Since founding Wild Women Writing, a Durango-based writers’ group, I’ve learned a lot about making group critiques work for the writers involved. Of necessity, an emerging writer is going to need and want a different sort of critique than an experienced novelist seeking beta readers for her newest thriller. That’s why I decided to share my best practices here.
Molly Anderson-Childers is a writer, artist,
creativity consultant, and photographer in Colorado.
(In fact, this photo is of her hands!)
Her work has appeared locally and nationally in
print publications, and can be found online at
creativity-portal.com and ediblesanjuanmountains.com,
to name a few. She blogs at Addictive Fiction
and Stealing Plums, and is currently working
on a novel. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Know your group, and tailor your critique sessions accordingly. It’s helpful to begin each reading with a quick introduction, in which the writer is given the opportunity to communicate her needs to the group. This helps other group members critique according to individual needs, which is helpful in a group that contains both emerging and professional writers. Some writers just want a listening ear, or a little encouragement. Others prefer a more detailed assessment of their work, seeking advice on plot twists and characters. This method produces a good, focused critique that the writer can use.
2. Ask each member of the group to read her work aloud, rather than simply giving group members copy to read silently. Reading your work aloud helps you check for awkward phrasing, clumsy dialogue, or a plot point that doesn’t ring true. If there are emerging writers in your group, be aware that they may feel too shy or embarrassed to share their work at first. It might take a few meetings for them to get comfortable enough to read. My solution? Offer to read their work aloud for them, so that they can hear how it sounds without experiencing the agonies of stage fright.
3. Make sure that writers who want to publish their work are going about it the right way. Professional presentation and knowing your target market are paramount. Encourage group members to do their research, target a publication to query, and find out their submission guidelines. When asking the group to critique a piece that’s ready for publication, provide the group with the publication’s submission guidelines, so that group members can judge your piece accordingly.
4. Set a high standard for your own work, and expect others to do the same. When presenting your work to a group, make clean copies for everyone and practice your reading technique. Make sure that your piece has been through a bare-bones edit first, so that they’re not wasting their time correcting your hideous grammar and bad spelling. That’s your job. Sure, everyone slips up now and then-it’s easy to make a typo, or three. But if you’re not putting your best foot forward, you’re wasting your time—and everyone else’s. Go big or go home. Give each piece a detailed once-over. Read it aloud to yourself before anyone else ever hears it. That’s a minimum. Present your work professionally, and you’ll be treated with respect. Start off sloppy, and you’ve got a big strike against you right off the bat.
5. Keep the discussion on track, and don’t let one person dominate the discussion. It’s easy to get distracted. Beware any critique that begins with, “This story reminds me of a time, right after my divorce…” To avoid this issue, set a time limit to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak their piece. If you find a critique getting off-track, you need to re-direct the discussion. Try a simple, yet firm, “We’re getting off the subject. Let’s re-focus.” If there’s someone who’s just not getting it, you can always speak to them privately and let them know they’re out of line. As facilitator, it’s your responsibility to address these issues before they become a real problem. While it may feel awkward at first, if someone is wasting the group’s time—or their work isn’t up to par—it’s up to you to call them on it. You might ruffle a few feathers, but the rest of the group will respect you for having the courage to take charge, and your group will function better as a result. Every group feels these growing pains—it’s natural. Just keep your focus on the work, and your feet on the path, and your group will thrive.