Category Archives: critique groups

the value of critique groups, take two

When beginning writers ask me what’s most important, I direct them to find or to start a critique group. There are a few important ground rules:

  • The discussion remains on the writing itself—NOT on the writer, or the story they’ve chosen to tell, but on strengthening the words on the page.
  • No blaming or mean comments! I call this flaming. I would leave a group immediately if that kind of behavior took place. And not return.
  • Start by commenting on the writing strengths you’ve noted. Occasionally in new writers, strengths are hard to find. But you can. Look for them.
  • Then move into areas where the work can be improved. Be KIND. You are speaking to yourself here.
  • Meet weekly as possible. I think five is a good maximum number of people, particularly if everyone is bringing writing each week.
  • In the three critique groups I’ve been in (one for five years, one for twelve, then I moved to another state and I’ve been in this one for three years), we bring up to ten pages of double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 point print outs, with one inch margins, for everyone, including a copy for ourselves. The double spacing allows room for comments, and my favorite, + signs for language I love. The font, font size, and margins keep everyone writing to about the same length.
  • Each person reads their work out loud, and the others make written comments as they read. After the reading, each member offers verbal comments as well. These are best received in silence. No arguing! It’s only one person’s opinion.
    Judgment has no place here: (such as “this is wrong”) Discernment is valuable: (This paragraph conveyed more anger than I think you intended.)
  • No disclaimers or apologies about your writing! Be brave. Allow it to stand on its own.

As soon as I get home, I sit down and consider their feedback while it is fresh. For example, occasionally every critiquer commented on the same few sentences, but their opinions were directly opposite. Then I know that area needs assessment, and it’s up to me to weigh their feedback and find my own way through. Sometimes those sentences are removed, or completely reframed. Very occasionally, I leave them as they are. In the end, it’s up to the writer.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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critique groups

I remember the feelings and sensations running through my body when I walked into my very first critique group, some twenty years ago: terror, excitement, sweaty palms. Curiosity, fear of rejection. I only tangentially knew one person in the room. I was faced with exposing my writing to strangers. My hands shook. My heart raced.

What I found pleased me. The focus remained on the writing—noticing strengths first, then encouraging in areas that needed improvement. I was very lucky in my first group. They had the sense, with the beginning writer that I was, to choose two main areas for me to work on: maintaining point-of-view, and learning to control narrative distance. Point-of-view means that the reader knows what is going on in the thoughts and feelings of one character, but can only observe the other characters from the outside. Narrative distance describes whether the writing brings us in, an intimate experience, or holds us away, at a distance. A writer needs to learn to control this sense of distance, because writing demands a range of distances.

After feedback over a few weeks, I caught on to holding the point of view to one character, and not jumping from one character’s mind to another, which can make the reader feel jerked around. Books can have more than one point-of-view character, but it needs to be handled skillfully.

My understanding of narrative distance took longer—writing thousands upon thousands of words, and listening to other people’s writing, and the comments offered about their use of narrative distance.

The beauty and strength of critique groups is that it’s easier to first learn to identify weaknesses in other peoples’ work—then eventually we can see those weaknesses in our own. I don’t this this value can be underestimated. It’s huge. We are protective of our own writing. It takes time and skillful critiques until we can view our own writing with a less-filtered lens.

Tomorrow, some specific suggestions for running a critique group.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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Filed under craft, critique groups, writing