Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Writing Critique Group

Sorry I didn’t get to finish this series of posts last week, as planned. Life got in the way, as it sometimes does.

IMG_2072

I belong to one online and two in-person writing groups currently. I’ve belonged to others of both types in the past. Some of my experiences with writing groups have been better than others, but I’ve learned a lot from both the more positive and less positive experiences. I will say that both of my current in-person writing groups feel like family, and hanging out with them is the best.

1. Chemistry matters.

Critiquing can be a stressful experience for both the person giving and the person receiving the critique. No matter how much I try to tell myself it’s not personal, it absolutely is. I pour my heart into what I write (as most writers do) and any critique, no matter how well-intentioned, can sting a bit. Critique stings a lot less (and actually can feel good) coming from someone I genuinely like and respect. When everyone in a group respects one another, I can tell, and it makes a huge difference to how the group functions.

2. I always have more to learn.

When I first started the process of being critiqued, I’m not sure what I thought about it. But knowing me, I probably assumed I wouldn’t need someone else to critique me forever, that at some point, I’d “get it.”

I understand now that my learning will constantly evolve, and once I master one skill, it’s time to learn another. At this point, I want my writing to constantly improve, no matter how “good” I get.

Like most beginning writers, I used to have a love affair with adverbs. I don’t anymore, but I do tend to repeat words. I get a favorite word in a chapter, and that word is repeated 8,375 times. I don’t even notice, no matter how hard I look for it. But my critique group does.

3. Talking to other writers is like taking a mini-vacation.

In all of my groups, we stay and talk after we’re done tearing each other’s work to shreds. (Just kidding. We don’t do that… usually.) The conversations we have are generally the type of things that might make non-writers a little nervous. I speak loudly, and not everyone appreciates flippant comments on murder, the apocalypse, or how we can disagree and still respect one another. Luckily, my group does, and they laugh even louder when they realize we’re scaring people.

4. Good criticism energizes me.

Most of the time, I walk away from my writers’ groups eager to make the changes my fellow writers have suggested. There have been many times when I know something isn’t right about my story, but I can’t pinpoint what. When good critique is offered, I suddenly know exactly what needs to be done (or at least, where to start) and I want to get to it immediately. I wish I could bottle that feeling.

5. Other writers’ successes feel fantastic.

There’s lots of advice out there about how to deal with jealousy when the writers nearest to you are becoming more successful than you. I’m so competitive that I worried this would be a problem for me. But when two members of my group found agents, I waited for the jealousy, and it didn’t happen. All I felt was, “Of course someone recognized how amazing their stories are! I can’t wait to buy them!” Do I want to get an agent and start that path to publication? Obviously. But I want us all to be successful, and it doesn’t matter which of us is first. We’re all going to get there.

6. Everyone works at their own pace.

I can whip out a really good first draft fast, but then I have to spend a long time tinkering with it. I struggle with the editing process because my first draft is so close to being right that I don’t know what to change. (This is not a humble-brag. It really is frustrating and I haven’t learned how to edit my work the way I need to.) As a result, I probably spend more time editing and rewriting than anyone I know. It sometimes frustrates me because I feel like I should be able to get this faster than I do. But if I’m being honest, it can sometimes take me a while to learn a new skill. But once I get it, I get it. I’m frustrated with my “always a bridesmaid” status, in that most of the rejections I get say that I made it to the final round, or that they loved it, “but…” However, I’ve started telling myself that this is just part of my process, and the fact that I’m getting closer to success means that I’m on the right track. There was a time I didn’t even get to be a bridesmaid.

7. Most of us are socially awkward introverts.

We like books! People are… ugh. We’re not unfriendly (well, sometimes we are), it’s just that, as socially awkward introverts, we don’t always want to meet new group members, no matter how great they may turn out to be. It’s hard to be friendly and hard to welcome new group members. After all, we’re going to be putting our hearts on the table, handing out knives, and saying, “Go on, slash at it.” I remember being new to groups and feeling, while not unwelcome, not entirely welcome either. I also remember being wary of new group members, eyeing them suspiciously. I try to be better about it because what I’ve figured out is that no matter how “normal” they pretend to be, they’re just as weird in the same ways as me.

8. You really do have to be willing to put your heart on the table.

This is so hard for me. Most of my group members love my supporting cast of characters but call my narrators “secretive,” “gray,” or “blank.” (Most of them don’t come out and say this, but that’s what their comments boil down to.) It took me a long time to figure out that while my narrators aren’t me, they carry bits of me, and my normal habit of being secretive spills over onto them more strongly than any other trait of mine. People want to know characters; it’s what makes them sympathetic, even when they’re making bad decisions.

