So you have a piece of writing, it could be a novel, a short story or a poem. You have brought it as far as you can, any further tinkering with it would not add any quality. What is the next step? Some people go straight to submitting the pieces for publication or go the self-publishing route. Others, like me, join a critique group in order to get some feedback. It can be a nerve wracking thing to do, but I have really found the experience beneficial for the following reasons.
Nic McPhee via Flickr
You gain valuable feedback in terms of continuity and story arc:
Science fiction and fantasy novels usually surpass the 90,000 word mark and it can be hard to keep track of everything that happened in the story, even if you wrote the thing. It’s great to have a fresh pair of eyes go over your manuscript to ask such questions as, “I though this happened in the kitchen,” “I though he had green eyes,” “Who the heck is Alice?” I know when I’m reading for fun I will spot things like this a mile-off, so it is great to have someone catching my own slip-ups. Email critique groups are fantastic for this in particular as you have the previous chapters in your inbox. If there is any doubt you can just pop back and look it up.
It beats the pattern recognition powers of your brain:
Our brains are wonderful organic machines. However they have developed some shortcuts to help us deal with life and they can get in the way when we are trying to proof read. See exhibit A, pattern recognition. Sometimes when reading a sentence your brain will fill in missing words, or show words as being spelled correctly when the opposite is true. This happens often if you have read, and re-read the text numerous times. It’s fantastic to have people take a fresh look at your writing, they are likely to catch something that you have missed.
Practicing feedback makes your own proof reading better:
Writing is a muscle, use it everyday and it will get stronger. I think skills like proofreading are the same. From reading the work of others, and the critiques of others, I can definitely say that it has strengthened my own technique. Repetition, missed words, lack of commas, I am coming for you!*
Keeps you on track time wise:
I have been working on my novel since NaNoWriMo 2012. 2012 people! I also only work part-time, so you would be justified in wondering why I haven’t finished the thing yet. However since signing up for this critique group, where it is preferred that you send something monthly, I am flying through my edits. I am fully confident of getting it finished before NaNoWriMo 2016. Having that monthly deadline keeps me from slacking off and has gotten me in the habit of sitting down to write.
It is easier to take criticism from strangers than from family and friends
I don’t know about other people, but I find it very hard not to take criticism from family and friends personally. I also embarrass easy and tend to talk myself down. This problem seems to disappear however with strangers. I care what they have to say about my writing but the degree of separation almost adds a layer of professionalism, which is much easier to handle. It is also much easier if you are not used to giving an opinion, you can tell the truth and not worry about bumping into them at the shops later.
That is not to say that friendships can’t develop, see the next point!
You don’t have to face people but can still make friends
So if reading something out loud in public in front of living, breathing, sentient humans fills you terror, email critique groups could work for you. You get to know people and learn about them and their lives. You encourage each other heaping more praise than corrections, and I have really started to look forward to reading their submissions each month. Which leads me to the last point of praise…
You get to read other people’s stories
This is by far the best perk of joining a group. I get to read the stories of some very talented people and I can learn from them. It is hard sometimes not to get swept up in the stories, enjoying the intrigues of the plots. I am certain in a few years I will see some of their books on bookshop shelves.
A point to note
Among all that praise I will sound a note of caution. Try, if you can, to join a group that has some knowledge of the style that you are writing in. While it is useful to get an outside perspective, initially it is really helpful to hear from specialists who know about the genre and the publishing environment.
I am a member of the British Science Fiction Association Orbit critique groups.
*Now that I have said this I will have undoubtably missed something in this piece. Forgive me and my over-confident ways.