Paving the Streets with Gold

I had a wonderful weekend, filled with writing and writing-related activities. Especially important to me was the critique group session. Do you belong to a critique group? Let me tell you from personal experience that you should.

A good critique group can be an invaluable asset. Members can tell you when your meaning is coming through, or where they’re confused, of if the whole thing is a mess. Or–holy cow!–if it’s all good! It saves you time, worry and stress, wondering “What the heck is wrong with this darn draft?” Trust me, they’ll tell you what’s wrong. And just as important, what’s right, so you don’t mess that up trying to fix the story. Crit groups can speed your way to publication (or in my case, to personal rejections instead of form ones 😉

Try to find a local one, if you can. It’s worth a drive to access a good one, too, so don’t be put off by that. There’s nothing better than everyone sitting around a table, critiquing a piece and coming together over the experience. Talking shop, ‘insider’ jokes–for a solitary writer, someone who’s always working alone, this is gold, folks. It says: You belong here.

People may disagree considerably about what works or doesn’t, and that can be confusing to a beginning writer (or even a midway writer), but it’s part of the process. If you’re new to critiquing, expect to be confused for a bit. As you grow, you’ll come to understand that different people bring different eyes and expectations to the table. They’ll see things differently. It’s your job to listen to them all, sort the advice and make sense of it in your own way, then use that advice to improve your work.

Yeah, that sounds…mysterious. But so is writing, in a way. (Where did you get that idea?)

What I mean is that if one person says, “I’m confused here” you take note and consider if that person is always confused when that subject comes up, or if the style you’re writing in just isn’t his or her thing, or whatever. Maybe it’s a valid crit (to you), maybe not. But if everyone there says “I’m confused here,” you darn well know you’d better fix it!

Sometimes you’ll get advice on how to fix it, sometimes not. Sometimes you’ll take that advice on how, other times you’ll do your own thing to fix it. After all, it’s your story. When you’re done, submit the story to the group again, asking, “Is this better or worse?” Yes, I’ve managed to make a story worse after a critique–but then the second fix made it SO much better, since I understood better what I’d done wrong the first time as well as the second. Other times, the advice I got the first time was so perfect, so clarifying that I smacked my forehead, said “Duh!” and shook the second draft right into place!

It’s a painful process to sit and listen to people talk about your story. Realize it’s not about you; it’s about the story. They’re critiquing the merits of your work, not of you as a person, or as a writer. And you should do the same for them, critiquing the other stories with care and a thought for the author’s feelings.

How do you find a critique group? Search your city or town’s name and ‘writing group’ or ‘writers group’ or ‘writing critique.’ Ask your reference librarian for help. If there’s a college or university nearby, look there for one. Finally, try an online group if nothing is near. There are many, in different genres and at different levels of experience for writers. The ‘problem’ with online groups is that you don’t know the experience level of those critiquing you. Look up the bio of those who offer you critiques for help in this. Sometimes you’ll find you’ll get a bonus: the person who critiqued your work is at a much higher level than your own! That’s a real gem, something that a group of your peers might not offer.

If you belong to a crit group, how do you like it? How has it helped you? What advice can you offer to someone looking to join one?