There’s something amazing that happens when you join a good critique group. You begin to develop a keen sense of what is and what isn’t good writing. This can be a mixed blessing as it means never being able to read (or in some cases watch TV) for pleasure without critiquing ever again, but the impact on your writing is well worth it.
It almost goes without saying that receiving proper critiques can greatly improve our writing. However much we study the craft of writing, and however many times we go over our own work with a fine-toothed comb, there will always be something we overlooked. Some big, glaring problem that we just can’t see because we are too close to the story. We need a fresh set of eyes to look at it over and point out the problem. With a good critique group, that’s multiple sets of eyes. And these eyes know what to look for.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a really embarrassing typo. More often it’s a fundamental problem such as a complete and utter lack of description, or chapters with short scenes that switch POV four times in five pages. (Or was that five times in four pages?) In any case, it’s a good reminder that just because we know what we meant, doesn’t mean our readers will.
Getting an outside perspective on our work is an obvious benefit of a critique group, but the side-effect is that we also learn how to critique.
Suddenly, we see writing through a different lens. We notice things like sentence structure, or where the author struggled. This perception may get in the way of simply enjoying a book, but when applied to chapters from our group members, it becomes invaluable. What’s more, it spills over into our own writing. We become more aware of what we are doing. We begin to develop a little voice in the back of our head commenting on what our group will think of the scene we just wrote. This isn’t to say that our group will always be right, or that fear of critique should stand in the way of how we feel our story needs to be told, but being aware of what we’re doing helps us make better decisions about our writing.
And because no story is ever complete on the first draft, this leads us to revision and editing.
Personally, I don’t let my critique group see anything less than draft 2. I’ve even taken to revising my chapters before sending them in. I figure if there are issues I can see on my own, it’s in my best interests to fix them so I don’t get a critique coming back with problems I already knew about. So there’s always a little polish done before the critique.
After? Well, that’s where the fun starts. We now know where others are seeing issues with our work and whether we agree with every point or not, we still have to deal with it. We have to make the hard decisions. Kill our darlings. We need to edit.
It’s a lot of work, but in the end it’s worth it. Once cranked through the critique machine and edited, our stories will (hopefully) be ready to send out into the world, be that querying agents or publishing.