Writing groups

Submitting your work to others for their opinion can be daunting, even if they are offering their own work for the same treatment. You might feel anxious, defensive or embarrassed about your writing, or perhaps just unsure what to expect.

As someone who has been a part of a fabulous critique group for nearly twenty years (hello fellow Torcans, you great people, you!), allow me to give you a few tips on making the group work for you.

Critique others’ work from a place of respect

Firstly, there must be respect.

Respect for each other and respect for everyone’s work. No-one, if they are serious about improving their own writing, benefits from an ego-fest, be it their own ego or those of the other writers.

Leave your pomposity at the door. Remember we all started somewhere and we all have a way to go before that international prize for literature is ours.

Critique the writing, not the person

It sounds obvious when you say it, but in critiquing someone’s work, you are talking about the words on the page, not the person who put them there. You might not like someone’s comb-over or their irritating throat tickle, but if their words sing on the page, that’s what you need to comment on.

Give a little praise

No matter how hard it is to find, it’s useful to give a little praise to someone’s work. Imagine how you would feel if you are playing ten pin bowling and everyone else is getting seven or eight pins at a time and you’re only managing one. If everyone tells you that you missed nine, you’d probably feel terrible. However, if they told you that the one you got was pretty clever because it was on a rebound, and that with a bit of attention to your wrist action you might get four or five next time, you might feel a bit less hopeless. There’s always something good to say about someone’s work, even if it’s only ‘I can see that you’re trying to do here’.

Be specific in your criticisms

Being as specific as possible about what is working in a piece (and what isn’t) is more valuable than vague generalities. It’s so much more helpful for a writer to hear ‘I think the dialogue was a little stilted in this chapter. It didn’t seem to me to sound like Olivia’s voice, compared with how she spoke in the last chapter’ than ‘The dialogue didn’t work.’ Giving the writer something concrete to look at, and if possible something to compare it to, is the best sort of critiquing.

Critiquing isn’t reviewing

Sometimes we forget that critiquing isn’t reviewing. We are not telling a potential reader what we thought of the work. Rather, we are telling the author what worked for us and how they might think about fixing the things that didn’t. So, while it’s great to have a hundred errors noted in your manuscript, having some suggestions for how to improve your work is better. In the example above about dialogue, you might indicate why the dialogue sounded different. Was it the length of sentences or the choice of words? Was the language too adult for the age of the character, or did the humour come as a surprise? When offering the writer suggestions about how they might improve their work, remember that what you are offering is just suggestions. Don’t be offended if they decide not to take your advice. They are the author; you’re just offering an opinion.

Set up your writing group properly

Our group has been going for nearly twenty years and, because we are all professional writers, we started with a strict set of rules. Yours may be different, but here’s what we use:

  • Work to be critiqued has to be sent to the other participants a week before we meet.
  • Our word limit on what can be submitted is 5,000 words.
  • As we are a very small group, we all submit a piece each time we meet, but when we were a larger group, we had a schedule of when each of us could submit work. If you couldn’t make a particular submission, you arranged a swap with someone else or forfeited your spot, and you were still expected to critique the other works.
  • Everyone also marks up the manuscript and puts their comments in writing so that the author can read them later to refresh their memory.
  • We allow no more than five minutes for each person to speak about each piece, and no-one interrupts, other than to say ‘ditto’ or ‘I disagree’.
  • The author gets to answer questions and make comments on the commentary when everyone has had their say. This usually results in lots of discussion and some levity.
  • Snacks are welcome (make that essential) at each meeting and if someone needs to change a date, they must bring chocolate – lots of chocolate.

Being a part of a writing group has changed my life. I’ve made some great friends and improved my writing no end, and not just from comments my colleagues have made on my work. In looking at how other writers do things, I’ve learnt so much about good technique. I am now aware of certain bad writing habits I might have and am confident that the good stuff isn’t too bad either.

Being part of a writers group may not have made the difference between my work being published or not, but it certainly has made a difference about whether I gave up or kept going.  Long live writers groups!