Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting others to read what you write

"Is it normal for writers to have writing partners or would a Crit group serve the same purpose? Which would you recommend?"

This is a question illustrator Wilson Williams, Jr. (aka Mighty Kwan) asked in a comment on my Friday post, where I talked about my progress on my OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o pursuits, as well as my writing partner's encouragement.

I tried to answer Wilson's question in a comment, but realized rather quickly that I had a lot to say. So here's my more drawn-out answer:

It's normal for writers to seek out feedback wherever they can get it.

People may imagine a solitary writer, sitting quietly in her bower, scribbling her heart out. Most of us probably started out that way (minus the bower). However, the mind in solitary confinement is a troubling place. Sometimes writers think they're really good, and can't understand why they receive rejection after rejection. Other writers think they're really bad, and can't find the courage to send their writing out to agents and editors. Most writers are both good and bad, depending on the day. Some writers don't care about publication at all, but want to get better. Most of us get lonely.

What kind of feedback we seek out (and what I recommend) depends on our needs and circumstances. Some writers form writing groups, online or in-person, some take writing classes, some have writing partners, or alpha readers, or beta readers.

An in-person writing group can be a regular, supportive, and social gathering. You can get feedback from multiple readers, people can also commiserate about their jobs, celebrate successes, and share baked goods. Because you'll be reading multiple writers' work, usually only small chunks of your work will be discussed (though some groups operate in different ways).

A partner can be more flexible. You can meet whenever you want, and read as much as you have time for. You can encourage each other. However, you'll only receive feedback from one person. People refer to "alpha readers" as partners who read drafts in progress, "beta readers" provide feedback on finished or revised drafts.

Online groups probably fall somewhere in between. Work can be posted on blogs regularly to be shared, so feedback can be more flexible. However, usually there'll be less socializing and friendship, and you'll have to provide your own baked goods.

Nothing stops a writer from joining all sorts of different types of groups and partnerships. I certainly have.

Writers seek out different types of feedback. For example, Stephen King drafts alone, then uses beta readers to get feedback on his completed drafts. Other writers like to get feedback on each chapter or scene they write before they move on. Many writers probably fall somewhere in between. This past summer, I blogged about my ideal critique partner here. In my Chicago writing group, we share everything from poems, to blog posts, to picture books, to short stories, to novel excerpts. Depending on when our meeting falls, I may not be ready to share something from my novel, but I always share something. Our group is so supportive and enthusiastic, that it helps my spirit just as much as my writing. Plus, it encourages all of us to produce something, even if it's only a single a haiku, every month. I've also used individuals from the group as beta readers.

Of course, who is in a critique group is also important. You want writers who are as dedicated as you, who have similar goals to you (writing for fun vs. publication). You may want to consider finding writers in the same genre. I've heard other bloggers recommend that if you want to be published, you should join a critique group with others who are already published. But how many published writers are desperately seeking feedback from non-published writers?

Rather than knocking on Stephen King's door, I think there are other, better ways to form writing groups.

Classes: Writing classes are a great opportunity to meet others who take their writing seriously. Many libraries, community ed programs, and universities offer them.

Friends and work colleagues: My Chicago writing group formed because a woman I worked with knew a few other writers and suggested we all get together.

Online: Members of Verla Kay's Blueboard often post to ask for critiques or partners. Becoming involved with that amazing forum will also put you in contact with numerous writers, and you might find something evolves more organically, too.

Many other online forums provide similar services. Nathan Bransford has a forum with a board solely devoted to finding critique partners (I believe Maggie Stiefvater set up something similar, but the link I have seems to be broken. Anyone know?). Casey at Literary Rambles often posts want ads for writers looking for critique partners or groups. She also suggests writers use their own blogs to advertise that they're looking for someone. Just yesterday I saw that Adventures in Children's Publishing was helping organize alpha and beta readers for writers.

It's kind of like online dating, no? Honestly, I'd rather have my friend introduce me to just the right person. But for those who are still looking, there are a lot of opportunities out there.

Phew! I hope that answers your question, Wilson!

Are there other questions about critique groups or partners? Anything I forgot? Any other tips on finding the perfect feedback?


  1. As I write for teenagers I also have a few obliging teens to whom I send first chapters and then first drafts.

  2. When I first started critiquing, I met once a week with a group of writers and it was great because it taught me how to critique (which I think is a learned skill).

    Now however, I like to write the draft and revise it before I send it off to a critique partner. For me, I do better getting critique on the novel as a whole instead of chapter by chapter. Novel swaps work for me.

    Great post, Anne.

  3. Interesting, Keren. I know a few other authors do that too, but I've heard many more say that they couldn't find reliable readers (kids would just say "this is great" or "this is boring" and not be able to explain why). Did you have to work with your teen readers a fair amount? Did you find them from amongst your kids' friends?

    Thanks, Karen! I agree with you that critiquing is a learned skill. I feel I've gained so much from doing it on a weekly basis for my course, too. It's made me much more critical of my own work, as well as others. Likewise, I've found novel swaps more beneficial. Individual chapters are useful for me at the beginning to get a sense of my character and plot, but once I have that, I really prefer to write the whole novel with little to no input.

  4. I'm with you, Anne. I don't see the point of sharing a novel chapter by chapter; I'd rather see the whole thing. So what do writers do in the meantime? I read about one SCBWI subgroup that had regular meetings with a program -- a speak one one topic or another -- and then when somebody had something to read, they all were ready for it. But I like your Chicago group's idea, too.

    Whenever I've shown something to someone who isn't a trained critter {snork!}, I've given them directions: smiley if you like it, frownie if it doesn't work, zzzz if it's boring, etc. This isn't an original idea, and I wish I remember where I heard it so I could give the person credit!

  5. Love the online dating analogy! It's so true.

    I would love to be part of a critique group and the anxieties I'm feeling about trying to find one (I've been putting it off because of them!) are, now that I think about it, alot like dating worries: will they like me? what if we don't click? will they be nice?

    Ack! Must tell my husband tonight how wonderful it is to be married LOL

  6. Interesting question, Anne. I do like the idea of writers getting together regularly. Discussing, or inviting a speaker, for certain topics is a good idea.

    What I find for untrained critters *second snort* is that they're hesitant to even mark up a piece of work. They won't put a zzzz for boring because they think it's probably just them. I have to really convince people that I REALLY want to them to be harsh.

    Thanks, fictionforge! I remember Maggie Stiefvater once talking about finding a critique group and that you just have to keep trying until you find one that's right for you. She said it might take several goes, but maybe if you go into it that way (kind of like remembering that dating's supposed to be fun!) and don't expect anything magical to happen, you might find some useful partners. I think just being willing to break it off if it's not working (and to tell your partners that) is key. You could just swap chapters with people and if someone did click, slowly commit to more. Goodness, it IS like dating! It's funny, I had the EXACT same worries before I went back to school for MA. And it was fine. Perhaps because we all have the same worries? =)

    Regardless, good luck! I hope you have the courage to get out there! And now I'm going to tell my hubby how wonderful it is to be married, too! =)


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