This morning I went back to read a short story that I wrote a few years ago just as my critique group was first beginning to work together. I was actually surprised—it wasn't as awful as I remembered—but it wasn't a very good story either. I know that I've improved since then, and so much of that improvement is due to working with the same critique group for all this time.
So today I want to acknowledge them. I'm grateful for all of the ways they have helped me grow in my writing. So often I will submit a piece, knowing instinctively that something isn't quite right with it, and they will pick out exactly where the problem is and inspire me to find the solution that I have always known was there. Even better: they are great people too, and I have really enjoyed watching their writing mature.
The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to be a writer is to start writing immediately and don't put it off. The second best advice, though, is to find a good critique group. How? The best way is to find a place where aspiring writers gather and see if anyone else is looking for a group. Check local writing groups. Check online: my group originally came together out of the writing workshop forums on Orson Scott Card's website. Check writing conferences: we've added two members in the past year through connections at ArmadilloCon.
Then learn how to give and take critiques. There are three things in particular that I have found to be vital for making critique groups work:
1.Build trust over time. When I first started getting critiques I didn't know my critique partners very well and I took most of their comments with a bit of skepticism. That's natural in the beginning. As we continued to work together, however, I learned to see that their critiques had a lot of value. I saw what they all said to each other, not just what they said to me, and I saw that far more often than not I agreed with the comments they gave one another. And we talked about other things too, not just our stories, not even just writing, but we got to know each other as people. That really helped. Now that we have worked together for several years I have a good sense of who has which strengths and I value each of their strengths.
2.Learn to put words to your instincts and know where the common problems lie. It's usually easy to tell when we don't like something that we are reading. Sometimes it's harder to know why. Part of becoming good at critiquing is learning to articulate what feels wrong in a piece. Practice helps. Reading a variety of different authors helps. Reading books on writing can help too. I would recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. That one in particular has been beneficial for me personally.
3.Be honest; don't be cruel. Critiquing is about telling the truth—you can't help anyone if you give out only compliments. But brutal honesty isn't what's called for either. While it's true that writers need to develop thick skin in order to get anywhere, you won't help an aspiring writer by being unkind. Don't mock; don't be sarcastic; don't tell people their writing is just plain horrible. Try to open your critiques with something positive—tell the writer what is working in the piece. Try to end on a good note as well. That'll go a long way.
Joining my critique group was one of the best things I ever did. If you are just beginning your writing journey I hope that you can find just as good an experience of your own.