Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

To Critique Group or Not to Critique Group: THAT IS NOT A QUESTION!

February 17, 2019 by Erzsi Deak

by Laura Gehl

A member of two critique groups, The Coop’s Laura Gehl addresses the “non-question” about the value of critique groups in this three-part series.

When my wonderful agent Erzsi Deàk asked me to write a blog post about critique groups, I considered starting with the pros and cons of joining a group. But then I remembered: THERE ARE NO CONS. There is truly no question that having a critique group is a win-win situation. NO, your critique group members will not steal your ideas. YES, you will have to spend valuable time reading/critiquing other people’s work—but it will make your own work better AND build a writing community around you.

I also realized that I had way too much to say about critique groups to fit everything in one blog post. Plus, I talked to wise writing friends about their critique group experiences, giving me even more to say. So this first post will highlight the benefits of critique groups, Part II will focus on different types of critique groups and different critiquing formats, and Part III will focus on how to find or start a critique group.

I am in two critique groups myself and love them both so much. All of my books are better because of the amazing writers in those groups. So without further ado, on to…

Part I: Benefits of Critique Groups

1. You get lots of opinions, which can mean a lot of people agreeing about what you need to fix.

This is particularly valuable for me. Sometimes I kinda know in the back of my mind that my ending is weak, or that my story doesn’t have enough emotional depth. But fixing that stuff is HARD, so I ignore the problems and hope nobody will notice. Then my critique partners DO notice those problems, and when enough people agree about the same problem, I know I have to fix it. If I just had one person telling me to fix something, I could ignore that person the same way I ignore the nagging little voice in my head. But I don’t ignore a bunch of people all giving me the same advice, and neither should you. 

2. You get lots of opinions, which can lead to a plethora of different ideas when you’re stuck.

Like I said, sometimes the ending of my story is weak. And I can’t think of any way to make it better, no matter how much I try. Well…having a whole bunch of other people suggesting ideas can really jumpstart the brainstorming process. Even if nobody in your critique group suggests the perfect ending, someone’s idea will spark a new direction that makes YOU think of the perfect ending.

3. Motivation.

If you know you have a critique group meeting coming up, you will probably force yourself to produce something—even if it is a very rough, almost embarrassing, draft. In this way, a critique group can help you avoid long stretches of time where life gets in the way of writing. Yes, every day is busy. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, you can always find a reason not to write. So having a deadline, or being accountable to other people, can be helpful. 

4. Solidarity.

Whether you are a pre-published writer submitting to agents or a multi-published writer submitting to editors, you are going to get rejected again and again and again. And again! Who better to understand than your critique partners who are going through the same thing? And it isn’t just the rejections. It’s the bad reviews, the waiting months and months to hear back from an agent or editor, the discovery that another author has a book coming out on the same topic you just spent three years researching…your critique group will be there for you through it all. With sympathy and possibly chocolate.

5. Celebration.

Then there are the happy times. You get a request for more manuscripts from an agent. Or you get an offer to publish a book. Or you get a starred review, or an award, or a letter from a fan. Your critique group is there to be thrilled with you! Offering congratulations and possibly chocolate.

6. Collective wisdom.

Which story should you send to a dream agent? Which editor might be a good fit for a certain manuscript? How can you get more school visits? How should you choose between multiple offers of representation from agents, or multiple offers of publication? Your critique group can offer their perspectives, and pool their knowledge, to help you make the best decisions.

7. Your Writing Gets Better.

Okay, this might be the most obvious benefit, but it is also the most important one. Your critique group will help you make your writing better. Let me say that again: your critique group will help you make your writing better. Both by getting critiques of your own work, and by analyzing other people’s work, you will become a better writer. I promise.  

Thank you to Shelly Jones, Lisa Rogers, Chris Mihaly, and Becky Scharnhorst for sharing their views—and of course to my own brilliant critique partners.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post, in which I will discuss different types of critique groups and critiquing formats, and Part III, about how to find or start a group.

Laura Gehl is the author of picture books and board books including ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, the PEEP AND EGG series, MY PILLOW KEEPS MOVING, and I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY. She has four books releasing in spring 2019: DIBS! (illustrated by Marcin Piwowarski, Lerner); EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T (illustrated by Joshua Heinsz, Little Bee); BABY OCEANOGRAPHER and BABY ASTRONAUT (illustrated by Daniel Wiseman; HarperCollins).