On Handling Criticism and Critique Groups

Over the weekend, I was asked by a poet for tips on how to handle criticism as he tried thinking out whether he should join a writing critique group. With his work, he was afraid of a few things:

  1. He wouldn’t be able to handle the critiques. That is, he was afraid too much negativity would lead him to give up writing.
  2. He wouldn’t find the right readers to give critiques. He’d written a massive blank verse poem, and he’s afraid the wrong group won’t appreciate his words.
  3. He won’t appreciate the written words of his peers. He seemed to have a particular view of other contemporary writers–thinking much of today’s writing is kinda like spam.

Now, I’m not going to get into a debate of his stance on contemporary poetry, which I personally think has very good vital signs. However, as a former participant of several online critique groups and a student that logged more than 60 credit hours in writing courses at the University of Cincinnati, I will speak a little on the value of critique groups.

So there, I’ve already tipped my hand: I think critique groups are valuable, even if you don’t agree with the critiques. And here’s why:

First, the only way to gauge if something is actually working for your readers is to solicit feedback. Sure, you know what you’re trying to do, but you don’t know if anyone else is picking up on it unless you hear it from your readers. After all, you can’t go around explaining your intentions to every reader–unless you actually want a very small audience.

Second, bad feedback is still valuable, because it forces you to look hard at your work and try to justify exactly why a particular line or image is fine as it is. And you need to be honest with yourself. If you can’t honestly defend your work, then you may have an area that needs revision.

Third, there’s nothing better than good feedback. After taking in all the praise though, be sure to develop a certain sense of paranoia. Is everything really okay? Can I change a line here or there? I’ve found that when I receive absolutely no negative feedback that I’m usually more self-critical of my work. After all, there’s no such thing as a perfect poem.

Fourth, critique groups give you the ability to talk out problems you’re having. If you know something’s not working, you can ask the group to pay attention to x or y and give specific feedback.

Fifth, critique groups provide camaraderie with other poets. And that’s often hard to do, especially if you don’t live in a major city–but even there, poets are a bit hermetic and love to fly solo.

So there are some reasons why critique groups–as well as workshops, conferences and creative writing programs–are a good thing (in my opinion).

*****

As far as handling the criticism, as mentioned above, you should always be prepared to defend and scrutinize your work. It’s a crazy tightrope act, but one that poets need to perform to get the most out of their lines.

Personally, I always bring a new poem to my critique group hoping for the best and expecting the worst. Usually, I find my words are somewhere in the middle.

Currently, I’m not a part of a critique group, but I still have some trusted readers for poems that I feel are close to getting where I want them to be. These are the readers I trust to let me know if my writing is hitting the mark or falling short. I know they’ll let me know, because we’ve built up a level of trust over the years–both in giving and receiving criticism. Hopefully, if you haven’t already, you will be able to find such a group of trusted readers.

 

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5 thoughts on “On Handling Criticism and Critique Groups

  1. Ms Baroque

    I think it’s really important to mention another INCREDIBLY important thing a critical group can do for you. It can hone your own critical awareness, through both the feedback you get on your own work and the feedback you have to give to others. In learning to think critically about other people’s work, you will finetune the quality control on your own.

    My feeling about the guy who asked you this, who thinks much contemporary poetry is spamlike, is that it will do him good to think about this spamlike poetry in a critical way. BEcause you can;’t sit in a workshop and say "I dunno, I just don’t like it." In learning to read it critically, even if he still hates it, he will learn to engage with intent, and possibly expand his repertoire – and that is always a good thing.

    I have spent hours and hours in workshops. I spent two years in fiction groups in the nineties; three years in one of the most renowned London workshops, Michael Donaghy’s City University group, until his death (he was a great teacher, and mentor, as well as a great poet); and another two terms in Maurice Riordan’s group in London. I also spent two or more years as a frequent contributor, and then moderator, on the online workshop Eratosphere (www.ablemuse.com/erato). I found that the quality of the poem you’re critiquing is of no importance – the thing is that you are thinking about, it, learning to frame (and justify) your reaction to it, and taking away into your own work the lessons you’ve learned from it.

    It is impossible to read too widely. The best groups will also provide some structure for suggestions for reading, or will read & discuss published works as well as work by members.

    As to the other people in the group appreciating one’s work – well, I think one of the best dicta for a writer is "trust your reader." This goes for group members too! (And as to allusions and references in poems – Michael used to say that if one or two people in the room got it, that was fine. Not everyone has to get everything!)

  2. Renee Goularte

    Several years ago I participated in an online poetry workshop group that met once a week in a chat room on Apple’s eWorld. We discussed one person’s poem each week. It was extremely valuable to me, and resulted in a couple of lifelong friends. Now, I belong to a poetry workshop group (seven women) that meets once a month for a *round robin* of discussion. Each of us brings three or four poems each month. What’s interesting is that sometimes a poem that I think isn’t that great is loved by members of the group. This happens more often than the reverse. Plus, this particular collection of eyes and minds is diverse enough in personal styles that the poems get a good going over. And everyone is polite enough and respectful enough of others to be able to say that a poem really needs work if that is the case.

  3. K M Kline

    Being in a writer’s group, I am spoiled as I have an on-call critique group of trusted advisers. Having them is most valuable when a tough question arises. Knowing that the suggestions are first and foremost coming from quality writers means everything to me. I will not listen to just anyone, my work is too precious as is my continuing passion to produce. I share with a close circle of respected talent to protect both.

    When too many voices are raised in a confusing cacophony of criticism, nothing of value is gleaned by the writer.

  4. Bruce Niedt

    Good advice, Robert. I’m lucky enough to have been a member of a small critique group for a couple of years now. Some of them are young enough to be my kids, but I’ve derived a lot of good feedback and camaraderie from them. They’re a talented bunch, being involved in editing poetry journals, winning awards – one just got her MFA from Bennington and another is working on an MFA now. They challenge me to make my poetry better and to raise the bar for my own work. And that’s, as they say in the credit card commercials, priceless.

  5. Sheryl Kay Oder

    I am not part of a critique group, but once I solicited help from my fellow online Journal Club members. They are not poets, but they are writers. I kept the written critique, which I mostly dismissed at the time. Yesterday when I was organizing my poetry folder, I reread the comments and stapled them to my poem. Now they seem to make more sense to me.

    On my fridge there us a tongue-in-cheek quotation from Franklin Jones: "Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, and friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger."

    I don’t worry too much about my knee-jerk reactions to critiques. I just let them sit for later thought.

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