I have to keep reminding myself of two things. First off, no one is going to know what bits and pieces of my heart I used to mold and shape my characters unless I tell them. Secondly, even if they did, people love vulnerability. Presenting an impenetrable facade is intimidating. I know this, and I’m still working on it.

 

9. Not everyone wants you to succeed.

There are people join writer’s groups for their ego and they will tear you down if they get the chance. Sometimes those people are harder to recognize than others. But if you more often feel bad about their criticism than energized or good, it may be time to part ways. Writing is hard enough without the discouragers.

10. Some writers have no desire to improve.

Some people will never change, no matter how many times you offer the same feedback. There’s a difference between “I thought about what you said and I disagree” and “I’m not really interested in changing.” Those people can be difficult to deal with because anyone who’s growing and changing will feel dragged down by people who are stuck. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve found that works long-term with people who don’t want to improve is to leave them alone in their unchanging ways.

I found my current writers’ groups through Meetup.com, but I also use Scribophile for an online critique group. (Feel free to find me on Scribophile as Doree Weller.)

What have you learned from your writers’ groups? Is there anything I’ve covered in this series that you’re interested in learning more about?

Related posts:

8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

9 Things To Remember When Receiving Writing Feedback

4 Myths About Critiquing

8 Things to Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

IMG_1587

Over the next two weeks, I’m going to cover topics about giving and taking feedback about writing. While I’m going to talk specifically about writing, I think some of my tips could come in handy for other creative pursuits as well.

The topics I’m going to cover are:

How To Give Writing Feedback

How To Take Writing Feedback

Myths About Critiquing

Things I’ve Learned From My Critique Group

So… lets jump in, shall we?

Giving and getting feedback on writing (or any creative pursuit, I imagine) is an intimidating endeavor. We writers pour our hearts into our stories and getting critiqued feels a little like sitting in one of those dunking booths. For this reason, it can be difficult to know how to give (or take) feedback.

1. Know your relationship with the person you’re critiquing.

I’ve been in online writing groups and small groups where the same people meet every week. I know larger writing groups with changing attendees also exist. I’ll give different feedback to a stranger than to a friend, and I’ll give even different feedback to a sensitive friend vs. someone who’s fine with blunt criticism. In one of my writing groups, a friend critiques me in such a harsh manner that we’ve had to assure new members that he won’t critique them like that. While it may bother other people, we’ve negotiated a particular way of critiquing one another.

2. Be open to feedback about your critiquing.

This means both verbal feedback and non-verbal cues. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone with the best of intentions, I notice them start to get uncomfortable. They shift around or they start to look hurt. At that point, I’ll edit my review on the fly, trying to soften criticisms and pointing out more positives. In one group, I was told that I was “too mean,” and I appreciated the feedback. After further discussion, we identified things I could do better when giving critiques.

3. Use the sandwich technique.

People tend to best remember first and last comments, so it’s important to start and end with a positive. People can hear criticism better when it comes packaged in a way where they don’t feel attacked. Plus, if you’re using the sandwich technique, it makes you focus on the positives as well as the negatives.

4. Remember that your goal is to be helpful.

This is such an important one. Your goal is not to make the work perfect. It’s not to make it something you’d want to read (especially if the story is romance and you only read science fiction). Your goal is to help the writer reach their goals, not yours.

5. Find something to criticize.

This is seriously so important. The worst critiques I’ve ever gotten are not the ones that made me cry (and there have been one or two of those). The worst critiques are the ones that get a lukewarm, “It was good.” I’ve actually had one critique in my entire life where the person had nothing to say, but it was still an effective critique because they were so moved by the piece that they couldn’t talk about it. Other than that single instance, I’ve never had a “praise only” critique be useful. If you can’t find anything to criticize (and don’t just pick on something for the sake of being contrary), then react. “This part makes me think you’re foreshadowing something.” “I didn’t expect this character to do this!” “This made me gasp.” And so on. Sometimes it can be helpful for a writer to know how you’re reacting so that they can tell if it was what they intended or not.

6. Keep it impersonal.

Especially if you don’t really know the person. This is one area where passive voice works well. Instead of “You didn’t capture my interest right away,” try “My interest wasn’t caught right away.” It can soften hard to hear information.

7. Make sure to mention when you’re critiquing outside of your interest area.

It’s fine to critique something outside of your preferred genre, but be aware that different genres have different norms. I belong to a critique group with a bunch of guys who read mostly science fiction and/or literary fiction. So, when I bring in horror stories, they’re sometimes a bit out of their realm. I still get great feedback most of the time, but the one frustrating comment I often get is “This isn’t horror” because it has more real world than speculative elements. Obviously, the person saying that isn’t familiar with The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson (to name two examples). If something doesn’t work for you, absolutely note it, but it’s best to also say something like, “I don’t know what the convention is in Nordic Noir because I mostly read Bildungsroman stories, but when Sven said…”

8. Remember to say if you liked a story, even if you’ve said it before.

This is so important. I told the tale of a writer who left my group because she got a difficult critique (I imagine). I still think about it, even though it happened a year ago. I can’t remember if, the last night she was with us, I told her how much I loved her story. I had a ton of critique for it, but that’s not because I thought it was bad; it just needed a lot of work. I truly believe she had something special, and I know I’d said it before, but I can’t remember if I said it in that last group or not. In my mind, when you love a story, you can’t tell the author that too many times.

