“This is your writing. It’s important. I’m not advocating shoving yourself into the middle of someone else’s discussion or waving a red flag in the bathroom line, but put yourself out there.” ~ Becky Levine, in The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.
One Sunday afternoon, it took all I had to get out of my house and into the car. It would be my first time, walking into a circle of strangers, sharing a short story that I had worked on for too long, putting my work and myself out there. Giddy and nervous, I worried I might talk too much or not at all. I wondered if I would leave elated or deflated. I was tempted to rest the fate of my whole writing career (what little there was of it at the time) on this two-hour experience, sitting in the basement of a mall at table with other writers. Luckily, the words of Becky Levine pressed on my conscious.
This is your writing. It’s important.
At some point in every Writer’s life, we enter into the critique zone. It’s inevitable and necessary, because, while most writing happens in isolation, our stories rarely succeed without others. So, we sign up and show up. And, some of us fret every time we traverse the stairs and walk into the room.
Critiques aren’t easy. Never mind the vulnerability factor, when our work goes under the eyes of our peers. Critiques take skill, in giving them as much as in receiving them. A couple of books I’ve read have helped me survive moments with my writing groups in one way or another: Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni B. Cole and The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine. Both authors make clear that how we give feedback is as important as how we receive it, because we learn from each side of the experience.
In the writing group in which I participate right now, critiques happen on the spot. The author reads his or her story, and we listen, write our thoughts down in the moment, share our comments right away. I much more prefer to read a story, let it digest, and then give my feedback a day or two later. The challenge for me then is, while I know when a passage or a character bumps me, I don’t always know why. Not immediately. Enter Becky Levine again, this time with her excellent article in the February issue of Writer’s Digest: “Critique Your Way to Better Writing.” Becky’s insights in this article on giving and receiving feedback hit home for me again..
“…[T]hink about the elements that make up our projects…such as character, explanatory narrative, scenes, dialogue, description and voice. Pretty much every weakness in a manuscript is a weakness in one of the big elements….”
I might not be able to pin-point exactly what throws me off during a writer’s reading of one story at a single critique session, but I can go home and think on it, even after I’ve submitted my comments. Then, in subsequent weeks, I will be more prepared to offer valuable feedback.
“Home in on the story element that’s creating the problem. Then…analyze what is and isn’t working. The more you critique, the easier answering these questions will become – and the more those answers will reveal themselves in your own work.”
That happens to me all the time. The more specific I am with my feedback, in things as simple as dialogue tags or as complex as creating more tension (or stretching out that tension) in a scene, the more I return to my own work and see areas that need the same kind of attention.
Writer’s reciprocity in its most genuine form. We learn from each other.
If you’re new to a writing group, stick around. If you haven’t joined a group, find one (even a soiree of writing friends will do). Pick up a copy of Joni B. Cole’s book on Toxic Feedback and one of Becky Levine’s Survival Guide. Better yet, pop over to Becky Levine’s webpage. She’s soliciting guest bloggers to post on their writing critique experiences, and she’s offering up copies of her book in return. Even if you don’t have an essay to submit, you can still enter to win a copy of her book by leaving a comment on these guest posts.
Want to read more on critique groups? Here are some other blog posts to check out:
“Getting the Most from a Critique” Lisa Hall-Wilson (on Girls with Pens) talks about the tone of a group, setting goals, and strengths and weaknesses.
“How Writing Groups Can Work for You” Susan Bearman (on Write It Sideways) highlights two important points: make a commitment to show up consistently and don’t minimize how much you can learn from hearing the work of writers outside your preferred genre.
How about you? What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned by sitting around a table with other writers? Or, do you have a favorite book on surviving critiques?
“…[W]riting is a solitary effort, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one — and
that is the real gift of feedback” ~ Joni B. Cole