Thursday, May 30, 2013

On Writing Groups: Speak and Listen with Heart

A recent experience at my biweekly writing group got me thinking about group critique. You see, I had a somewhat awkward moment amidst a very large table at a diner last week (which I thankfully wasn't the center of), and after discussing with other writing group members and pondering for a while, I wanted to share two insights that have emerged from said awkwardness. The first is pretty common-sense:

1. Remember to include the good things in your critique, and critique in a kind (but honest) manner. 

No one really wants to be part of a Negative-Nancy writing group, where everyone takes turns telling you everything you did wrong with your manuscript, and you in turn tell everyone what's wrong with theirs. Always start with the positive. There is always something nice to say about a manuscript, even if it's as small as "I like your character's name" or "This setting element is really interesting."

On that note, sugar-coating never helped anyone (in writing, at least). But there is a difference between saying "Your characters suck" and saying "I think you could strengthen your characterization." Being kind but straightforward is the best way to help other writers improve.

Which brings me to point two:

2. Listen to your critiques. 

Granted, writers have to take critique with a grain of salt. In a writing group, on average, a writer only uses about one-third of the criticism they receive (cite: Brandon Sanderson). I've never had a hard time agreeing with critiques because I recognize the flaws they point out, but if you  struggle with taking criticism, it's probably best to keep quiet and take notes. No one like a defensive writer.

That said, if you don't listen to what your writing group says--if you continuously ignore critique--not only will your writing group grow frustrated with you, but your work will never improve. The awkward moment I mentioned earlier stemmed around this writing group (I've only attended three meetings thus far) chewing out one of their members because she didn't listen to them. We were in the middle of reading the third book in her series and, apparently, the writing had not improved at all from book #1 (and unfortunately, this was a book in need of improvement).

While I'm not condoning critique partners ganging up and making a fellow writer cry (which may or may not have happened), I can understand the frustration. Why come to writing group if you're not there to grow? To learn? To excel?

Criticism is part of the business, and the way we both deliver and receive criticism say a lot about ourselves as people, and as writers. Handle with care.

Have you had difficult experiences with writing groups and critique partners? How do you handle criticism? 


  1. I've had to learn to be less stubborn and listen to the critiques about some of the bigger points that needed improvement. And my writing has improved for it.

    My last critique group stopped working well together and we broke up. I'm in the process of trying to get a new group together. Great points on how a critique group should work together well.

  2. Excellent post. I've only ever been a part of on-line critique groups. It removes a little of the in-your-face part of the critique but because of the distance you also lose some of the nuances of the critique, plus some find it easier to shoot their mouth of if no one is across the table staring at them. Fortunately, everyone I've worked with has been very nice.

  3. I do online critiques with CP partners. I tried the "get together" variety, but it was such a hodge podge of less than serious writers, it was more like a social group.

    I like all your critique tips. And whenever I read for a newbie, I try to let them know...everything suggested is that...a suggestion. And you're so right...find the positive. Writing is so personal to the soul, it's like critiquing the person. Be gentle.

  4. It's tricky---critiques. I know I wouldn't be where I am today and learned what I've learned if I hadn't listened to people who helped me along the way. But I *also* know that there have been some critiques I haven't listened to and I'm glad--so I definitely think the most important thing is to trust your gut! :D

  5. I'm not a huge fan of large writing/critique groups...they tend to produce a 'group' voice more than help strengthen one's writing skills. However, I love my critique partners and listen to what they have to say, even if I don't use it all. Critiques are great and can help create a wonderful end product. It is so important to be objective when giving and receiving critiques. I like your suggestions! :)

  6. You're probably not even looking at this post anymore (I'm behind) but I try to use a suggestion the online group Critters made to me--to always phrase a critique beginning with "I think." It helps to frame the critique as the critiquer's opinion, and is a gentler way of saying most things. And I think most of us are more willing to internalize the suggestions if they aren't delivered aggressively, because then we don't have to immediately jump on the defensive.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.