The Value of a Critique Group

Every year I attend a writing course (or three) to hone my skills and glean from other writers. In 2011, I took a deep breath and joined a critique group. This was a step up and out for me into the wild world of exposing oneself. In a literary sense, of course…

In the past I’ve attended the sit-and-learn type of classes, where facilitators talk through a technique or share their experiences while the eager “participants” listen with pens poised and their tongues hanging out. The writing amounted to only a page or two, and sharing was optional. Informative yes; challenging–not really.

I signed up for the Short Story Clinic at the Queensland Writers’ Centre, knowing that it would require new levels of bravery and a steely resolve to produce material. Before the first session, I read such amazing pieces that I felt sure I’d joined the wrong group or that they’d let me join in out of pity. As I watched the process, I quickly came to understand that reading critically and writing critiques would actually be extremely helpful.

Reading others’ writing, it turns out, is both enjoyable and very useful. I learned to pay attention to my emotional reactions and feed that back to the author; we rarely know how our writing touches another soul, and let’s face it: that is why we write. Formulating a critique forced me to think about the elements of story and the hallmarks of good writing, both of which have become more sharply defined in my mind. These are a really good things for a writer to have a grip on!

Having others read my writing and then receiving concrete, writerly feedback was also extremely useful. Bless my non-writerly friends who’ve over the years complied with my requests to read my work: they’ve been very encouraging. The thing is, praise alone is not terribly helpful. My fellow critiquers, on the other hand, honed in on things I couldn’t see. They pointed out repetitive words; they identified inconsistencies; they offered rewordings. Sometimes they missed the spirit of the piece, but even that was helpful because it showed that I have to be more careful to set the tone.

Being a part of this one course has done more for my writing than every writing class I’ve ever attended, partly because the facilitator, author Angela Slatter, was so generous with her skill and knowledge. And she’s has a delightfully wicked wit. The surprising thing to me, though, was that I learned as much from reading my classmates’ stories as I did from receiving their comments.

We’re now exploring the possibility of continuing to collaborate. This is a very pleasing turn of events.

Things I’ve Learned in a Critique Group

1. There are some awesome unpublished writers out there, and I just spent six months or so reading (and drooling over) their material.
2. Praise is nice, but negative feedback is helpful.
3. Negative feedback doesn’t hurt. That is to say, there is no pain associated with receiving it. It feels more like “Yes, that’s right” than “Oh, it is so terrible to have someone pick at my writing.”
4. The best and maybe the ONLY way forward as a writer is to expose one’s writing to a critique group.

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