Full disclosure here: I currently belong to four writers’ groups, as well as SFWA, my national genre organization. And I have recently dropped out of two others (and dropped out of another one last year, for similar reasons).
A good writers’ group offers the opportunity to meet with other writers, ideally those working toward a similar goal; to share information about writing whether that is submission opportunities, support, or promotion; and sometimes to get direct aid with a project of your own. This last is usually offered in the form of critiquing.
I think the critiquing of manuscripts is important, and, at some stages of the writer’s development, even critical. Working with a critique group not only gives you the chance to get feedback on your own work with an eye to improving it (or to improving your next work as you learn more), it also allows you to hone your eye as an analytical reader. I find I often learn more when I am examining someone else’s work and am forced to articulate my understanding of the work, finding information in the text to support my reactions. This kind of insight can be taken back to my own work, and is highly informative when I am writing or speaking about the craft of writing. It is often easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than in your own, but you will likely find that flaw reduced in your next project because of that attention to learning.
Okay, E.C., but you drew me in here with a title about hating writing groups, now you’re going on about the benefits–what gives?
How the group approaches critiquing is vital to the success or frustration of a critiquing session. Some groups are strictly on-line. Works are exchanged via the internet, and returned with marginal notes as well as commentary on strengths and weaknesses. This makes it easy to digest the work as the critiquer reads it through and makes notes, and it makes it easy for the author to receive the commentary with a bit of personal distance. Nobody is saying to your face that they found your story confusing and your characters unsympathetic.
But when a group is managing in-person critiques, the approach is very different. Sometimes, the works are distributed and read in advance, with notes made just as described above. Then the participants offer a summary of their notes in the meeting, sometimes building on and responding to what the others say.
In the Milford Style critique, the participants give their feedback in round robin style, speaking one at a time. The author then has a couple of minutes to ask a question or seek clarification about issues that arose. Often, the author is encouraged to simply thank the readers for their time and trouble in preparing their comments. The author can then take away all that has been said, assimilate the information, and act on it (or not) as they choose. This is the way that most professional groups, and many long-standing workshops operate (Odyssey, Clarion, Milford itself).
But there is another way. . . the dark side, as it were. This approach is more social. Let’s call this the spontaneous style. The works are read at the session (on paper, if possible–usually easy to do with poetry, less so with longer works) aloud, usually by the author. Participants then respond to the work, sometimes from notes they have written down while listening, sometimes just off the top of their head. A well-organized spontaneous uses a round-robin style, and has some guidelines about how to give good, useful comments (ie, that comments are about the work, not about the author; that a comment should be constructive not destructive; that it should be specific). So the result can be similar to a Milford-style group, but modified for a number of participants which varies or in which not all the members could have been reached in advance to arrange a more formal system.
The problem comes when the critique session is not moderated in this way. Sometimes, the author is the de-facto moderator, responding directly as points are made, asking questions, guiding a conversation about the work. Often, the group is simply more of a free-for-all, where some people may begin by speaking about their reactions, then others start responding to that, rather than to the work. The worst-case scenario is when the participants, including the author, break out with interruptions or arguments about the work. Or rather, about an interpretation of the work, telling a respondent why they are wrong about their experience of the work.
And this is what I hate. When I am offering my feedback to an author, I do so in the spirit of helping the work to improve–to become more focused on the author’s intent and better at revealing its strengths. My reaction to the work is usually backed up by details of the text, as well as by years of experience with giving and receiving critiques, with writing my own dozens of books, articles, short stories, poems; and with teaching or leading writing groups. In short, not to brag or anything, but I’m not an idiot.
Yet nothing makes me feel more like an idiot than someone trying to convince me that my reaction to a literary work is wrong. When I have spent time thinking about the work and articulating a response to that work, I think I deserve to at least have my perspective heard. Whether the author chooses to act on it is up to them. When they won’t even listen to feedback, that’s a problem. If you have asked for honest feedback on a work, you must be prepared to receive it in the spirit in which it is offered: that the respondent genuinely hopes to help you improve the work. If you are not prepared for honest feedback, then ask not to receive comments, or simply wait to share your work until you are.
I think this happens in spontaneous groups because of the atmosphere they create. Up until the critique session, they are likely to be marked by cheerful social interaction, which may or may not revolve around writing. Often, they take place in a public setting like a coffee shop, and may involve a shared meal. All activities likely to build a sense of camaraderie. So when the critique begins, it’s easy to perceive it as part of the on-going conversation–or worse, as your friend criticizing your beloved art to your face, rather than as one colleague to another, helping to improve that art.
Some people seem to be satisfied with this kind of interaction, where the honest response of the audience is likely curtailed or deflected into a more general group atmosphere. But if, like me, you feel frustrated with the quality of feedback you receive in that situation, it may be time to leave. You might also choose to introduce a more formal and professional atmosphere by having guidelines for feedback (and for authors receiving that feedback), by selecting a moderator, by promoting a stronger distinction between a more general conversation and the critique session.
In any case, I hope that the writers among you are seeking and finding an appropriate and useful critique approach. And thank you for listening.