Our guest post today is from Anna Mussmann, editor for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife who also writes for The Federalist. Her previous post with us was “When You Don’t Have Time” and now she graciously offers addresses critique groups. Thanks, Anna!
Let’s Talk Critique Groups
By Anna Mussmann
When I look back at the short stories I wrote four years ago, I experience the same feeling as when I see photos of the bangs I wore in early adolescence. Time has improved my judgement both of fiction and of hair.
One of the ways I learned to write better is by participating in a variety of critique groups. Even though creative writing is a solo sport, it is important to know what our work is communicating to our audience. It is also helpful to learn about craft through the input of fellow writers and readers. Unlike a writing class or a paid critique, writers’ groups are free, and they can also provide a dose of healthy peer-pressure.
Yet, just as not every moms’ group or book club is the right fit for everyone, some writing groups will be more helpful to you than others. I’ve even heard horror stories about mean-spirited groups that are downright damaging. How can you tell whether you’ve found a good group? How should you behave so that you are a helpful member of whatever group you join? In my experience, the following traits are signposts of good critique groups.
Some writing groups exist simply to provide an audience for pieces that will never be revised. Some exist to bolster the members’ motivation via deadlines or to allow authors to chitchat. Others are more focused on preparing work for publication by providing members with feedback from a skilled test audience. In my experience, writing groups tend to be more satisfying if most of the members, by and large, are pursuing the same goal.
It takes a serious investment of time to read people’s work and provide constructive, thoughtful feedback. For someone like me, it is frustrating to share this precious time with people who want only praise for their own writing or who can’t offer helpful input on others’ work. This is not to say that all members must be at the same stage in their writing development. The ability to craft a great novel and the ability to give insightful, kindly feedback are two different skills; and sometimes the best comments come from the members who are better readers than they are writers. Good writing groups recognize this and are welcoming to a wide range of people. What really matters is not so much that all members are (or will be) “publishable,” but that all have a shared love of excellence and a shared desire to learn and grow. That is what you want to look for.
Critiquing Inside the Lines
The biggest difference between someone who understands how to critique and someone who doesn’t is whether they are trying to help the author tell his own story more effectively, or whether they are trying to get the author to tell the story they think he should write instead. For a hilarious satirization of the kind of unhelpful feedback one can get from fellow writers who just don’t get it, read “If Jane Austen Got Feedback from Some Guy in a Writing Workshop.”
Good critique groups keep the emphasis in the right place by intentionally using subjective language. For instance, “The passage where Eloise confessed her love for Robert didn’t work for me. I found it really hard to believe that a real person would say those things, and I was confused about how seriously I was supposed to take the scene.” Not, “The scene where Eloise confesses her love for Robert is totally unrealistic and unbelievable. No real person would say those things.” The first phrasing is not only less combative, but it also prevents critiquers from asserting authority they do not have.
After all, there is no point in arguing about whether or not real people would say X. No doubt there is someone, somewhere, who would. What the author needs to know is whether or not most readers will believe that her characters would talk like that. This is where critiquers can make helpful suggestions: “I think this conversation might work better for me if it had already been established that Eloise is a really over-the-top character. Maybe you could use that earlier chapter where she gets upset to show how dramatically she talks when she’s feeling emotional. Maybe someone could even tease her about it to show that you, as the author, are aware that her language is kind of extreme.”
These suggestions are about making the author’s choices work better. They are a far cry from, “What about if you changed this to a historical romance with zombies? Those are so cool. Plus, I think Robert should be the one to propose because that’s more manly of him.” Sometimes inexperienced critiquers veer into problem territory when they have exhausted the useful feedback and then fail to stop talking about the piece. I was guilty of this when I first tried running a few writers’ groups.
Try to find people who want to make your story better instead of just different.
Typical guidelines for writing workshops point out that writers should say very little while listening to feedback. It’s OK to ask questions to clarify others’ comments (even things like, “Oh, I intended the scene in the grocery store as a hint that this proposal was coming—but I guess that wasn’t clear, then?”), and it’s important to thank each person for their input, but writers should not argue or explain. We need to remember that our books must be able to stand on their own without explanations from their loving creators. There is no point in trying to convince our critique partners that Heloise’s declaration of love is totally based on real life. It’s much better to appreciate being told that, at least for these readers, the scene isn’t working as-is. If writers try to argue, they (a) shut down an opportunity to learn, and, (b) risk making their critique partners hesitant to be honest.
Writers can jot everything down and later decide which advice to heed and which to toss. A friend of mine once claimed that critique groups are almost always right when they point out a problem in a story and almost always wrong when they suggest a solution. When someone wants to change my story, I use their suggestion to better understand why the current version doesn’t satisfy them. I rarely use their suggestion as my ultimate answer.
People can be a bit funny about stories. Once when I was visiting a new group, I made a comment that I still consider spot on, but several of the members seemed to feel that their friend (the author) was being “criticized” by some strangers (me) and roundly swore down my opinion. Later, after they had listened to one of my pieces, they were far more willing to accept my input. Apparently they felt that I had more right to comment once I had made myself equally vulnerable. I think this is the kind of thing that is more common among inexperienced authors.
Of course, any author who solicits feedback is taking an emotional risk. That is why it is necessary that the group create an atmosphere of respect and trust. Don’t join a group in which the members make themselves feel smart by unnecessarily shredding every little issue in a beginner’s story. Look for people who clearly enjoy other writers’ work and who give direct, honest input in kindly tones of voice. Likewise, try to remember that no one is critiquing you. Even if they completely misunderstand every word you wrote, put the best construction on their motivations—they are probably just trying to help.
How Do you Find One?
If you go to a local writing event (even the kind where authors share an open microphone), you can ask around. I’ve found a number of writing groups by Googling “writing critique group” plus the name of my location. I’ve also found some on meetup.com. Don’t forget to check out the schedule of your local library system. If local groups fail, critters.org is a long-running, stable online group in which members earn critiques by commenting on other people’s work (I had mixed success from that one and eventually quit).
Caveats and Exhortations
Fellow writers are not necessarily representational of the general public. They are more likely to be aware of writing techniques—to spot the murderer sooner, to be more annoyed by writing tropes, or to encourage unconventionality for its own sake. They won’t always give you a full idea of how ordinary readers will receive your work. Sometimes what you really need is the opinion of your friend’s niece’s cousin who just likes stories.
Yet fellow writers can help you in ways that no one else can. They can commiserate with you on the publishing process. They can share tips on increasing productivity. They will probably be better than the general public at articulating whatever they think is holding your story back, and knowing this, you can capitalize on having a self-aware audience. For instance, you may want to ask your fellow writers important questions like, “Were there places that got boring? Where were they?” or, “Where did you start to care about the characters, if at all?” and so on. You can even ask for help brainstorming why a certain scene is boring or why your protagonist doesn’t engage the reader’s’ sympathy.
You may need to try out multiple groups (or meet multiple times with different people, if you are starting your own group from scratch) before you find fellow writers whose goals and communication style mesh with yours . Sometimes, even if the group itself is a poor fit, you’ll find individuals who might be interested in exchanging critiques outside of the group schedule. It’s like making friends when you move to a new city: hard but worth it. I encourage you to learn from your fellow-writers. I’m glad that doing so helped me get my own stories beyond the equivalent of adolescent bangs.
Anna graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin and taught in Lutheran schools for several years. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna is editor of Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife, and her work can also be found in The Federalist.