A few years ago, I attended a workshop for children's writers. The instructor, Hope Marston, was gracious enough to read through a manuscript that I brought with me. At the time, it was ridiculously overwritten and far too sappy to be anywhere near saleable. (And I was horribly new at this, and didn't know any better...)

Hope was kind (and tactful) enough to suggest that I join a critique group.  She later e-mailed me the contact information for one of the ladies in a local group.  I am so grateful to Hope for helping me to take this critical step in my evolution as a writer.  Nothing has been as beneficial to my writing as joining that critique group, which today is known as Wish Upon a Word. (Meet Irene, one of the members of WUAW.)

WUAW meets once a month, and despite several transitions over the years, we are still very committed to supporting each other through our writing experiences.  One of our members recently moved about five hours away, but we still keep in contact with her and exchange manuscripts through e-mail and snail mail.  The ladies in this group are sweet and personable.  But beyond that, they're tough.  And I'm blessed to know them.  Here's a picture of our group, taken in June, 2008, at the SCBWI Conference in Poughkeepsie, NY:

(That's me on the right...)

I also found an online critique group, named Dreamwriters, that focuses primarily on picture books. In this group, writers submit something via e-mail every two weeks, and the facilitator also provides optional writing exercises. (Meet Peg, our brave group leader!)  This group really helped me to improve my self-discipline and stick to a writing schedule. Having to have something new ready for critique every two weeks was a challenge, to say the least. I'm no longer with this group, since I seem to be writing more for the educational market these days, but I am very grateful for all of their help and for our time together online.

After finding some success with children's poetry, I decided to join a critique group comprised of children's poets.  "Poets' Garage" meets only online, and they are an uber-dedicated, amazingly diverse and talented group of writers who help each other with everything from overall impression to the finer details of rhyme and meter.  In this group, submissions are not scheduled, but a give-and-take atmosphere in a discussion board format works well. We have very high standards for active participation in this group, and I can honestly say that my affiliation with the Garage has made me a more prolific writer.

Through honest and objective critiques, I am able to improve and polish each of my pieces before submitting them.  This should be EVERY writer's goal.  Seriously.  We'd all have improved publishing prospects if those slush piles were about two feet less deep.  And I hear time and again that much of what is in the slush pile is completely unpublishable, like my picture book manuscript was when I showed it to Hope Marston.  (That manuscript is still marinating, by the way, but is now less than half the length it was originally, and has garnered lots of great feedback from editors.)

So, if you're not in a critique group yet, find one. It's the best advice I ever received as a writer. 

Visit my Resources and Links page for some great starting points, and don't be shy when you attend writing conferences. Introduce yourself!  You may just find some buddies who are willing to form an online group.  If you prefer to meet in person, scour your local newspapers, and place your own ad to find members.

If you are in a critique group, or are thinking about joining or starting one, here's a document that may help.  It's a form to guide you in giving a fair and thorough critique.  Check it out:  (Critique Form to Fill In)  And, here's a fantastic article about Critique Groups by Jan Fields.