Originally posted on May 13, 2010 at 6:29 PM
Disclaimer: Everyone is different, and every group is different. Do what works for you. Here’s what works for me.
This is a sister post to my blog, How to Give Critique (with poise).
Finding, joining, and attending a writers’ critique group can be tricky. There’s a delicate balance between helping and hurting, and sometimes that balance is tipped. How do you know that you’ve found the right group? How do you know that you’re getting everything you can from it?
I’m the president of the North Branch Writers’ Critique Group in Denton, Texas, and I’ve been attending that group (mostly fiction) for over a year and another (poetry) critique group for three years. I would love to share my advice and insights with you.
First of all, you have to decide if you are ready for a critique group. The number one reason that feelings get hurt is actually not due to the other members and their feedback, but due to our own unreadiness. Critique groups are usually not for brand-spanking-new writers. This is not to say that you need to be published to join, just that you need to have been writing on your own for at least a few years, maybe longer. Likewise, sometimes a hot-off-the-printer story is too new to bring.
If what you’re looking for is support and confidence-building, don’t join a critique group; join a writers’ group. Before you can feel secure enough in your work to put it out there for critique, build up your confidence by becoming used to simply sharing your writing with others. Read out loud, hear other people read it, meet other writers, and become involved in the industry so that you know where you and your writing belong. Only then, once you’ve found your own style and voice, should you join a critique group.
Let me stress that again: a critique group is not for sharing your work, padding your résumé, boosting your self-esteem, or hearing people reassure you of your genius. It is for suggestive feedback. If you do not want feedback (that may conflict with your own opinions), do not join a critique group. It only wastes your time and the group’s time, and no one benefits.
Okay, so you’ve made it this far. You really are ready to hear people tear apart your baby. Go to a meeting or two without bringing anything (if they allow it). Observe. Do you like the way the group works? Are there members who are too harsh? Would you have your feelings hurt if someone said to you what you hear them say to someone else? Do their suggestions seem useful? If you don’t like the answers to these questions, keep looking. A negative critique group can really hurt a budding writer.
So the group seems good. You’ve gone once or twice now, and agree with what most people said about members’ works. This means you have at least some degree of trust in their abilities and opinions, and that you should indeed listen when they give you critique. This can be difficult.
Perhaps you’ve done something with your story that no one seems to understand but you know is brilliant. Well, for one thing, don’t argue. If you argue with their suggestions, it does three things:
- It wastes time, which ultimately means you get less different suggestions and just the one that you disagreed with.
- It annoys people. If you don’t want to listen, why are you here? Tempers can rise and words become sharp which leads to hurt feelings.
- It makes people hesitant to give you legitimate suggestions in the future, which you might actually have agreed with and benefited from.
A better solution to arguing with someone’s critique? Hold it inside. I know, I know, your mother told you to never hold in emotions because they’ll eat a hole in you—but I only mean until you get home. Allow everyone to have their opinion expressed, and silently nod along. Ask questions if you don’t understand, but not because you disagree. Write down what they didn’t jot on your copies so you can refer to it later. When you get home, cry and vent to your roommate, cat, or lover. Call your mom; she will always agree with you. Then let it sit.
Several days later, come back to it. How many people said this same thing? Did some members disagree amongst themselves? Did they all suggest related problem areas? Perhaps you should let down your defenses and consider their suggestions. Fear is the main motivator, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Even if you put their critiques into effect and hate them, you can always go back to your original piece. No harm, no foul.
But generally speaking—if you’ve found a good group—these people want to help you. It is in your best interest to allow their critiques fair play in the old noggin. Still disagree? Well, then don’t change it. It’s as simple as that. Ultimately, it’s your work. If you know what you’re doing and why, and someone else disagrees, that’s okay. You’re the writer.
Finally, there are a few ways to prevent these issues in the first place. A disclaimer! (Disclaimers are always the way to go!) If you know that a piece is just bizarre subject matter that members of your group won’t like, preface your time with something like, “And this is a space-punk cyber story done in 4th person plural, so I know it might not be your cup of tea. But what I’m really looking for help on is writing style, not content.” Or vice-versa. If you know that your lengthy sentences are your signature and will eventually rock the publishing world, put out the disclaimer: “I know you guys don’t like my super-long sentences, but I really do. So instead of focusing on that, I’d really love help with the flow of the plot.” Get the idea?
Good luck, happy writing, and peaceful critiques to you all.