On Handling Criticism and Critique Groups

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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).

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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.