Monday, May 31, 2021

6 Questions to Ask Before You Join a “Crit-as-You-Write” Critique Group

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some critiques can cause more harm than good.

Lisa Cooper Ellison did a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog warning writers about chapter-by-chapter critiques. It’s worth reading, but she essentially said that getting feedback on a few chapters of the novel at a time as you write it instead of the critiquer reading the entire novel at once was more detriment than benefit (there’s more of course, but this is the part that I’m referring to in this post).

I agree 100%. I also disagree 100%.

Yes, I know, that’s impossible, but this isn’t a yes or no issue. I’ve been in a “crit as you write” group for a couple of years now, and I love it. It’s been incredibly useful for me and has increased my productivity. But I also understand that I’m at stage in my writing where I can do this successfully, while someone just starting out, or someone with a different process, might fail in a group like this. Even a pro can struggle in this type of group if they write to satisfy the group and let it sway how the novel develops.

Your ability to evaluate and implement feedback determines how useful a “crit-as-you-write” group might be for you.

The points Ellison brings up in her post are all excellent. It’s easy to let feedback from people who have no idea what you’re trying to write or accomplish knock you off track. Only getting feedback on a partial manuscript doesn’t give the critiquer the full picture of what story you’re telling.

Getting critiques on first draft work can also be disheartening, since first drafts tend to stink. If the critiquer thinks they’re reading later-draft work, they’ll likely be unnecessarily harsh. There’s also the whole “does the critiquer even know what they’re talking about?” question.

(Here’s more with Writers Take Heart: First Drafts Don't Always Suck)

But if you enjoy feedback during the first-draft stage, and you have the ability to use the feedback well and not let it dictate how you write your novel, then a “crit-as-you-write” group could be for you.

How to tell if a “crit as you write” critique group is right for you:

Before we dive in, let me say there are no right or wrong answers here. These questions are to help you identify what works best for you, and what might not work so well.

1. How confident a writer are you?

This isn’t a slam or a dig at anyone’s writing ability, but a real question you have to ask yourself. A confident writer can ignore feedback they don’t think will work and move on, while a less confident writer might make changes only because the group said so. Skill level has nothing to do with this, as you can be a newbie with confidence or a pro who doubts every word you write.

If you feel that everyone else is right about your writing while you’re drafting it, but you aren’t sure you know what’s best for it, a “crit-as-you-write” group with probably do more harm than good. You’ll likely be better off developing your draft until you’re happy with it, then getting feedback to make it better. Or maybe finding a writing pal you can trust who helps, but doesn’t push you one way or the other.

But if you’re confident about your writing and can ignore feedback that doesn’t help what you want your story to be, then a “crit-as-you-write” group could work for you. You’d get immediate feedback and be able to fix problems before they work their way too deep into the draft.

For example, I’ve been writing a long time, and have had countless critiques and editorial feedback. I’ve learned how to evaluate feedback and I trust my ability to use it to my advantage. But that came after a lot of time and practice, and I made plenty of mistakes before I reached this point—even after I’d sold and published my first novel.

(Here’s more with Killer Instincts: Trusting Your Writer's Compass)

2. How skilled is your group at identifying issues vs. hooks?

Unlike the old serial days, novels aren’t meant to be read a chapter a week. A weekly read makes it too easy to forget details, lose the tension, and treat every chapter as an opening chapter. A chapter might feel slow because the hook was in the previous chapter, or the tension calls back to something read three weeks prior. Yes, the chapters should work on their own, but emotions and tensions drop between reads, which lessens the impact a chapter might have had otherwise.

Good critiquers know this and can tell if something is a pacing or tension issue, or if there’s an actual problem. Less experienced critiquers might treat every chapter as its own entity and expect it to include details that throw off the entire novel. Pair this with a less-confident writer, and they might make changes that fix that chapter, but not in a way that enhances the novel as a whole.

For example, my crit group is all professional, published authors in my market and genre. They know their stuff, and they’re good at pointing out “if this was established last chapter then ignore this, but…” type comments. They’re also good at identifying “this makes me want to know more, but I don’t need to know that here” moments. A less skilled critiquer might want to know that information in that spot and not realize the mystery is part of the hook. My group also discusses our crits, so we can ask questions about what might have changed since we read the previous sections.

(Here’s more with What Do You Really Know About Your Critique Partners?)

3. How well do you know your story?

If you know where your story is going and what you’re trying to write, you aren’t as likely to be thrown off track by feedback. It’s easier to identify feedback that supports and enhances the story and disregard feedback that doesn’t serve the story.

If you’re not so sure? Then good ideas can easily excite you, even if they’re wrong for the story. Subplots can build where they weren’t necessary, characters can change for no reason, the plot might swerve into the weeds and head off for turning points unknown. This happened to me a lot in the early days. My plot brain would spin out of control with every critique.

Discussing your plans and thoughts about the novel can help alleviate this. For example, my group has brainstorming weeks where we don’t read pages, but discuss our novels and what we’re trying to do with them. It helps us understand what each writer is aiming for so we can best help each other achieve that. We’ll also ask what the goal is during a critique session to better inform our comments. We work as a team and it’s hugely beneficial. We also turn in our critiques after a session, so we can adjust any comments we’d already made.

