

  8. Are all your blog postings made of awesome? Because I might have to go back and read the old ones . . .

    Totally agree that crit groups are essential, and starting your "own" group by selecting people you trust is the way to go (that's what I did).

    Also finding people in your genre is important - they get what you're doing more easily.

    Question: When you say "rounds of 2" do you mean you send your MS to two betas, wait for their feedback and then two betas more? And I'm assuming you ask for full novel critiques.

    Our crit group has weekly submissions of chapters, and I think there are some limitations to that, but so far only 2 of 9 of us have a full MS to share. I'm getting ready to get some full novel critiques on my MS, and I'm wondering if I should stagger it as you say.

  9. I'm still branching out in the realm of betas, but I love the ones I have and the ways they help me!

  10. Great advice! Thanks for the how-to. I've had a bad experience with a local (face-to-face) writer's group -- a mish-mash of writers with varying degrees of skill and talent. The worst part was that no one had ever taught them HOW to critique. They made comments like 'I didn't like that' or 'That didn't work' or Not enough conflict' without any specifics. And some people were too harsh or just downright mean. I came out of there feeling lousy. With my new WIP, I am definitely going to be looking for better betas. You've given me some great ideas on where to go for them.

  11. I've been fortunate enough to be part of a critique group for over 4 years. It really is invaluable.

    Great post.

  12. I've been fortunate enough to be part of a critique group for over 4 years. It really is invaluable.

    Great post.

  13. Yay for crit groups! They are absolutely a life saver.

    Also, I was going to correct you about Kasie, but looks like she beat me to it. :)

  14. Wow really good post Natalie, my critique group The First Novels Club was just thinking about putting together a similar post.

  15. I don't know how writers survive without crit groups. In my non-writerly life, there are very few people who really "get" writing. Without my critters, my writerly life would be far less shiny and fun than it is.

    Thanks for being one of my shiny, fun critters :D

  16. Susan, yes, that's what I meant. I have alpha readers who read while I write (two of them), and then I edit and do betas for the full MS.

  17. Thanks!

    Now I understand the "alphas" . . .I was thinking alpha-reader like alpha-(fe)male, as in uber-reader. Heh.

  18. Great post!! My crit buddies are worth their weight in gold and diamonds :)

  19. Oh man... I'm so bad at groups. Not that I have any problems with critiques-- I made it through art school just fine, and appreciate good critiques-- I'm just not a joiner.
    I'd love to find a few people to read my work, but I think I'd have to do it over the internet. In person, it would give me panic attacks about the amount of time I'd be expected to devote to regular meetings, and more panic attacks over what to do if we end up not 'clicking'.
    Yup. Internet would definitely be the way to go for me...
    I suppose this means I have to join industry clubs too... Egads, I'm being forced to break out of my shell!

    Thanks natalie. As soon as my latest panic attack is over I promise to start looking for a crit group ;-)

  20. This is a good post. My experiences with beta rounds have been hit-and-miss, but always enlightening.

    I'm still trying to find my "perfect" crit group. I have a couple of good betas that I will go to every time (or as often as they'll let me), but they're not writers.

  21. I wish I had kept in touch with some of the writers in my university classes - I sometimes feel very isolated, and I don't have a crit group. It's particularly tricky at the moment: I wrote my previous novel as part of a MFA, and so had lots of feedback. I'm working on the second book now (have to have it to my agent in the new year), and I feel like I'm working blind, missing the constant feedback that was so much a part of my life last year. I can't wait to give it to a beta reader.

    Interestingly, one of my best beta readers has always been my husband. He's a programmer, and the logical, analytical aspects of his mind are perfect for picking apart my work. It's great! (Although not so much fun when it comes to playing Monopoly. Spawns LOTS of marital arguments).

  22. Thank you! This has been tremendously helpful! S.

  23. I've just started the blog reading/internet researching part. Dang, there is a lot to take in. This crit group is a new one. I think the first time out has got to be the scariest, but your advice on finding the right group seems like common sense - though it never crossed my mind! LOL

  24. Yes, Susan, her alpha reader IS the alpha female.

    Tee hee hee...

  25. That's funny, I just posted on my (new) crit group today. I'm excited for us.

  26. Thanks for all the helpful advice. I'm still in the network and get around and get something on the paper stage (long hiatus), but I'm looking forward to doing this in the (hopefully!) near future.

  27. Thanks for all the helpful advice. I'm still in the network and get around and get something on the paper stage (long hiatus), but I'm looking forward to doing this in the (hopefully!) near future.

  28. Hi Natalie-
    I started looking for a crit group after I finished my first draft, and found the online writer's workshop for science fiction and fantasy. I've made one really good friend and AWESOME crit partner who gets me, as you say, and some reliable others. -Kelly

  29. this post is very timely for me. I need a new crit group badly. My current one is made up of my most best friends, but it has become apparent to me and others who are familiar with my work, that i've outgrown them. My skills have superceded their own, and so i'm left being helpful, but not receiving much help in return. Sigh. I really have no idea how to find a new crit group...

  30. Very helpful. The kick-in-the-butt I needed to start looking for a critique group. Love the blog and thanks for your insights.