Someone wrote and asked, “As a beginning writer, is it really important I participate in a critique group?”
I highly recommend newer writers join a critique group. Often times at writing conferences I’ll have someone come up to me clutching a manuscript to their chest. “Here,” they whisper, looking around furtively. “It’s my manuscript. It’s fantastic. And no one has ever seen it.”
So I’ll look at them and ask, “And how do you know it’s fantastic?” They invariably answer with something like “I just know” or “people have been encouraging me to write for years” or“my mom loves it.”
Sorry, not good enough. I don’t trust your personal instincts unless you’ve had at least one bestseller, and your mom loves you too much to view your piece objectively. Every writer needs a critique group. New writer or experienced hand, you gain wisdom when you have other writers looking at your work. A critique group offers you an honest appraisal, and provides an on-going learning experience. The best groups have a nice mix of people, so that your group provides you with a variety of experiences, interests, and personalities commenting on your writing. People get together and offer insight into your work, which will help you improve your writing. It also gives you a place to hang out with like-minded folks — other people who also want to be writers. There is support in the group, and a sense of identity. Get thee to a critique group.
Now, at the same time, I’ve had a couple dozen people write to ask a related question: “When do I know it’s time to leave my critique group?”
I suppose it’s time to leave a group when you’ve absorbed what your group has to offer you. This may eventually come when you think you’re experienced enough and confident enough to go it alone — and, in fact, the others in your group may agree that it’s time for you to either go out on your own or start your own, more experienced, group. That said, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to leave — I’d be in a hurry to listen.
There’s always the danger a writer can become a critique group junkie, I suppose (just like there are writing conference junkies). I sometime run into writers who are always “about to” write. They go to conferences, and hang out with writers, and are about to get started on their big book. But they never do. And, of course, I don’t really care if someone wants to do that. If they want to spend their time and money coming to conferences so they can hang out with writers and editors, that’s their choice. They become conference junkies, hanging out with the ones they consider the beautiful people. Fine with me. Some people want to hang out at bars, others at basketball games, and others at choir practice. I don’t care if someone wants to spend all their time at conferences and critique groups. But I want to feel the people in my critique group are moving forward, trying to become better writers. Because that, in turn, will help me to become a better writer.