Does the thought of handing your writing over to a writing group to critique make you sweat with fear? Or maybe you’d like to join a writing group but you are nervous about what to say to your group-mates? If you are serious about your writing craft, you have surely heard that giving and receiving feedback is an important part of the process. It is true that feedback from others helps you to make your writing stronger. But it can be difficult. Letting others read your work, especially if you are not sure about its quality, can be a nerve-wracking experience. And if that’s not enough, when you join a critique group or attend a feedback session, you will be expected to deliver constructive criticism on others’ work as well. You may wonder what you have to offer others when you are still receiving help on your own work. The answer is a lot.
Unless you are in a writing group with Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or some other multi-national best-selling author, everyone in the group is in the same place (and I suspect even the famous authors receive some degree of working feedback). Whether you’ve written one book or six dozen, it is always valuable to know how readers see your writing and to listen to what works and what could be improved. Similarly, if you are interested enough in books and writing to be participating in a writing group, you have plenty to offer. If you follow the following advice, you can help to ensure a more helpful, fulfilling experience.
Writing and critique groups follow varying formats for sharing work. Usually, the number of pages will be decided upon in advance depending on the number of participants and the time allotted for the group meeting. Sometimes, they exchange pages via email or hard copy a certain amount of time in advance of the meeting, and sometimes the authors will read their pages to the group at the beginning of the meeting. Manuscripts may also be exchanged so someone else will read your work aloud, which can also be helpful.
If you receive writing ahead of time, read the pages carefully and make notes. It can also help to read it through the first time as a typical reader and then read it through a second time with a more critical eye. Make notes of things you found interesting, unique descriptions, poignant moments, and other passages or elements you enjoyed. Also note any questions you have, areas which were unclear for you, and if you have a suggestion for changing a word or a phrase, jot down the change. If pages are read at the meeting, listen as closely as possible and make the same notes.
When it is your turn to provide feedback, remember the sandwich method. First, point out at least two or three things you found interesting or enjoyable. Next, point out a couple of areas where you had questions, were confused, or that could be improved. For feedback on hard copies received in advance, you can skip over the small, copyediting changes because the writer will be able to see those when they get their pages back. Finally, end your feedback by naming an additional positive aspect or reiterating what you enjoyed.
Another thing to keep in mind while giving feedback is specificity. Avoid saying “it was good,” or “it was bad.” Include what specifically needs improvement or which particular words worked well. If you think an area needs to be better, try to offer suggestions about how it could be made stronger. Remember to be kind, which will be easy if you approach the experience as it should be approached: a group of people with common goals getting together to help each other improve their writing. Keep in mind that just as they are not experts, you are also not an expert. For all you know, what they wrote could be perfect; you are just offering your own opinions and perspectives and they are free to accept the advice or dismiss it.
Putting your work out there for others to judge can be a harrowing experience. What if they hate it? As mentioned above, if you cared enough to put it on paper and submit your work for review, there is going to be something good. And if they hate it, that is just that person’s opinion and it doesn’t doom your work for the trashcan; maybe that person just doesn’t know good writing when they see it. Regardless, if you find a caring, positive, help-oriented critique group, even if they did hate it, they will be able to pick some good things out and point out some areas where it may benefit from some changes.
When it’s your turn to get feedback, the most important thing to do is listen and take notes. If your group-mates have specific questions, answer them but don’t elaborate. Plan to have the urge to defend your work, pointing out what you meant, or attempting to correct viewpoints and then plan to bite your tongue, sit on your hands, or do whatever else you have to do to keep yourself from verbalizing those urges. However, while listening, do pay particular attention to passages, phrases, or sentences the readers didn’t understand or misunderstood as well as their questions, because these are like big red flags waving in the air indicating your writing was not clear enough in those areas.
Remember your critique group just wants to help you and, like you (presumably), they are all amateurs. Their opinions count and should be considered, but they are not the final words; If you think about what they say and decide they’re wrong, go with your gut instinct and don’t change it. A caveat, however: if several people say the same thing, consider what they said again a little more carefully before you dismiss them as wrong. And just because everyone says the same thing, it still doesn’t mean they are correct, so, in the end, don’t be afraid to go against the masses if you feel that strongly. Finally, say, “Thank you.” When you get home, read through your notes so they will be clear to you if you won’t be getting around to revisions right away. And then keep writing.
Feedback, giving it and getting it, is an integral part of the writing craft process. It can be scary, but don’t let that fear stop you from participating. Acknowledge your fear and do it anyway; follow these tips and hopefully doing it anyway will be a little easier.