Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.

There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.

So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.

1. Close friend or spouse
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.

Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.

2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.

A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.

3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.

Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.

4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.

There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.

The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.

6. An agent
If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.

Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.

Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.

The Cautious Writer’s Guide to Writing Groups

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Do a Google search about writers’ groups, and you’ll find a plethora of articles and resources touting its benefits for aspiring writers. But dig a little deeper, perhaps seek out discussion boards about writers’ groups, and you’ll get a very different picture. For example, a discussion on Quora reveals mixed reactions from participants about writing groups. Some had positive, even transformative experiences, while others expressed dissatisfaction with the groups they were part of, citing disinterested or dysfunctional members.

Certainly writers’ groups have their place. They provide a safe space to experiment with your writing, for example. They provide an outlet for socializing with other like-minded people so you can escape the solitariness of your writing life. They provide an opportunity to share resources and best practices, seek motivation, and help yourself and others to stay on track toward your writing goals.

But despite the positive impact they can make on your writing, they can also prove troublesome, according to Script Magazine. If getting too involved in writing groups, they can become a form of procrastination, taking you away from your real work as a writer. There can be a certain competitiveness among members, even jealousy, if one person is perceived to monopolize the conversation or if one person is published while everyone else is still trying to find their writing voice.

Most group members will tend to be at the same development level in their craft, usually just starting out or if they have been writing, still unpublished. As newbies, they may not have the perspective to share meaningful insight about your work. For more experienced and confident writers, writers’ groups may offer little value because they have passed that phase of their career.

Sometimes, members will comment just for the sake of commenting or to appear as a constructive member of the group. But that doesn’t mean they understand your work or can provide any meaningful suggestions.

Many people join writing groups for the socialization. That’s certainly a bonus. But writing is not a group effort. You still have to do the work, and that work requires significant alone time. The sooner writers accept and learn to tolerate the solitary nature of the work they do, said one of the Quora participants, the less need they will have for writers’ groups.

If you still believe joining a writers’ group is good for your career, think about these issues:

1. Decide what you want from the writing group. Do you want your work critiqued? Or do you want a place to gather and socialize, learn new techniques, share best practices and get encouragement for your work? If you are not clear about your expectations, you may join a group whose goals do not align with yours, or they don’t provide the support that you’re looking for.

2. What is the level of experience of the other members? A group consisting of people of different ages and backgrounds can offer alternative perspectives that can benefit your writing. If all group members are at the same level of development, that could limit the depth of knowledge and experience exchanged among group members.

3. Will the group members represent different writing genres, or are they all from the same genre? No matter what genre you work in – novels, screenwriting, short story, memoir – you can benefit from other writers of other genres. The only exception might be poets, who may not understand the nuances of narrative writing. Likewise, novelists and essayists may not understand poetry well enough to provide meaningful feedback to poets.

4. Will one person be moderating the discussion at each meeting, or will members rotate? A rotating schedule can ensure each member has a chance to lead the discussion and be engaged in the learning process. Conversely, having one person facilitate the discussion can provide consistency to the group. Some members may simply not want to take the leadership role.

There are other guidelines for starting and joining a writing group, including this piece of advice from author Jane Friedman. If you do decide to participate in a writing group, make sure you are clear about your own goals and expectations. As you become more successful in your career and gain more confidence, you may find you no longer need to be part of a group. They may not meet your needs as they once did or that you’ve simply outgrown them. Sometimes, group members simply grow apart or life gets too busy.

Writing groups are not for everyone. Critics of these groups say they can do more harm than good, hinder your progress as a writer or provide unnecessary distractions. There is no rule that says you have to be part of one in order to enjoy success as a writer. Only you know what is best for your career path.