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!

Recent Comments

  • E Katherine Kerr
    July 26, 2014 - 5:28 pm · Reply

    I’m in a writing group with an English writer. Her accent doesn’t impress me at all, but her writing does. I learn something every week about writing in general and my own specifically. I appreciate the feedback. But, most of all, I know I would not keep writing if it were not for the commitment to show up with work especially when the going gets tough. Fortunately, I like my group as people. That is a plus one does not necessarily get in every situation. Oh, one other thing, the woman who hosts this group supplies us with ginger cookies.

  • cyclingrandma
    July 27, 2014 - 8:46 am · Reply

    Well said. I have been in two critique groups- a children’s writing one years ago and more recently the play writing workshop. Looking for “consensus” is the general rule, but even then, you have to listen to your own head and heart. Too many cooks…
    I have taken a few writing courses that offer feedback- one in person and two on-line. I think the on-line offers readers more of a chance to reflect than the on the spot reaction to reading. Even with the playwriting, where professional actors read your work, it’s often hard to focus and sometimes I prefer to offer my comments after the workshop via email.
    And of course your English accent makes you a better writer! ha ha…

      • Joan
        August 1, 2014 - 10:34 am · Reply

        When I taught AP English at an American school in Italy in the 90s, my students shared their writing in online response groups with students in other countries – Hong Kong, Norway, UK, Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, etc. First we worked in an AT&T special pilot project, & later we used Lotus Notes as a platform for sharing. Each week, students were required to post a piece from their portfolio &, to respond to several pieces submitted by others. Their engagement was immediate & enthusiastic. We were already deeply involved in classroom response sessions – 1-on-1, small & large group – so students were comfortable with the give & take process of sharing & critiquing . . . but now our forum was greatly expanded & we could contribute our thoughts & a piece of ourselves to a larger community of individuals whom we would never meet in person, whose purpose was writing, & whose only connection to us was online. It worked beautifully.

  • Guildfest
    July 27, 2014 - 12:25 pm · Reply

    This is great, Gabi!
    Elisabeth Morten Guildfest Productions, LLC 914-645-4578
    Sent from my iPhone

  • Francesca
    July 30, 2014 - 1:12 pm · Reply

    Do these critique groups really work? I may not know anything about writing but if I were a writer I would like someone more talented and more experienced to review and critique my work in order to learn something and improve my writing. If the people belonging to the group are just aspiring writers or ok writers or bad writers (such as the Fifty shades of grey author), what would be the point?
    Anyway, I think I would pick a small group of 4/5 people and I would like to receive the piece ahead of time. I like to think it over and take notes in order to be constructive.

    • Gabi Coatsworth
      July 30, 2014 - 8:33 pm · Reply

      Critique groups do work, but you’re absolutely right about the fact that you want to be in a group of your peers and preferably people even better (except they might not want to be with you! ). Every writer has different strengths and weaknesses so it tends to balance out. If not, you find someone else. It’s never a perfect science. 🙂

  • Adair Heitmann
    August 1, 2014 - 7:03 am · Reply

    Good subject and one with a lot of fodder Gabi! I lead the Wednesday Writing Critique Group at the Fairfield Public Library. Part of its success is that it is a mixed genre group. Poets review memoirists, who in turn critique fiction writers who comment on YA novels. This cross-pollination of expertise helps every writer communicate their message and story with clarity and voice. (Sorry the wait list is so long!)

    • Gabi Coatsworth
      August 1, 2014 - 7:20 am · Reply

      I find it fascinating that there are so many ways of doing this. I think finding the right fit must be a question of each writer persevering/trying different ones until they find the one that’s right for them.

  • Gina Ryan
    August 1, 2014 - 8:44 am · Reply

    I enjoy the Writer’s Rendezvous Gabi leads. It’s a potpourri of writers working with different genres. Although people seem to come and go, there is always a core of familiar faces offering encouragement, feedback, and conversation. Very energizing.

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