I think the way a critique group evolves is important. When we first started our group, it was as a course. We had a great instructor. Carmela always brought suggestions--what to read on the craft of writing, helpful blogs to follow, conferences and writers’ societies, other workshops that met regularly, writing exercises for us to try. She is so knowledgeable (as I guess is the job of a “teaching author”). I also liked that she had us bring in recent books in the same genre of what we were writing ourselves. We had to explain what we learned from these other books. This was helpful for me but also quite interesting to hear what my classmates were doing. Finally, Carmela’s format was designed to produce as little as anxiety as possible when presenting our work--first people would say what they liked about it, then ask questions about it.
When the next session of that class met, again under Carmela, it was five of us from the first class and one “new” person who put up with us and fit in right away. I think we kept the culture of respect that Carmela had established, but felt a little more free to argue with each other--one person might have liked something the presenter did while another person didn’t. It was really good to hear the discussion of your work (though difficult to sit there quietly as the presenter) and then get your manuscripts back with everyone’s comments. I was always impressed by the resources and information my classmates brought about seminars and goings-on in the writing world, so grateful that they shared these. It was really fun to be able to continue to read the works in progress or revisions from classmates, and with a smaller class, we had more opportunities to share work.
Now we meet on our own or even just email if someone needs some quick feedback before a deadline. People in your group are familiar with your work if you are hammering away on a continuous story or bringing in a revision. It’s people who genuinely respect the effort made and are truly trying to help each other achieve better stories. It’s very constructive, so I feel that we got lucky that we can trust what others have to say when they make suggestions or ask if you could try something a different way. Instead of this massive anxiety-producing event, it becomes much more an opportunity--looking forward to bringing something to the group because you really value the input as you struggle through it. Even if it’s a really rough first draft, to not be scared to ask “what do you guys think? is it worth pursuing? what direction would you like to see it take?” I have heard some horror stories about people in critique groups where the goal seems to be to show off your own knowledge of writing while being as critical as possible. I have also heard that these tend to be more adult writers’ groups than children’s writers? Like Ellen said, it helps to have a “deadline” of when the group is scheduled to meet so it pushes you to get some work done (although much less work done by me than everyone else lately!!). And it helps get you over your fear of sharing your work with others--perhaps a professional critique at a conference or even submitting for publication--maybe not family/friends quite yet. It gives you confidence that yes, you do actually have some business writing (who do you think you are? what’s so special about you?) and that you have already put a lot of work into it.
To echo Ellen again, it is like getting a little present to open when you receive another 2000 words and are asked to critique. I feel so honored that others would trust me to read their work and hope that my feedback is valuable. Critique groups are interesting, too, because the people in them are likely at different stages of life and may be writing in different genres, but somehow everyone has this “writing thing” in common and it all clicks. So if I did end up in some snooty snotty critique group situation, hopefully it wouldn’t paralyze me or crush my spirit because I have been fortunate enough to know that truly good experiences with critique are possible!! I admit that i do think there is some luck involved, so if at first it doesn’t work for you, try again and find one that evolves!