On Writer’s Circles and Criticism

This post is about why writers need to work with other writers to hone our craft.

I attended two local writer’s groups this week.

I was eager to find out in person how a general audience of adults, of other writers, would take my work. They had plenty to say, there were a few tiny moments of embarrassment over an awkward turn of phrase or a grammar discrepancy, but I gathered a real sense of how readers understood my characters and how the story was received. They saw what I could not see because I was too close, and I was grateful for the feedback.

We need to speak to each other. Authors shouldn’t cower in the face of truths that will ultimately help us to produce something better.

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(Graphic Conversation by Marc Wathie, Flickr.com)

Both writing circles had their strengths, but one was a “let’s share and pat each other on the back,” while the other was more about how the pieces were working or where they were not working. (I like the idea of talking about writing success because it means that something was communicated successfully.)

The more serious group had a prickly moment when one writer got offended by the lightest of criticisms (actually quite a positive set of remarks aimed at getting her to add to something she had done well).

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She blustered, she lashed out, she whined, and we moved on.

Next time we’ll be more gentle with her, but we won’t be doing her any favors by softening the truth.

I have participated in several creative writing workshops over the years from at least four institutions. Inevitably there is always the one poet whose work is too personal for her to ever want to hear a reader’s perspective. Then there is the writer who attacks back whenever anyone dares question a comma. When these writers refuse to hear how an actual reader reacts to their work, they are dropping out of a conversation. They are doing themselves a disservice.

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(photo by Dasha Bondareva)

It is not easy to subject our work to the general public, but writers need to begin to shape a relationship with readers.

If we want to move beyond diary entries, we need to be prepared to accept how a public readership receives our work.

When I taught college composition, I worked with former high school students who were expected to pursue a new level of academic writing.

(I would not call AP courses a “sham,” as John Tierney of The Atlantic did in 2012, but students who take AP English are required like everyone else to take composition at every postsecondary institution I’ve ever heard of with good reason.)

 

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One of my students insisted that getting an “A” in AP English should exempt him. His AP teacher had told him he wrote beautifully, and he would hear nothing else. He was a good writer, sure, but he didn’t understand the conventions of college writing, and refused to take constructive criticism–even my gentle reader response style, even peer review. His worst enemy was his attitude toward criticism. I was trying to get him to produce something that would work in front of a college professor at a prestigious university, a new audience, and he fought me every step of the way. Not until he started receiving Cs on his papers in other courses did he come back with an open mind. He realized his audience had changed, and he needed to shift his writing to communicate with a new set of readers.

 

If we want to start a conversation with a reader, with readers, writers need to get to know their audience and be ready for a dialogue. After all, the first part of reader response is to get someone to decide to read what we have to offer.

Person, Men, Theater, Curtain, Stage, Human, Silhouette

We can’t be afraid to take criticism or advice along the way. What we do with the information, how we respond to that conversation, is up to us.

 

We artists might scoff at marketing, but, if we want to be published, we need to look at the business model sometime. So let’s think of our writing as the product. Our reader is our consumer. We’re going to have to find some balance between how much (or how little) we shape our product for a more general consumer or search out a niche market.

 

This post is about the why, an argument for seeking other writers for support and criticism.

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For more about the how, read Brooke McIntyre on “How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner for You.” The Quintessential Blogger also has a post about finding writing groups. May I also recommend Critique Circle, an online writer’s circle?

 

If you’re seeking advice on how to go gently, but not too gently, into that writer’s circle, here are “Tips for Critiquing Other Writer’s Work” from Melissa Donovan.

 

Thank you for reading about my writing journey, and happy writing!

**Please note a correction was made to credit Brooke McIntyre for “How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner.”

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13 thoughts on “On Writer’s Circles and Criticism

  1. Hi Petra, I’m Brooke, the founder of Inked Voices, which is a site for private online writing groups. I just received a note on your pingback of my guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog. https://janefriedman.com/find-the-right-critique-group/ Thank you for sharing it! If your readers have questions on the how of finding / running writing groups, I’m happy to help.

    I really enjoyed your post here. I agree that it helps tremendously to release the work from yourself and do so with openness. That puts the writer in the best position to receive feedback and make the manuscript its best possible self.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Brooke,
      Thank you so much for the kind words! Your feedback is invaluable, and I always appreciate good advice and information. Good sources are great to find, and I’ll be going back to your well of information!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. At least for me a critique group is essential to keep me writing and keep me from putting out rubbish. I’ve been in a group with 11 other women for going on 10 years now and in that time we’ve watched each other’s successes and publications and One even met Oprah and has traveled the world as a result of her book on child development. She’s worked with big names and is working on several other books. Another girl in the class just put out a fabulous novel and two more are about to be published very soon. This is so exciting watching people go from infancy in their writing to whatever their success is that they’re looking for. We can be gentle or tough depending upon what a person request that we do in response to her writing. We’ve all got tough skin after all these years. Not everybody can be fortunate enough to have an ongoing group like this but it sure has meant the world to me over these years. Thanks for writing and encouraging others to join critique groups or at least allow others to hear their work.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post. I’ve been in and out of writing groups and have yet to find the one that will work for me. It’s mostly my fault as I have been busy. But finding ‘my’ writer’s group, (or starting my own) is on my to-do list! Thanks for the reminder and encouragement that we have to seek out the help of other writers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your enthusiasm. I agree. It is so hard to start on anything new. But it’s amazing how a few constructive critiques will drive your work forward. Even conversations like the ones we’re having here are inspiring. People like you remind me that there is a world of writers out there. Thank you!
      I have had so many false starts in this writing life, so many times when I let myself get too busy or distracted to do what I enjoy most.
      Sure, it’s hard to go get kindling wood, but the effort is worth it, and the fire will burn brighter for it!

      Liked by 1 person

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