4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group

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Today's guest post is from writer Susan Cushman, a monthly regular here at NO RULES. Read her personal blog, learn about the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.Cartoon used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

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"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Aristotle)

“I was confused by your use of third person, omniscient. Wouldn’t it work better in first person?”

“Why did you write this in present tense? I think past tense is a safer way to go.”

“This piece really starts on page fifteen. I would ditch the first fourteen pages.”

If these comments sound familiar, you’re probably part of a critique
group, or participated in at least one workshop. It can feel a bit like
childbirth, with a room full of people watching and giving advice while
you push.

Or, if you know how to hold onto yourself (it’s your baby, after all),
you can take the advice that works for you and leave the rest, like they
say in 12-step meetings. (One reason advocates of AA and Al-Anon say it
works is because “there are no rules.”)

My first manuscript
critique workshop was in 2008, at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers
Workshop in Oxford, Mississippi. The MFA faculty-led critique process
was an eye-opener. The critique leader gave each of the 16 participants
an opportunity to “set up” his writing sample for the group—explaining
if it was a complete short story or essay, or part of a larger work, for
example—and then he would let the other students give feedback first.

After
about fifteen minutes, he would give his own advice. During this time,
the person whose work was being critiqued would remain silent and take
notes on the comments being offered. At the end, the writer would
respond, asking questions for clarity, but trying not to defend the
work. After all, the purpose wasn’t to prove that his writing was
perfect, but to learn from the feedback. This process is called
workshopping.

Five of us at that workshop decided to form a
writing critique group, using the methods we had learned. That group
remained active for about three years, and while we don’t meet regularly
now, we stay in touch and continue to encourage one another. Three
years and six workshops later, I remain a fan of the workshop process,
but I’ve also learned a few important lessons along the way.

1. Sometimes it’s hard to hold onto yourself in the face of greatness.
One summer I participated in the late, great Barry Hannah’s “Wednesday
Workshops on the Square” in Oxford. I have a great deal of respect for
Barry’s work, and for him as a person. But our writing styles are very
different, and there were times when I had to work hard to remember that
it’s OK to disagree with someone who is famous and successful. Of
course I gleaned much benefit from his feedback, and I’ll always hold
onto my writing samples that have his red-inked comments on them, but at
the end of the day, it’s my work.

A well-known author who led a
creative nonfiction workshop a couple years ago felt strongly that the
main character in my essay wasn’t believable. “She’s just too good.
People aren’t like this. You need to show her human side.” A couple of
the other students in the workshop agreed with him.

I spent the
next year considering those words and revising the essay, before I
finally realized that the essay was true to its main character—a dear
friend whom I nursed during her dying days—and I wasn’t going to change
that. I began sending it out for publication. After three or four
rejections, I wasn’t discouraged. Last month the essay was published in a
new literary journal, with my friend’s character intact. All it took
was for the right editor to embrace the work.

2. Be discerning.
This self-awareness is especially helpful when other students at workshops are offering their (sometimes) less informed advice.

“Have you thought about killing off Uncle Jack instead of Aunt Sally?”

Keep in mind the source of each comment during the workshop and weigh
the feedback accordingly. When critiquers have work that is already
published, I always listen more attentively to the criticism.

But
don’t sell your fellow students short, because even beginning writers
are sometimes the best first readers of your work. Remember that
everyone at the workshop is also trying to improve his own writing. It
takes discernment and selective hearing to take the best and leave the
rest.

3. Learn to handle conflicting advice.

Another difficult situation arises when two faculty members offer
opposite advice, which happened to me at a workshop last year. I was
trying to achieve a stream-of-consciousness style, using parentheses to
set apart interior monologue throughout my novel-in-progress, an
approach Michael Cunningham used successfully in The Hours. One
of the faculty members for the workshop liked the approach, and
encouraged me to use the parenthetical phrases more selectively, and to
make each one really exceptional—the way a writer might treat metaphors
in his work. The other leader didn’t like my use of the parentheses at
all, saying that they distracted the reader from the story. The students
in the workshop were split in their opinions on this issue. So I
returned home, read over all my notes, re-read samples of published
works that I consider models for my work, and decided which advice to
hold onto and which to leave behind.

Students were also
conflicted over how graphic I should be in scenes where I describe
sexual abuse that happens to the protagonist when she’s a young girl.

“We need more specifics in this scene—show us what happened, don’t just tell us.”

“No, we get it from the implications. Leave something for the reader’s imagination.”

Both of those are good comments. Again, it was up to me to take the best and leave the rest.

4. Cultivate humility.
My
next bit of advice might sound contradictory to my encouragement to
hold onto yourself, but I think it’s also important to cultivate a
degree of humility when your work is being critiqued. There’s no need to
defend or explain. At almost every workshop I attend, there’s at least
one person who reacts strongly to his fellow participants or faculty’s
criticism. Sometimes it goes like this:

“I was confused about the plot line here, on page 8.
What’s the time frame? Is this action happening in the past or the
present?”

“Oh, you’ll understand that later. It all becomes clear in chapter six.”

So, is it okay for the reader to be confused for six chapters? I don’t
think so. The writer could have benefited from the reader’s questions if
he hadn’t been so concerned about explaining himself. It’s hard not to
be defensive, but humility is helpful in this setting.

If you’re
nervous about attending your first manuscript critique workshop, or
cautious about joining a writing group, I hope these thoughts are
helpful. I’d love to hear about your experiences in critique workshops
or groups—please leave a comment and join the conversation!

There are lots of great workshops and conferences around the country, but I’ll close by mentioning two:

?The Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, June 10-12, Oxford, Mississippi (which might be full, but sometimes people drop out)

The 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, September 23-25, Memphis, Tennessee (registration is open, with 10 of 20 spaces still available.)

Looking for more help with critique groups? Check out WD's own Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.