Writers Groups & the Value of Critique

The ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop was excellent again this year. The morning was devoted to a wide-ranging discussion about different aspects of writing and publishing. Pros who write, edit, publish and review all had great advice and opinions about the process of writing and the business of getting published.

After lunch we broke into separate critique groups. The ratio of pros to students was nearly 1:1. My group had four students and three pros! (Cat Rambo, Liz Gorinsky from Tor, and Stina Leicht) Everyone, student and pro alike, put their egos aside and came to work. I feel like everyone gave and got good feedback for the chapters and stories they brought. I’ll be revising my short story next week and look forward to sending it out into the world.

I have always felt that both getting AND giving critiques are valuable tools when learning how to write. There are so many techniques that you must manage to produce really good prose. When I write I try to get inside the story, the characters, and their world. It’s easy to loose perspective about what’s working and what isn’t. Putting the work away for a few days can help (and I do that too). But getting a critical perspective on a work in progress is often what will help me take it to the next level.

The key is a CRITICAL perspective. It sounds scary, and the endeavor is not without pitfalls. There isn’t really any instruction for critiquing, so most of us just have to learn how to do it any way we can. The world of critiquing is full of trolls and ogres who will tear your work down so they can show how brilliant they are (NOT). There are well-meaning dolts, toadies and yes men (usually relatives) only interested in heaping praise on anything you show them.

Learning how to give good criticism will help you recognize and find good critiquers for your own work. I started out reading slush for the Austin Film Festival‘s annual screenwriting competition. I would recommend looking for slush work. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the basics of presentation and storytelling, and you don’t need that much experience to weed out the awful.

Most of the time the only option is to dive in. Take a workshop if you can, or look for a group in your area. Many people form their own groups after attending a workshop like the ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop. With Skype and other chat services it’s possible to have a real-time discussion regardless of where you all live.

Here in Austin, Texas I attend the Slugtribe writer’s group, which is an open critique group. I like meeting face-to-face because it allows for a give and take that can be useful and illuminating. People in the group can ask you questions and tailor their comments to your stated intention. Also, people can disagree, which often generates a discussion about the piece that goes in interesting places.

When you’re live and/or in-person the Milford rules are a good format, which is essentially keep your trap shut – and listen, really listen – while everyone gives their thoughts and impressions on your work. Don’t worry you’ll get your turn at the end. But remember a critique is not about you defending your work against all comers, it’s about problem solving and making what you’ve done better.

You may find that learning how to articulate how a story isn’t working, will teach you as much about writing techniques as any book or class. Good criticism requires you to fully engage with the work of others; to think not about how YOU would write this story or chapter but about what this writer is trying to accomplish.

The more you learn how to give it the easier it is to take it. Getting good criticism helps you to develop a thick skin, because you can’t write good stories without becoming emotionally involved, and even if you know they aren’t perfect, it still hurts to have their imperfections pointed out.

Also, it will teach you to be brave. By accepting errors (in a story in particular or your work in general), you reduce their cost. Once you see that the flaws pointed out by a good critique session can be addressed, you can spend less time perfecting your work before anybody sees it and more time being daring and trying new techniques.

There are also some online groups out there for genre writers. Most of them require you to critique other members’ work in order to put yours up for critique, providing both an opportunity to give and receive critiques. The downsides of these groups are the same as with any web-based endeavor of this sort: from amateur or lazy critiques to snark and worse. I still think it’s better than nothing, just gird yourself for the experience. Critters is an open and free group. It’s quite high volume and can be a good place to start. Currently, I use the Online Writing Workshop they charge a small annual fee. I feel that this investment shows in both higher quality work and better critiques.

Just remember to critique in the spirit of generosity. No matter how bad someone’s work is, they were still brave enough to put it out there, so find a way to be both kind and honest. Just remember, it’s about the work and, I believe, about supporting each other on the journey.

2 thoughts on “Writers Groups & the Value of Critique”

  1. Critiquing the work of others has been essential in developing my own writing. I've learned huge amounts from the successes and failures of others and from the often very different viewpoints of other critiquers.

    Having my own work critiqued makes me stressed-out, depressed, and just plain suicidal. And that's when the story goes over well.

    Also, I like the sandwich method – praise, followed by criticism, concluding with praise. Condiments are optional.

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  2. Yes! I'm also a big fan of the sandwich method. It's just as useful to find/highlight the good as it is to point out the bad.

    I do think I learn as much or more from critiquing someone else's work. Getting feedback doesn't bother me as much as it used to, especially now that I'm producing more material, but it can still sting or be frustrating (especially when you can't figure out how to fix a particular point).

    A thick skin is important. I was chatting with Stina later in the con and she talked a little bit about what it feels like to get negative reviews after a piece is in print. Talk about leveling up in the game…

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