Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing Critique Groups


(If you’ve come to visit my poem at dVerse Poets Pub, check out the previous post: “Goodbye, Copernicus”)

Since the first writing conference I attended (2004, I believe) I have been involved in writing critique groups. It was for that conference that my work was first accepted for work-shopping and I was sure that I had arrived. A published author led the two-day process and there were about nine of us who submitted work to the other members of the group for critique. It became a turning point for me as a writer. I came to accept the fact that my novel was not quite as brilliant as I perceived it to be.

A few of us from that group went on to meet on a regular basis. Since then I’ve participated in several other critique groups. Here are a few things I’ve learned that have been helpful (in my opinion and from my hands-on experience).

  • Don’t submit your work before you’ve finished the first draft. It is important for you to have a clear idea of your story line before opening it to critique.
  • As a group, decide on guidelines at your first meeting. How many members will you have? Will you submit your writing before the meeting? Will you read work aloud at the meeting? How many manuscripts/how many pages will you discuss?
  • Be sure to balance your positive and negative feedback. Your goal is to build up one another, not destroy. One time a fellow-writer told me, “I would never read this novel.” That discouraged me to the point that I gave up working on it for a few months until I figured out that she was trying to tell me that the prologue was a turn-off.
  • Give specific advice. For example, instead of saying “This moves too slowly,” try something like “Consider using active verbs instead of passive voice,” or “That long sentence drags down the narrative–maybe if you wrote that paragraph in a few clipped phrases it would be more suspenseful.” Avoid general statements such as, “That just doesn’t work.”
  • Learn to listen to suggestions without trying to defend yourself. One group that I have been a part of had set the rule of “silence” until all critiques had been given. But take good notes while you listen. I bring a copy of my manuscript and jot down helpful advice in the columns.
  • Understand the differences between genres. If you write literary fiction, for example, don’t expect the same complexity of characters from your friend who writes sci-fi. And visa versa.
  • Don’t revise immediately after your meeting, except for grammatical and spelling errors. Definitely do not make significant plot changes. Remember, your story is YOUR story.
  • At the same time, be open to suggestion. My writing has been much enriched by plot twists or questions posed by members of my critique groups. Ask clarifying questions if needed.
  • There is a time for critique and a time to write. Understand what works best for you and realize that your needs change at different points in the writing process.
  • And finally, be grateful to your fellow writers. It was through this process that I have met some of my dearest friends. Don’t forget to celebrate one another’s successes!

I apologise for the re-post but since I’m deep in the editing process for my publisher, I need to use some time efficiency tools.

For today’s discussion, I’d like to ask you to share your experience of the critique process. Any anecdotes? Does your critique group have rules? Do you have suggestions or advice that I haven’t mentioned here?

I’d like to invite those of you who have been a part of the poetry critique at dVerse Poets Pub to let us know how that’s worked for you. If you do write poetry and have never visited this exciting new community, please stop by at http://dversepoets.com  On Thursday, Luke Prater will host Meeting the Bar: Critique and Craft but today you can join Open Link Night. Hope to see you there.

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28 thoughts on “Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing Critique Groups

  1. Reflections says:

    Repost or not, this is fabulous Victoria… I had a lot of punctuation and grammar critiquing when I was young and learning the basics. She was also good at posing questions to get one to be more detailed or to be more direct, causing you to figure out for yourself whether to add or take away. Then I had very little access to critique. Years later, on one of my poems that was in a form unfamiliar to me… a friend gave me, this is my favorite, then when I inquired for more info, she broke down line for line her reaction/interpretation… it really was not a critique, but very informative feedback.

    I think we can all learn so much from critique, but yes, there is always a bit of a sting.

    Like

  2. Jamie Dedes says:

    Chock-full of wonderful tips. I do remember when you posted it originally.

    Congrats on finding a publisher … or being found by one. Perhaps I should congratulate them! 🙂

    Good luck. Look forward to details.

    Like

  3. Sharmishtha says:

    your posts are truly priceless.

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  4. Victoria,
    This is going into my very important writing information file. I have never critqued in any way. I am new to everything; especially, poetry. ~~~~ : – O

    I like what Ravenblack points out alot. Even though, I have to disagree about separating yourself from your work in order to accept the critique. Having been an artistic jeweler fo 28 years, I can tell you that the criticism of your art is always painful even if it is done in your best interest. There is no separation of your art and you. Your being is in every artistic thing you make or do. It will always sting but, as an adult, you need to accept that everything you do is not always going to be great or acceptable to someone else.

    Also, I think that the manner in which someone is told is important. Pompous arrogance or harsh demeaning critiques are a no-no in my book. Bring on the critiques – KINDLY – that is.

    Ciao,
    Izzy

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    • I agree that your work is always your baby, but it helps so much to look at it objectively. I like to do that by putting it aside for a while. And feelings will always be there. Whatever you do, don’t forget you have the last word! (I make/design jewelry, too!) Figures.

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  5. edpilolla says:

    excellent topic. either a suggestion for a piece improves it, or it does not. an arbitrary change is not a good one. at the same time, even great editors can’t help but piss in someone’s work from time to time, as they say. nothing like learning a craft, however, and there is an apprenticeship to any craft, i suspect.

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  6. mish says:

    I’ve never been part of a critique group (will have to remedy that …) Thanks for the informative post Victoria !

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  7. Victoria, a good post from your pen.. and raven I agree to your third point. 🙂

    Someone is Special

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  8. David King says:

    For me it wasn’t a re-post. but a very useful one. Much obliged for the suggestions.

