A couple of weekends ago I attended an SCBWI workshop on forming and running a critique group given by Becky Levine, author of The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide.
My own critique group experience has been varied. The first group I joined was an extension of a 6-week course on writing for children, taught by an editor from a major publishing house. The three other students and I sent a chapter to each other every week which we’d read and review then discuss at the following class. This was great because most people stuck with the deadlines, but looking back, my only criticism would be that everyone was too nice. Yes, too nice. Not to say I wanted anyone to be mean – nobody wants an evil CG partner beating up their prose – we were just too nice in the sense that our feedback was too timid. If critiques are passive then nothing substantial gets done. After that CG ended, I started a group of my own with one of the girls from the class. We met every Sunday and once a week to critique, bounce ideas off of each other, challenge ourselves with on-the-spot writing exercises, and ended the day with a glass of wine or two... sometimes three - Thursday nights weren’t always so productive, but they sure were fun! And finally, my latest CG is one I joined through the list of interested critiquers provided by SCBWI. My writing buddy and I have been posing the tough questions to one another about our novels. Rewrites are constant. Thinking so hard about plot changes that my brain actually hurts, has become normal. But learning more about myself as a writer has been the reward. When you’re pushed to work harder than you ever have before on your book, the image of it bound together by a hardcover with the name of a respected publisher on the spine becomes that much more realistic. Like boot camp for your novel - how can it not get stronger?
At the seminar, Levine said there are two fears that keep people from joining critique groups: 1) the writer is afraid their writing will be trashed, and 2) the writer fears they aren't skilled enough to make solid critiques. She also said that the number one most important factor to have is trust, because with trust, respect is born. This is so true. Sharing your novel, your baby, essentially, can be nerve-wracking for many writers.
In the end, to decide if joining a CG is right for you, why not just try and find out? Levine gave good advice saying you don't have to commit right away. Ease your way in to see if it's a fit. There are a lot of factors involved with finding the right group. And when you do find a good fit, Levine recommends adding one person at a time. Go slow.
My own personal experience has been pretty positive...maybe that’s just luck, or maybe it’s part of the theory that you get what you give. If you’re willing to put the time in to give wholehearted critiques, others will likely do the same.