Writing critiques – necessary evil, or wonderful energisers?

For some reason, the subject of writing groups has been surfacing around me over the last month or so. I belong to two different groups, and people I meet have been asking me about how they work. So I brought up the subject at the Writers’ Rendezvous (an informal monthly meeting of local writers, see photo) and asked for input.Writers-Rendezvous-May-2014-Westport-CT-BN

So far, I have come across four different types of group. I thought I’d list them here and get your input, too. Please comment to let me know which kind of group you think works best.

critiqueOne writer talked about a group she used to attend in New York, which she had found very effective. That one allowed people to read their work, and to hear the group’s response, but there were 20 writers in it. Obviously, this meant that not everyone could be heard each week.
Another person currently facilitates a group in Trumbull, CT, (about 20 minutes away from me) which has eight participants. Even here, because of the numbers, while the critiquing sounds as though it’s thorough, writers only have a chance to be critiqued four times a year.
The Fairfield Public Library hosts several weekly writing groups, and there’s always a waiting list of people wanting to join. (I may still be on that list, but after a two or three years waiting, a place hasn’t become available yet…) One of our Writers’ Rendezvous participants runs such a group. It has eight members, not all of whom are present every week. The focus is on reading a suggested five double-spaced pages aloud (roughly 1500 words) as others read along on copies of the work. Then the work is critiqued by the group. The aim is not to repeat a critique if someone else has already made the same observation. The group does not distribute work ahead of time.

One group I belong to has four members, and we send each other our work ahead of the fortnightly meeting (up to 10 pages, double spaced). Then we bring our critiques to the meeting. This seems to work well, and produces in-depth critiquing, which is very valuable. But, of course, the number of participants needs to be limited, or the amount of ‘homework’ before each meeting would be too onerous.

I belong to a second group, with three people, where we don’t see each other’s work ahead of time, but read it aloud (up to 10 pages at the weekly meeting) and critique it on the fly. This tends to make for broad-brush critiquing, particularly if a person reads well. I often think people are bamboozled by my English accent into thinking my writing is better than it is. Meaning, I suppose, that I don’t get as much critiquing in this group as I think I need. On the other hand, I do have to show up each week. If a member is away, unless they’re totally beyond reach, she phones or Skypes in, so as not to miss a meeting.
I have heard of, but don’t know anyone who’s tried it, online writing critique groups. I’m not sure exactly what the guidelines are, but I think they must be a boon for writers who can’t reach a group in person. They may also have the benefit of having your work read by a person who doesn’t know you and therefore has no idea what you’re trying to convey, except through your writing.
There’s one more idea you might want to consider.

Adele Annesi, one of the editors of NowWhat? Creative Writers’ Guide told us at the Writers’ Salon at Fairfield Library a few days ago that she has a writing buddy with whom she meets regularly. They meet at a local coffee shop and then sit there and write for a while, before looking at each other’s work. So that’s yet one more type of writing partnership.

For me, the value in critique groups is two-fold: I get (and, hopefully, give) constructive feedback and, more important, I have to write in order to bring something to the group. This is an enormous plus for a procrastinator like me.

There are things to bear in mind if you’re thinking of starting or joining a group. I think groups like this work best if the participants are writing in a similar genre. It needn’t be all fiction, or all memoir, but I think a group specifically for writers of poetry or children’s books would be more useful than a mixed one. What do you think?

Then there are the friendships that form in writing groups, which can be lifelong. The advantage, and the disadvantage, of friendship is that your friends understand your work, which is gratifying but not necessarily always helpful. They may be able to read between the lines to understand it, whereas your unknown reader won’t. The other advantage/disadvantage is that friendship can allow for no-holds-barred criticism, which may prove, depending on one’s mood, either energizing (I’ll show them!) or discouraging (I’m never writing another word.)

All feedback welcome!