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  9. souldipper says:

    This type of blueprint cannot be repeated too many times for me, Victoria. I just re-read a post of mine that someone posted on their blog. My fingers were twitching with desire to change and shorten and…

    It’s amazing how biased I can be about readiness to publish! And how fragile – which is why this re-post is a great help.

    Like

  10. Ravenblack says:

    I used to be active on Poetry Free-For-All (PFFA), online critique forum for poems. Detailed critiques are asked for and demanded on the forums and truly honest and harsh reviews are given to works there. I learned a lot in my participation, including some of the points in this article. It’s very important to give details — eg. why you think something is good or why it is bad.

    A few friends and I got together and tried to practice it, and it was a lot of fun but of course we were a whole lot less harsh with each other. We also allow ourselves to defend our work, whereas at PFFA you are not allowed to argue with your reviewers, probably to simulate real submission to publication where you can no longer defend a work that has been put out. We learn a lot from each other that way.

    Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

    1) you have to distant yourself from your work a little. This is so that when harsh criticism is given on it, you won’t take it personally. When someone reads your poem and says, this is poem is awful — the poem is awful, not you. The reader reaction is always directed at what is posted. Always thank them for taking the time to look or read. This acknowledges to yourself also, that you have put it out there and decreases your own defensiveness.

    2) Topic lends no weight to the quality nor is it more forgivable if it’s badly written. Critics are not gonna be nicer just because you are writing something personal or difficult. When you put it up for critiques, it’s gonna get torn into. If you don’t want something personal getting torn into, you are not prepared to see your work as a piece of work instead of “my thoughts”, don’t put it up for critique.

    3) it helps to have a check list of things to look out for when giving critique. Have to read the work several times to do a detail critique anyway. Each time you read it, you look for one or two things, not attempt to do it all in one or two reads. Example: first round you try to look at the overall, second at spelling and punctuation, third, the effectiveness of the words used, etc.

    4) you know what you are good at looking at. Example, I know I can’t give good critiques on form poetry because I have only very basic knowledge on how to do scansion, or appreciate the various forms and variation, so I’m not gonna pretend I know it by having wiki open. It’s ok to just do what you can. I think it’s important to just be honest about your reaction and be able to just elaborate on your reasons for your reactions.

    In general, I try to find something good about a poem or writing, and emphasize on good things first before I start going into what things I don’t like about it. I would only give detailed critiques to people I know well or those who are serious about it when they ask.

    Thanks for this article, it’s great to remember an activity I used to enjoy more often with my writing friends. Unfortunately, real life has taken many of us away from doing this more often these days.

    Like

    • Raven, Point #4 is important to me. I’m great at catching grammatical errors, but I would not know a sonnet from a bonnet – at least, judging its quality. I’m learning more about forms, such as including seasonal references in haiku and how the form also demands a lot from how the words sound… a challenge in English. Also, point well taken about the audience for a critique – I tread very carefully with most folks, but I wish I received more “real” critiques myself.

      Victoria, I think this is an excellent post that will remind us all how important groups are – and that there is no critique too harsh (for me, anyway, about my own work) because it will help one become a better, more effective poet. And that’s what we’re here for.

      Thanks so much, Amy
      http://sharplittlepencil.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/strolling-we-write-poems/

      Like

      • You make me laugh with your sonnet/bonnet. I think there are those who are willing and able to give “real” critiques if you ask for them. But the last word is always yours.

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    • RavenBlack, there is so much good advice in your comments. I love #3, as have other readers. It also helps in your own editing process. I have such a check list somewhere…maybe that can be another WW if I can find it!

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  11. The only critique group I belongs to was an online group. They were so into getting published rather than developing the craft of writing that their critiques of my work were, by and large, unhelpful. By that I mean they would give global comments without specific examples of what could be done to improve what they felt was lacking. Or they would say “Great!” and that was it. I would spend at least an hour on each critique I did so that the recipient would know specifically where I thought the writing was effective and where it could be improved (and give suggestions about how to improve it).

    I ended up leaving the group after about a year. I learned a few things about my writing. Mostly, I learned how eager people are to be published authors rather than skilled writers.

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    • I’m not in a group right now either. I think there are times for that and times for writing. I do enjoy the on-line poetry crits a dVerse and FEPC, a Facebook site. Have been working with a professional editor on my first novel–an amazing process.

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  12. Kim Nelson says:

    This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read in a very long time, Victoria. I greatly appreciate the supportive comments we often offer on another in online venues, but have found real growth and improvement through thoughtfully offered critique. This article explains that process well. Thank you.

    Like

  13. Great comments, Viv. My thought on punctuation: it’s gotten so I can’t read a novel or article without wanting to make corrections. I think that’s part of the downside of writing. On the other hand, I espouse the idea of poetic license and it becomes less of an issue when I read poetry. My editor was very thorough in correcting the novel.

    Like

  14. Bon courage for the novel edit – do we ever finish editing? I agree with your views on critiquing. Most of my experience has been on-line critique groups – all the creative writing courses I have done have hinged on peer group critiquing, without which, I doubt I could have developed at all as a writer. Some of those fellow students set up a very useful online group which, being private to members only, allowed for honest and helpful feedback. The group is still going, though most of us now primarily use the poetry prompt circuit.

    The face to face workshops I have done with Katherine Gallagher have included a lot of round-the-table critiquing, with the same silence rule that you mention. We circulated copies of poems to be read aloud in advance of the session, so the critiquing was thorough and considered, intensely valuable, if sometimes deflating!

    One area of the blogosphere which is lacking for me (with the noted exception of my old OU friends – you know who you are) is correction of typos, spelling errors, missing punctuation etc. I do itch to make these corrections to others’ work, just as I wish they would correct mine!

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