Thursday, May 04, 2006

The nature of critique groups

Criticism always hits me over the head when I get it. It's why, in a writers' group, authors must remain silent while their work is being discussed. It isn't easy. I often feel the urge to protest, "You don't understand why I wrote this story!" I did once burst into tears, I must confess. We got over it, as a group, and remain a working group to this day. They were gracious and did not throw me out for my sorry behavior.

Here's what I know about the process of reading and commenting on work in progress in a group setting:

1. You don't have to use all the criticism you get. Use only what works. Remember each member of a group would otherwise take your story and turn it into something else. In revising you can't and shouldn't try to serve everyone in your group. But you shouldn't serve yourself either. You should serve the story. What does IT need?

2. You do have to listen to what the members of your group are trying to get at. Pay attention to precisely how they understand or don't understand your story. If they're confused, readers might be too. Think about why is someone suggesting a certain change? Even if you don't make that particular change in the way that's suggested, you might consider addressing the underlying concern in some other way. That other way will be all your own, reflecting your individual genius, but get off your writerly high horse and think about what your readers are saying, and why.

3. If it all feels overwhelming, take 3 positive comments from the criticism you got, and sing them to yourself all day long. Then look at 3 things that need changing. Reserve some time to write.

If you feel you're in a state of disequilibrium, that's great. You're getting ready to make the next growth spurt. That's the nature of living things, so it's the nature of writing process as well.


  1. These are excellent suggestions!

    I'm a student at VC, and we're all looking forward to meeting you. Lately, the talk has been about workshop (the deadline for submissions looms...). Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a new piece of writing is eleven enthusiastic writers!

    That said, there is nothing more informative than the feedback you get from your trusted friends.

    Even when it stings!

    How much time do you give your crit group to look at your writing?

  2. >How much time do you give your crit group to look at your writing?

    1-2 weeks is ideal, although I've turned work around in less time. I think you need enough time to allow the work to settle in the reader's mind, and not so long as to lose momentum.

  3. Good advice, Uma. I've had feedback before that has really upset me. I find that after reflection, I usually find that it's because this feedback has hit upon an insecurity.

    It's good to let reactionary feedback sit for a while. When you come back to it, it's easier to find the lesson you can take away from it.

  4. Very good advice. I hit upon your blog using the "next blog" feature of Blogger, so it is unlikely I will return (particularly since you seem to post once per millenium or so!). But I am also taking an elective in my Master's Program that includes peer criticism as a regular part of the course.

    Your entry here is a nice formalization of 50% what I have done, and 50% what I should do.


  5. Ah yes. The speed and frequency thing. The thing is, I tend to conserve my writing energy for–well, writing. This blog is more for me than anyone else. It's a place to collect thoughts that used to live on scraps of paper. So if you return, I hope you get something from it, and if not, cheers!