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 well-known 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.
- Don’t submit your work before you’ve completed your 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? (Don’t forget a “group” may be as few as two people).
- 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!
While these insights apply to fiction writing, it’s possible to extrapolate and apply them to any genre, including poetry and non-fiction.
Happy writing. Enjoy the process.