Surviving a Critique Group

As writers, we spend a lot of time alone in a room with our characters and possibly a cat or two. We become very close to our stories, and sometimes we lose objectivity. Is my protagonist three-dimensional? Is the plot believable? Does the story flow? Are the sentences constructed with clarity? What’s up with that title?

A critique group can offer a new perspective on your piece, help you improve and polish it for submission. Ideally, your group will be made up of people you can trust to give you honest, yet considerate comments, practical input you can use, if you decide it works for your story. Ideally. We’ve all been in groups where our fellow writers were less than kind (or downright cruel!) or one person dominated the conversation, or another gave perfunctory or just plain ridiculous comments. If you get into a great writing group, you can grow as a writer and as a person. You might support each other for years. You become family. Some writers don’t belong to a group, but have one or two writer friends who will read and critique their work whenever they need an opinion.

Let’s take a look at the process of receiving feedback. Some groups meet monthly. The group I’m in meets every other week and we alternate which members who are up for critique. Also, we maintain a “reservoir” of work that we can discuss should a writer not be able to submit on time or if they can’t make the meeting.

When you submit to your group, you can simply put the work out there. If you’re having a problem with a particular aspect of your story, ask the group to pay attention that area. For example, “Do you think the dialogue on page 5 rings true?” Oh! And insert page numbers on your doc!

If you’re submitting prose, make sure the group knows whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I was in a fiction workshop, once, and fellow student submitted a first person story. I strongly questioned the protagonist’s victim attitude. Later, I found out the piece was non-fiction, though it was presented to the group as fiction. If I had known this was about the writer, I would have been way more sensitive in how I made my remarks. I wasn’t harsh, but I would have viewed the protagonist through a different lens.

Critique Day: Enter the “Booth.”
Our stories are such a big part of us, it’s natural to want to defend them or explain sections others might not understand. But doing so prevents us from hearing comments that may be helpful. In a typical workshop, the writer, whose work is being discussed, sits in an imaginary booth. She is not allowed to speak or respond to the conversations going on about her story. I’ve seen some writers slap their hands over their mouths to keep from speaking.

A few things to remember when you’re in the booth:

  • Breathe
  • Actively listen
  • Take notes (I write the name of the person and their comments. I also doodle :-))
  • Write any questions you have for the group
  • Be open to suggestions
  • Have a sense of humor (discussions can spiral into some wacky places)

When the group discussion ends, you’ll be released from your metaphorical booth. Take a breath, gather your thoughts, and ask and answer questions. In our MFA workshops, we had to write our critiques. At the end of the session, we handed our critiques and marked-up manuscripts to the writer whose work we discussed. We don’t do that in the group I’m in now.

You’ll get a lot of comments. Some will be useful to you. Some might change your story in a way that’s not true for you. Just as you’re allowed to use anyone’s suggestions, you’re also allowed to reject them. Remember, it’s your story.

Giving Feedback
Offering your advice on a fellow writer’s work is a responsibility. What you say and how you say it will affect not only the story, but the person who wrote it. So choose your words carefully. One of the golden rules of any critique group is: be respectful.

Reading:

  • First read the story as a reader, purely for entertainment
  • Then read it as a writer, noting what you like, what works well, what you love
  • Then read it again and note areas that can use improvement
  • Make suggestions, if you feel you have a solution to a certain problem
  • If called for (usually not), do a line edit

Strike a Good Balance
We all love to hear we’re brilliant! We’re a shoe-in for that Pulitzer! Truth is critiques that only gush praise, do nothing for the development of the writer’s craft. Surely, say what’s good, but balance your critique with helpful remarks. I’ve read many stories from colleagues where I was hard-pressed to find anything “negative” to say. I may have had questions about characters or plot, however. On the other hand, I’ve read stories that were a mess, but had stellar moments scattered throughout. A few tactful suggestions, hopefully, put those on a better track.

In workshop:

  • Start with the good parts
  • Give and take, allowing each other to speak
  • Discuss the problem areas with compassion
  • Offer constructive comments
  • Give the kind of critique you expect to get from your colleagues
  • Approach every piece with an open mind. You may not like to read a particular genre, but you can comment on story, character and other elements of good writing
  • Have a sense of humor (are you sensing a theme, here?)

Having your work critiqued can be a tremendous benefit to your growth as a writer. But you also learn a lot by reading and critiquing the work of others’.

What are your writing group experiences? Feel free to share–with honesty and compassion, of course. 🙂

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