Do you have anything you’d add to this list?

Open Letter to The Writer Who Left My Group

IMG_8652Dear Writer Who Left My Writer’s Group,

I was sad when you dropped out of our writer’s group. You had good input, and I really liked your story.

I felt bad about it, like it might be partly my fault. See, at our last group, you got a tough review from another writer. And you also got a tough review from me. I don’t think I remembered to tell you how much I liked your story, and I should have. Maybe that would have helped.

See, I’ve been there. Two months into my writer’s group, I got a tough review from the same person. I fought tears during group, trying to put on a brave face, like it didn’t bother me. I thought I did a good job, but other people could probably tell how upset I was. I know I could tell how upset you were.

After that group, I thought about just giving up. Not writing anymore. It seemed pointless. I mean, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and if I’m not where I want to be, then why bother? I almost dropped out of group.

Then, I got together with a friend, who said all the things I needed to hear at that moment. That the critiquer was just trashing my work because he was jealous of how awesome I am. That he didn’t know what he was talking about. That obviously he was just an idiot with no taste. I mean, my friend was wrong. But it got me out of that funk I was in.

See, the problem was that my critiquer was right, and I knew he was right. That’s why it stung so badly. He wasn’t right about everything, of course. But he was right about enough that I knew I needed to take a good hard look at my writing.

I’m going to confess; I’ve been a lazy writer. I haven’t always worked as hard on a piece as I could. And should. My anger inspired me to be a better writer.

My critiquer is now a good friend. And I really count on his input, because I know he won’t sugar-coat anything. It still stings from time to time, but I don’t take it personally anymore.

So back to you, writer who left. I was going to tell you all this. I wanted to contact you after group and let you know that we’ve all been there, that I like your story, and encourage you to keep going.

But your profile on Meetup didn’t allow me to send you a message, or give me any way to contact you. And then you left our group, so now I really can’t get in touch.

I’m sad you left, but I have to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Maybe it really went down the way I think it did, or maybe you had to leave for a completely unrelated reason.

Either way, know that I’m thinking of you, and I’m hoping I see the best version of your story out there someday.

And know that next time, I’ll make sure I tell other writers that I like their work, try to end on a positive note. Because maybe you would have left anyway. But if I had said that it was good work, and then you left, I wouldn’t feel bad.

I’d just figure you weren’t ready.

Best of luck, wherever you are.

Doree

P.S. This comic has been stuck in my mind, so I thought I’d share it.

Life Lessons

On Wellness Wednesdays, I post about a topic related to wellness.

“I have learned silence form the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind, yet strange, I am ungrateful for those teachers.”

-Khalil Gibran

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona Photo Credit: Doree Weller

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

I believe that we’re all presented with the same lesson in life, over and over, until we learn it.  People and situations may annoy or upset us, but the truth is that everything can be a learning experience.

It’s difficult because we don’t get letter grades for these experiences.  No one marks up our experience with a red pen, showing us exactly what we need to improve.  Instead, we have to figure it out.

The best way to figure out how you’re doing in learning about something in particular is by how it makes you feel.  If it upsets, angers, frustrates, or makes you afraid, you may have more to learn from it.  The more intensely you feel, the more important the lesson.

People who won’t shut up irritate me.  They talk and talk, repeating themselves, and usually end up saying very little.  I recently had yet another encounter with one of these individuals.  He was a member of my writer’s critique group, and he gave good feedback, but it was buried within a speech to rival the length of War and Peace.  I tried to let him know, gently, that it was difficult for me to hear what he was trying to tell me when he repeated the same thing over and over.  I think I hurt his feelings, and soon after, he dropped out of the group.  I still feel bad about that, wondering if what I said made him want to leave.

I have two lessons to learn here.  I’m honestly not sure what the first lesson is; I’m still trying to figure it out.  Perhaps that I need to listen, even when I don’t want to?  Or perhaps how to give better feedback?  The second lesson is most definitely that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and if he chose to drop out of group, that was his choice, and I didn’t “cause” it.

If I insulted him, he could have spoken to me about it.  He could have ignored me or told me to go to hell.  I’m not responsible for the choices he made, and likely his choice to leave group didn’t have anything to do with me at all.

What lessons are you still working through?