Whether you take writing classes in college, nightschool, online, or from a private instructional course, almost from the first word you write you are going to be told, "Join a critique group." At the least, have a critique partner.
Of course, you are also admonished that this critique partner or partners should never be friends or family members, or even co-workers, because all they are going to do is tell you how wonderful your writing is. You need to have people who are objective, and willing to point out errors as well as the good things you write.
This is all well and good IF you can find a ready-made critique group to work with, AND if you find you fit well into that group. But it's not as easy as it seems. I joined one group when I first started taking the ICL courses, and left after little more than one month. There were 9 women in the group...and that's way too many...and everyone was supposed to submit something to be critiqued each week. That meant that you had 8 other stories to critique, as well as have something ready yourself every single week. It left no time for my own writing with respect to doing ICL assignments, and to say nothing about having time for the rest of my life!
The second group I joined was made up of 4 women, who did nothing but vehemently criticize each other's work, and tell them what terrible writers they were. These 4 were friends who'd been together for some time. Friends? I left that group the seond week.
The third group was my own. I went online to every writers' forum I could find, and asked for people to form an online critique group. The first group was 6 women, including myself, and 5 of us have been together for the last 5 years. One finally left several months ago, due to other responsibilities, we now have 2 new members, and we all work very well together.
So why have a critique group? What do they do for an individual writer, or what should they do? The first thing, and possibly the most important, is to show support for one another. Writing is a lonely profession if you are in it to become a published author, and it's almost necessary to have people who know and understand what you go through. Families often don't. They often think of your writing as a hobby, and "when are you going to quit that and do something more productive?"
Another reason is to have someone point out any inconsistencies you might have, in terms of days, dates, time of year, where one character is at a specific time so that you don't put him, a couple of chapters or scenes later, somewhere else. Unless you are a very organized writer ( which I'm not), it's easy to forget little things like times or days when you have written something in one chapter, and then have to go back to that later on in your story. My partners have caught me on those things so many times, and it saved me so much time and effort.
Then there is the ever-present voice! Our voice has to be consistent throughout the story. Dialogue is one area where a lot of writers get messed up. In my first novel, one of my main characters spoke perfect English...'perfect' in the sense that she never used contractions, such as "I don't", "you haven't", and so on. It was always "I do not," "You have not,"etc., and I was fine until about 2/3 of the way through the story. Then in one whole chapter, she was using contractions in her dialogue. A dumb mistake on my part, but my critique partners caught that immediately!
Pointing out holes in your plot is another area where critique partners are necessary. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own words, as well as the anxiety about getting that darn story finally finished, that we leave big holes in our plot. For example, in the last chapter or two, do you ever find one of your main characters suddenly spouting off a lot of dialogue that is nothing more than an information dump? He or she is giving the reader information, through dialogue, that should have come up earlier, or been accounted for through scenes and action. As the author, you've just realized that you didn't explain an incident, so now the MC has to do so.
Or how about those last two secondary, rather minor characters that you introduced in Chapter 5, who've suddenly disappeared but without any reason or explanation? They were there, they had dialogue and action, but now there's no trace of them at the end of the story. What, they just evaporated into the atmosphere?
Then there's that mystery you've been dying to write. Your MCs stumble upon a dead man in a car on a secluded street, and this leads them into a fantasy maze of death, destruction, and terror before they finally find their way through the maze, solve all the crimes and problems, and return to their normal lives. EXCEPT! Who was the man in the car, who killed him, and why was he the key to this new fantasy world with all the problems? If you haven't explained that, it is a huge hole in your plot.
The point is: critique partners are very valuable entities for all writers. Granted, sometimes it takes awhile to find just the right group, but once you do, they can save your bacon on more than one occasion! No writer should ever presume that we don't need someone to oversee our work, to provide help and guidance along the way, to keep our voice, our characterizations, our dialogue, and so on, on the straight and narrow. We need new eyes, fresh ideas, and certainly objective and honest criticism about our work. Obviously, in the long run, our work is our work, and we need to take from our critiques only that which we feel will add to our story. But, also in the long run, we need the accountability that a critique group gives us.
Until next time,
That's a wrap.