Writing a novel is often a very solitary endeavor. An author can spent hours upon hours in front of his or her keyboard, never seeing another living soul. Often, a writer gets an idea, maps out the story, and writes in relative isolation, without any sense on whether what they are writing is valuable, entertaining, or of any interest to readers. It is difficult for an author to read his own work with an impartial, critical eye. That is where a critique group comes in handy.
A critique group is a group of writers who submit there "works-in-progress" to each other for review. Critiquers often provide a variety of critiques from simple grammatical edits to characterization suggestions to plot line recommendations. The value for the author is outside perspective that comes from the group. The critiquers act as early readers, providing non-judgmental insight into the story with an eye towards helping the author improve the work before it goes before a broader audience.
Members of a critique group are not intended to be editors. They may identify spelling errors or incorrect word usage, but they are not intended to be a replacement for a proper editor. A critique group acts more as detail-oriented beta readers, providing feedback from both the perspective of a reader and a writer.
Let me just say upfront that I love my critique group. I've been involved with a small group for a little over a year. Their help has been instrumental in the development of my upcoming novel, FOLLOW YOU DOWN. My group has seen some of the earliest drafts of the novel, and have even seen the original first person point-of-view version. When I returned from ThrillerFest last year with the crazy idea of rewriting the entire novel in third-person point-of-view, they were there every step of the way, commenting on the changes that worked as well as those that didn't.
There are four things that I get from my group, and I expect any writer could get from a critique group.
Valuable Outside Perspective - A critique group provides insight on my work that I could not give myself. When creating a story, a writer is often too close to be objective about the characters, scenes, and plot. A critique group provides unbiased suggestions and recommendations.
Accountability - My group keeps me accountable by providing deadlines for submissions. It's easy to blow off a self-imposed deadline, but it is harder to miss when you have someone waiting to review your submission.
Support - A good critique group believes in you and what you are doing, even when you don't believe in yourself. The encouragement that comes from a good critique group could be the difference between an unfinished manuscript and a published book.
Acting as a Practice Run - A critique group helps prepare a writer for the inevitable criticism that will come, either in the form of rejections from publishers or readers reviews.
I can't emphasize enough the value that I get from my group. Not only is the camaraderie among writers fantastic, but the feedback has been great as well. If you're a writer and not involved in a critique group, I'd recommend you find one.