THOUGHTS ON CRITIQUE GROUPS

imgresIn a recent blog, I discussed the importance to a novice writer, one with aspirations of becoming professionally published, of not trying to learn the craft in isolation.  I strongly recommended interacting with other writers.  One of the most common ways of doing this is to become part of a critique group.

There are some authors who don’t believe in critique groups, but I do.  Joining a critique group isn’t the only way to improve your craft, but it is one of the most common.

I know a little bit about critique groups since I’ve been part of one for almost 14 years.  I’ve become its facilitator, not because I’m the best writer in the pack (I’m not), but because I’m the only remaining charter member.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:

Some groups are better than others by dint of having members that “have been               around the block a few times,” that is, have learned the craft.

Size is important.  The Goldilocks number for participants seems to be around 8 or 10.  Fewer, and the feedback is too limited.  More, and the discussions become too lengthy and unwieldy.  Folks lose interest after a couple of hours of bantering back and forth.

It’s important to give positive reinforcement when critiquing.  I don’t mean that you need to tell people their writing is good when it’s not, but there’s usually some element of an individual’s effort that is praiseworthy.  Let them know about that, then point out areas where improvements can be made.  Keep it positive.  I’ve always learned from the criticisms and suggestions I’ve received, but it was the “attaboys” that truly kept me going.

The person being critiqued shouldn’t feel compelled to defend himself.  A critique group isn’t a debating society.  It’s a mutual aid club.  If you’re on the defensive, that means you’ve already lost the battle: your writing didn’t accomplish what you wanted or didn’t convey the message you wished.  Be quiet and learn.

I remember one instance early in my critiquing career when a young lady brought a piece to our group she had written about a family tragedy, the death of a brother or sister or mother or some such event.  It was heart-rending and emotional.  It wasn’t badly written.  As I recall, she was seeking a commercial audience for it.

I gave her kudos for what she’d done, but suggested the piece lacked a real story.  I felt that beyond the theme of tragic death–which it seems we hear about almost daily these days–she really hadn’t done anything to get the reader involved, in other words, really caring about the person who died.  Oops.  She took that as personal attack, stalked out of the group, and never returned.

It wasn’t my intent to hurt her.  Given her emotional state, maybe I should have just said Sorry for your loss, nice piece.  But I assumed she was there in an effort to make what she’d written better.  Lesson: If you aren’t interested in improving your writing and are just looking for pats on the back, don’t go to a critique group.  Read the stuff to your mother.

Keep in mind the feedback and comments you, as a writer, receive are subjective.  There is no hard and fast, objective scoring sheet in this business.  Evaluate the suggestions you’re offered.  You don’t have to accept every one.  If, however, you keep getting the same ones over and over, well . . .

Finally, a side benefit to a critique group is networking, the opportunity to interact with other writers.  You can benefit from those who have gone before you.  You can find out who the really good writing instructors and editors are.  Which conferences and workshops give you the most bang for the buck.  And if necessary, you can probably find a shoulder to cry on.  Believe me, we’ve all needed one of those at some point in our careers.

How about you?  What’s been your experience with critique groups?

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