These days it doesn't have to be.
You might have family and close friends reading your work, people with the best intentions in mind, but the people close to you are more concerned with not hurting your feelings than giving you honest feedback. In the end you’re not sure if the praise was honest or an attempt to spare your feelings.
How many times have we seen people walk up on stage to sing because their family and friends “love” their singing, just to be humiliated by unforgiving judges? Were they all victims of a prank, or were some of them victims of people who loved them and didn’t wish to hurt their feelings? It’s hard for someone who cares for you to tell you, “This needs work, a lot of work” regarding something you’re so passionate about. Will they ever come clean and admit to you that their praises might’ve been exaggerated?
Writing is a lot like singing, in the sense that you might have a natural talent for it, but it’s still a skill you need to hone and keep practicing until you find your voice. To do that, especially if you’re a new writer, you’ll need constrictive criticism from objective people. This is where critique groups come in.
A critique group is people who understand the struggles an author has to go through, but most of all they understand that your feelings must come second place to honing you writing skills. A good writing critique group will praise your strong points but will not sugarcoat your failings. That doesn’t mean you will be condemned by a judge, or that they’re out to hurt your feelings, but to be a writer you need a thick skin and an openness to constrictive criticism.
I was a teenager when I started writing, with no clue what writing a novel really meant. With English being my second language—and it’s a language I only started learning in my late teens—I was in way over my head. When I tried sharing stories I wrote on-line I was attacked by people about my grammar and punctuation. I put myself in the public eye before I was ready and opened myself to the sharks, whose only goal is to make themselves feel better by making you feel worthless.
I was just about ready to give up on my dream when by chance I came across a forum for writers. With some uncertainty, given the treatment I’ve had up to that point, I decided to sign up. I made my first post of introduction, and a couple of hours later I knew I had finally found a place where I could feel safe about my writing and at the same time learn how to become a better writer.
In that forum I met other writers who quickly became my friends and mentors. Shortly after we formed our writing critique group and over time, I realized that my writing was indeed improving. Not only because I received criticism about my writing but because I also read the work of others with a critical eye. I still have a lot to learn, both about grammar and punctuation, but I’m not nearly as bad as I used to be.
And a good critique group need not stop there. We supported each other during all the phases of writing, up to getting published and then promoting.
However finding a good critique group can have its own challenges. Take your time, get to know other writers, set down rules/guidelines and be honest with your group. These people might become your friends but you have to always keep in mind why you created the group in the first place.
To learn more about what a critique group needs to be functional and successful, read this very informative article by Terry W. Ervin II: Five Areas to Consider before Joining a Writing Critique Group.
Terry also has his own blog Up Around the Corner where he often gives great advice about writing.