Monday, August 29, 2011

The Beauty and Necessity of Critique: Ode to My Writing Group

About a month and a half ago, I met a lovely woman at a writer’s conference who invited me to visit her writers group in Brooklin. I’ve been going once a week and can’t believe the profound impact they now have on everything I write, I value them immensely, and I am learning to be a better writer every day because of them. I believe every group is a little different but with us, everyone takes a turn reading their chapter aloud and then we discuss it as a group. We offer constructive feedback, the good, the bad and occasionally the ugly. It’s a great format for polishing, editing, as well as testing out story ideas and hooks. The best part is that everyone checks their ego at the door because in the circle we are all just writers looking to strengthen our work and celebrate our love of the written word. But before you run out to search for a writers’ group of your own, there are a couple of things you ought to consider:

Can you handle being critiqued?

This was the first thing Marissa asked me after inviting me and quite rightly so. Often when people first start writing, they are struggling to develop a voice and feel insecure about putting ideas on paper. Before you go looking for critical feedback (as opposed to your mother or husband who thinks that everything you write is exceptional) you need to reach a place where you can look at your work, realize that there are things that could be improved, and that someone else might see them more clearly than you do. One of the things I most love about sharing is the fact that we read our work out loud. You wouldn’t believe how many more idiosyncrasies you will pick up on when reading or hearing aloud. You also have to be ready to evaluate comments, accept them when they’re right, but also reject them when they’re wrong. This is one of the reasons you should always try to get multiple opinions on your work. (There are usually around six of us at any given time.) If you have only one, or a few critiques, you tend to pay too much attention to their opinions. If you have multiple critiques, you can listen to them debate—and if they all see the same snag, you can be pretty sure that you do have a problem, even if they don’t agree on how to solve it. Lastly, don’t fail to appreciate the value of your family and friends who love everything you write—they also have their uses.

Where To Find The Right Group?

These days there are limitless sources for online critique groups—if that’s what you’re looking for, you can just get on the search engine and hunt. Although this is my first group, I do think I prefer the face-to-face give and take of a group that meets in the flesh. If you’re looking for one of those, any local writer’s organization might be able to put you in touch with fellow writers. I found The Tuesday Night Writer’s Circle through The Writers Community of Durham Region (WCDR) and the Ontario Writers Conference.

It is important to find a group with the right blend of support and feedback. A group that does nothing but critique might as well be a business meeting. What I love most about this group, is the warmth. Part of the purpose of a writer’s group is support; people with whom you can share news, celebrate victory, commiserate in flops, and just plain talk shop. On the other hand a writers’ group that offers nothing but support might as well be a social club. The main reason you’re there is to figure out what’s flawed with your work and how to make it more appealing.

You should also look for a group that offers the right blend of truth, reality and necessary sensitivity. If you leave a critique session ready to quit your story and take up acrobatics, then you’re involved with the wrong group. On the other hand, you should leave with the knowledge of exactly where your story needs correction, and at least some idea of how to set about it.

So, reach out and join a group or even make one if you have to. Not all members have to possess the same level of skill or experience because a new writer may still be a skilled reader.

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