Sunday, April 02, 2006

Joining a Critique Group

This weekend, I have spent the majority of my time, going through manuscripts of my online critique group. We are a fairly new group and this was our second round of submissions.

So far, I have found my critique group a very rewarding and beneficial experience. One of the most valuable things I have found is that I gain a fresh perspective on my work.

It took me ages to build up the courage to join a critique group. It was probably as difficult, if not more so than deciding to start a blog.

I felt so insecure about sending my work out for people to comment on. Deep down I knew if I was not emotionally prepared to present my work to a group, it was not worth the bother of joining one and I was worried about everything:

  • What if I didn’t like what they said?
  • What if everyone hated my writing and told me not to bother?
  • What if I’m kidding myself about becoming a highly acclaimed children’s novelist?
  • Would I benefit from joining a group?
  • What did I want from the group?
  • And most importantly, what was I willing to give?

I suspect there comes a point in every writer's life when they consider the pros and cons of joining a critique group. I’d heard that some writers find little value from joining a group, while others find it has a measurable effect on their writing.

Writing is an isolated profession. I know from being a member of SCBWI and Wordpool that by gathering together at conferences and online, writers find support, encouragement, motivation, receive informed comments, marketing information and have a safe place to try out ideas. I know sharing constructive feedback is an excellent way to learn but, it can also be mortifying experience to expose your work to such feedback.

It was also important as a writer for children to find a group that focused primarily on children's writing. In my mind only children's writers can understand and advise on the unique requirements of writing for children. it is different to writing in other genres.

I was so lucky that several people on Wordpool, a Yahoo group I belong to, were muting an interest in setting up a critique group and some kind-soul volunteered to organise us into groups. I was one of the last to join. heart thumping and a few glasses of red wine and I hit the send button on the emial I had written and deleted twice.

We are a small Internet based group, which has its plus points. Many writers may prefer to establish a writing relationship in person than sharing work online but it has worked very well for us. Because we submit our work online and can spend time reading and commenting on the manuscripts at our own leisure, I think we give each other a more in depth commentary. Also, I have longer to absorb the advice the others have given me before I have to respond. This would not be possible in a face-to-face group.

It has also been beneficial that the other members of my group are at similar experience level to myself. I think it has helped everyone to feel comfortable and we can identify with each other’s issues. Sharing my work in progress has really helped me because I feel I can discuss it with someone without worrying I’m boring them.

We decided that our feedback would be shared with the whole group and not isolated to individual people. In this way, we can comment on what the others say as well.

There have been things I have been impressed by, and I have shared these thoughts to the group. I try to make my feedback specific and highlights the things that I liked and why I liked them, as well as the things that do not work and giving reasons why not.

What I try to remember is that other people's suggestions are just that, their suggestions. It’s up to me as the author what I take on board. I have final say on any changes I make and why I make them. If I’ve had a specific question, I want to know about the piece I have submitted I ask. For example:

  • How does the character come across?
  • Does the speech flow?

So in my opinion, when deciding if a critique group is right for you, take your time, weigh your options, but most of all, have fun. I hope we build up a rapport that will last a lifetime.

Here are some notes that have helped me when making comments to my online critique group. Maybe you’ll find them beneficial too.

Hints on Giving Feedback
Just as it isn’t helpful to hear only positive things, it also doesn’t help an author to hear only negative comments. If you see a number of things you would comment on about someone’s work, that’s good—it means you have a lot of information that could be valuable to the author. However, if you are offering feedback, choose your words carefully. Remember that since you are only talking with each other through written messages, the tone of your words can be hard to interpret. Try to be tactful, but be honest too. Take a few minutes to consider the tips below in order to carefully shape your response.

Shaping Your Response
Assume that everything you see was intended to serve some purpose. Can you imagine why the author did what he or she did? Preface your feedback with a phrase like, "I think maybe you were trying to ________, but instead I think this (_______) is what happened."

Be specific. It isn’t fair to say things like, "I just don’t like it," or "this is wrong." Vague phrases like this don’t offer the author any way of improving his or her work.

Instead of saying something is "bad," try these phrases:

  • "___________ isn’t working because _______."
  • "___________ isn’t clear. Do you mean _______?"
  • "___________ isn’t effective because ________."
  • "___________ is too abstract. Try ______."

If you think something isn’t working, always offer a suggestion, even if you don’t think it’s the best solution to the problem.

If something isn’t clear, ask questions to clarify the meaning.

If you are offering an interpretation, show the author specifically where (in his or her own text) you see evidence of your interpretation.

I hope these notes and my comments help you make your mind up if you are ready to join a critique group and the type of critique group that would work for you.

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