Writing critiques – necessary evil, or wonderful energisers?

For some reason, the subject of writing groups has been surfacing around me over the last month or so. I belong to two different groups, and people I meet have been asking me about how they work. So I brought up the subject at the Writers’ Rendezvous (an informal monthly meeting of local writers, see photo) and asked for input.Writers-Rendezvous-May-2014-Westport-CT-BN

So far, I have come across four different types of group. I thought I’d list them here and get your input, too. Please comment to let me know which kind of group you think works best.

critiqueOne writer talked about a group she used to attend in New York, which she had found very effective. That one allowed people to read their work, and to hear the group’s response, but there were 20 writers in it. Obviously, this meant that not everyone could be heard each week.
Another person currently facilitates a group in Trumbull, CT, (about 20 minutes away from me) which has eight participants. Even here, because of the numbers, while the critiquing sounds as though it’s thorough, writers only have a chance to be critiqued four times a year.
The Fairfield Public Library hosts several weekly writing groups, and there’s always a waiting list of people wanting to join. (I may still be on that list, but after a two or three years waiting, a place hasn’t become available yet…) One of our Writers’ Rendezvous participants runs such a group. It has eight members, not all of whom are present every week. The focus is on reading a suggested five double-spaced pages aloud (roughly 1500 words) as others read along on copies of the work. Then the work is critiqued by the group. The aim is not to repeat a critique if someone else has already made the same observation. The group does not distribute work ahead of time.

One group I belong to has four members, and we send each other our work ahead of the fortnightly meeting (up to 10 pages, double spaced). Then we bring our critiques to the meeting. This seems to work well, and produces in-depth critiquing, which is very valuable. But, of course, the number of participants needs to be limited, or the amount of ‘homework’ before each meeting would be too onerous.

I belong to a second group, with three people, where we don’t see each other’s work ahead of time, but read it aloud (up to 10 pages at the weekly meeting) and critique it on the fly. This tends to make for broad-brush critiquing, particularly if a person reads well. I often think people are bamboozled by my English accent into thinking my writing is better than it is. Meaning, I suppose, that I don’t get as much critiquing in this group as I think I need. On the other hand, I do have to show up each week. If a member is away, unless they’re totally beyond reach, she phones or Skypes in, so as not to miss a meeting.
I have heard of, but don’t know anyone who’s tried it, online writing critique groups. I’m not sure exactly what the guidelines are, but I think they must be a boon for writers who can’t reach a group in person. They may also have the benefit of having your work read by a person who doesn’t know you and therefore has no idea what you’re trying to convey, except through your writing.
There’s one more idea you might want to consider.

Adele Annesi, one of the editors of NowWhat? Creative Writers’ Guide told us at the Writers’ Salon at Fairfield Library a few days ago that she has a writing buddy with whom she meets regularly. They meet at a local coffee shop and then sit there and write for a while, before looking at each other’s work. So that’s yet one more type of writing partnership.

For me, the value in critique groups is two-fold: I get (and, hopefully, give) constructive feedback and, more important, I have to write in order to bring something to the group. This is an enormous plus for a procrastinator like me.

There are things to bear in mind if you’re thinking of starting or joining a group. I think groups like this work best if the participants are writing in a similar genre. It needn’t be all fiction, or all memoir, but I think a group specifically for writers of poetry or children’s books would be more useful than a mixed one. What do you think?

Then there are the friendships that form in writing groups, which can be lifelong. The advantage, and the disadvantage, of friendship is that your friends understand your work, which is gratifying but not necessarily always helpful. They may be able to read between the lines to understand it, whereas your unknown reader won’t. The other advantage/disadvantage is that friendship can allow for no-holds-barred criticism, which may prove, depending on one’s mood, either energizing (I’ll show them!) or discouraging (I’m never writing another word.)

All feedback welcome!

Guest Post: Carolyn Mansager doesn’t procrastinate

I was talking to a writing friend, Carolyn Mansager the other day about how she manages to avoid procrastination when she’s writing. She told me she has a couple of writing partners, one in Connecticut and one in California. I asked her to explain how it worked, and here’s what she had to say:

CMA writing partner does help maintain deadlines that you don’t otherwise have. But the other part of the equation is that a writing partner makes you accountable. The two combined are what makes writing with a partner the most productive.

If you are showing each other your work, each person knows, whether you share via email or in person, that you either did the work or you did not. There is neither honor system nor wiggle room around this fact. You assign your writing partner, for example, “email me 500 words by midnight tonight” and either you have an email with 500 words from them, or you don’t. Accountability.

Or, you tell your writing partner: “I have the goal of doing x, and will email you the first draft by Y (date and time) and either you do it, and they get it, with a thumbs up, kudos or comments (depends on your relationship) or you don’t, and you get the “Where is it?” In that case, you may be running late, or something happens in life, and you can share that event with them, and he or she will (hopefully) understand, and you move on from there.

A writing partner is also allowed to ask you this question, “Why aren’t you getting the writing done?” It becomes a friendship situation sometimes. Writing can be solitary and our brains work a bit differently. So being able to talk about it with another writer is a great help. Sometimes this can get worked out over coffee, or in the case of RG and myself; we met in the bar at Grand Central Terminal, while we were both, coincidentally, heading for the same train. Then we discussed it on the train ride home.CM1

As a result of our agreement, I am now waiting for RG’s 500 words, emailed to me. He has a deadline and knows I am waiting for his words. Chances are good, he’ll do it now. He’s waiting for mine, too. He and I met through the Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) group and ours is a writing relationship. It’s different from my writing relationship with Yvette, but that happens. Two people, two writers, work differently sometimes.
“My West Coast writing partner Yvette and I contact each other via Facebook i.m. and agree that it is “time to set the rooster” that means the alarm on my phone, and I keep the time. We negotiate when and for what amount of time we write. We write in separate rooms, sometimes in different time zones, for the allotted amount of time. Although we can’t see each other writing, we believe that’s what we are doing then. The word count says it all. Either you have words down at the end of the time, when the “rooster” crows, or you don’t. The rest is the same accountability as with my East Coast writing partner.
Since writing is a solitary event, we also make time to meet with each other, to have conversation as friends, and sit in the same room and write, when we are in the same vicinity. The overall goal is to support each others’ individual writing goals, and help guide each other to completion of individual projects, with support of another writer. I recommend making time to write, if only for a few minutes, each time writers get together. That way, we are alleviating procrastination and promote word count completion. We are also building writing connections and friendships.