(Here’s more with How to Guide a Critique)

4. How good are you at reading between the lines?

It’s fairly common for feedback to ping an issue that isn’t where the critiquer pointed it out. For example, if the groundwork isn’t established well, a character’s change in attitude or behavior might not ring true for the reader. But the problem isn’t in the change, but it how that change was set up.

Reading chapters weeks apart exacerbates this. If the group reads a chapter with an action two weeks after the motivation for that action was established, they might ping you in the action scene for a lack of motivation because they’d forgotten it. So you’d either need to strengthen the earlier motivation scene so it’s memorable, or add a quick reminder in that scene (if you needed to do anything at all). But a writer unfamiliar with this aspect of weekly feedback might create a whole new motivation in that scene that doesn’t work at all.

For example, sometimes my group forgets details, and someone will comment on an issue. It’s fairly common for us to say, “That was established in X, but I’ll double check to make sure it holds up if you read straight through.” And then we do, because sometimes there really is a problem. But we also look at what might be causing that reaction, as well.

(Here’s more with Three Things to Remember When Revising from a Critique)

5. How beneficial is the weekly push to turn in pages?

Writers who thrive on external deadlines might appreciate the weekly pressure (or bi-weekly or whatever the frequency is). It might be worth the risk of patchwork feedback to have that accountability. A regular group does light a fire under your butt to finish what you know your group is waiting on.

If you have no problems hitting your writing goal, or you have no timetable you want to finish your draft in, then getting a critique can happen on your schedule. The pressure of getting pages written every week might even be too stressful for some writers, and hinder their creativity. Every writer is motivated differently.

For example, I have a lot on my creative plate, between blogging, writing, and workshops. Knowing I have to turn in chapters every week to my crit groups means I always schedule time to do it. It might only be a single scene if I’m really crunched for time, but at least it’s something. I also know when my current book is done (it’s a substantial rewrite), I’ll need another, so it already has me thinking ahead.

(Here’s more with A Less Lonely Way to Get More Writing Done)

6. Do you have other readers who can read the full when the draft is done?

If you have no one else but your crit group to give you feedback, “wasting” them on freshly drafted chapters might not be the best use of their expertise. You might prefer them to have the full reader experience, and not bits and pieces every week.

If you do have other critiquers, then you can hammer out the kinks and get the early issues out of the way with weekly crits, and still get a full-read critique after your draft is finished.

If you have both, you can always wait to make changes until after both types have critiqued the manuscript, just to see how the two compare.

For example, I have multiple readers for my drafts, so I’m not losing anything by having my weekly group read as I write. And their feedback substantially cleans up the manuscript, so I have a much closer-to-final draft by the time people read the entire book.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Critique Partners and Beta Readers)

There are benefits to a “crit-as-you-write” critique group, but it isn’t for everyone.

If it’s not for you, don’t stress over saying no to a “crit-as-you-write” group. Finding a process and crit group that works for you is far more important, and far more productive as well. You might even try different types and see which works best for your style, process, and temperament.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and answer the above questions. Consider what type of critique group and feedback would best benefit you.

How did you fare? Are you a “crit-the-whole-thing” writer or a “crit-as-you-go” writer? Or somewhere in between?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. This makes me feel better. I've been feeling like I was doing something wrong by not getting chapter-by-chapter feedback on my novel. I've only allowed one person to read an early first draft, and it was someone that I trust who also understood what sort of feedback I was looking for (and what wouldn't be helpful at that stage).

    Based on your questions about how to tell if a critique group is for you, I think working with a group in the earlier stages might not have been helpful for me. Now that I know what I want to say in the book and have developed my style, I'm going to check with a writing group to see if anyone is willing to be a beta reader.

    Thanks Janice - this is another useful article!

    1. Glad it helped and made you feel better. Sounds like you're a great example of writers who do better with full draft crits :)

  2. Great post. Thank you. I've done both, but had never examined the differences like you do here. I've “crit-the-whole-thing” several times for others. For awhile I was a “crit-as-you-go” with another writer (kind of). We posted full manuscripts on Google and critiqued what we could when we could. We were both religious about critiquing regularly and there was no one I trusted more. It was one of the most beneficial experiences of my life. Sadly, although we're still friends, I lost her when family adversities required her full attention. I have to agree, though, that "crit-as-you-go" requires the right person or people. There has to be a strong level of trust, respect, and you/they don't know the full story yet.

    1. Thanks! So sorry to hear about your crit partner. Hopefully when her life settles down you two will be able to reconnect as crit partners.

  3. I was in a 'crit as you go' group for a very short time that allowed a maximum of 5 pages. We met every two weeks. I would be so far beyond those 5 pages of the previous meeting, there was no context for new pages. The group worked for very slow writers who might finish a book every couple of years or so, but not for me.

    Later, I was in a daily (M-F) email group with three other writers. We'd each send round a few hundred words or maybe a scene we'd written that day. Sometimes you just threw it out there to 'show your words,' and sometimes you asked for advice. Critique wasn't required. I actually wrote more words then and got far more constructive advice out of that group because we were working together in near real time. COVID hit and life went crazy for all of us. A few of us still get together for writing sprints from time to time and we present our issues/blocks, but it's not quite the same.

    1. 5 pages every two weeks would be too slow for me as well, though I can see how it might benefit writers struggling just to finish a few pages every week.

      A daily group sound interesting, and I haven't run into that type before. That would certainly push you to get writing done. Shame COVID derailed it, but hopefully you'll all get back to it now that things are getting back to normal.