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To Crit or Not to Crit?
A Spotlight on Critique Groups

  By Victoria J. Coe

 

So you want to be a critter. You're thinking that a critique group can help improve your writing skills, give new life to your stories and encourage creativity. Right? Not necessarily. The wrong attitude or the wrong group can do just the opposite. Sound scary? It doesn't have to be. A few in's and out's can help you avoid potential pitfalls and get the most out of your critique group experience.

Can We Talk?

It all boils down to good communication -- starting with yourself. Take a long, hard look at that writer in the mirror. What does she really want from a critique group? Friendship and support? A pat on the back? Validation? Objective eyes? Tips on how to improve?

In fact, you may have many desired outcomes. But if your number one goal is growth as a writer, read on.

No Pain, No Gain

Let's be honest. It can be very intimidating to read your work to a group of strangers and hear unbiased feedback. What if they say you stink? What if you lack one original thought? What if they tell you to pack it in and forget about writing altogether?

Before you decide if you're ready to take that plunge, think! If you're at the place where you feel that you've done all you can on your own, and you are willing to listen to others' opinions, even if they're tough to hear, then and only then should you consider a joining a group.

On the Lookout

Before setting out to find a group, make a list of your personal goals as a writer. Use this list as a guideline in evaluating potential groups in terms of how they can help you reach those goals.

When contacting a group, remember it's a two-way street. The members will evaluate you and your "fit" with the group, just as you will with them. Present yourself honestly and openly. Anything less will do everyone a disservice.

Communicate your writing interests, history and goals. Tell them why and how you think a critique group might help you reach those goals.

Ask questions. Aside from basic logistics, learn all you can about how the group works and the interest and experience that each member offers. (See "Matchmaker" box, below.)

If your initial contact is positive, try it out. In addition to your comfort level, pay attention to the writings the other members share. You will probably benefit most from writers who are better than you.

Now Stand There Naked

That's what it will feel like the first time you submit your writing for critique! Keep a receptive attitude and open your mouth.

Tell the other critters what you're looking for from this particular critique. If you're open to general feedback, say so. If you're looking for something more specific, tell the group which areas you're unsure about and ask for their ideas. Guide them, so they can offer you the greatest possible assistance. You might want to know if your plot seems plausible or tight. The areas that overwhelm the reader or slow her down. The consistency of the voice. Is the main character sympathetic, three-dimensional, engaging?

Respect the group's time and effort by telling them what you don’t want. If you don't want a line-by-line grammar and spelling check in favor of a more general evaluation, speak up. Help them help you!

When listening to feedback, ask questions if you need clarification, but don't offer explanations. If the reader didn't connect with what you were trying to say, consider that your written word may not adequately convey your vision. Note any and all suggestions for later assessment.

Take a day or two, if possible, to digest your critique. Some reactions which may have seemed unsettling at first, make sense after the critique has cooled. Others may seem overwhelming or conflicting. Evaluate suggestions in light of whether they make the work stronger, consistent with your own vision. If you don't, you run the risk of losing your individuality and writing to please the group.

Be a Good Critter

Read widely in your group's genre(s). Let various writers' strengths touch and shape you, not only as a reader, but as a critter.

When it's your turn to critique, recognize the trust the writer places in you. It's your responsibility to be supportive, yet as honest and helpful as possible. Holding back in order to spare someone's feelings helps no one.

Realize that writing is subjective. Encourage each writer to find and develop her own unique style, not to write the way you would. Be open to originality, uniqueness and experimentation.

Follow any guidelines the writer has offered. In addition, look for both strengths and weaknesses in the work. Don't forget to point out inconsistencies in story, setting, character or voice.

Think of a critique as a sandwich. Start out with something positive, layer on observations, questions, improvements for the writer to consider, then end with another positive. Remember that the best part of any sandwich is the "meat," so don't skimp!

But if it's Just Not Working …

Okay, you've made an earnest effort trying out the group, but despite everyone's best efforts, it's not right for you. If so, you owe it to your writing and to the other members to keep looking.

Once you do locate a group where you feel comfortable, give yourself a certain time period, say six months or a year, to decide if you're any closer to your goals. If you feel you're going around in circles, move on. If it's not working, don't waste your time in a holding pattern when your goal is to fly.

If the critique group experience doesn't give you what you need, one-on-one critiques, whether from a swap with another writer or a paid professional, can be the way to go. Whatever you decide, measure its success or failure against your personal goals.

The Prize

With the right attitude and the right group, the critique experience can be an invaluable tool in helping you to achieve your goals. Many critique groups support each other in ways that extend far beyond writing, not only commiserating over rejections and celebrating sales, but forming strong friendships. I always smile when I crack open a new book to see that the author has dedicated the story to the "Tuesday Night Group." This is what it's all about, folks.

Finding the right group can be like searching for treasure: the pursuit may be tough and tedious, but when you finally behold the brilliance of the prize, you realize that the toil was well worth the reward!

 

Critter Do's and Don'ts

DO:

Do keep an open mind!

Do offer something positive about someone's work and keep the tone encouraging, even if the criticism has to be a little harsh to be honest.

Do put your name on your crit so the writer can follow up with you later if something requires further explanation.

Do offer positive suggestions for improvement where appropriate.

Do read lots of recently published books in the genre you write and crit.


DON'T:

Don't ask the group to crit your first draft. Only submit a manuscript or chapter that you've taken as far as you can on your own.

Don't revise in order to please the group. If a suggestion doesn't feel right, don't take it.

Don't believe excessive praise absent of constructive criticism. Everything can be improved.

Don't defend. Ask questions to clarify a critique, but defending isn't helpful because you can't defend something that is unclear to an editor or reader. Accept that whatever you had in mind isn't coming across to the reader and try again.

              

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Here's a list of questions to consider when checking out an existing group:

1. What is the goal of the group?

2. Are the members seeking to improve their writing?

3. Are they seriously seeking publication?

4. How many members are published?

5. In what genres are the members writing?

6. Are the members expected to bring writing for critique each meeting?

7. How successful do the members seem in reaching their goals?

8. Imagine yourself as part of the group. Do you see the group helping you to meet your goals?

 

by Victoria J. Coe September 2000

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