Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to be a Productive and Valued Member of a Writers' Group

How to be a Productive and Valued Member of a Writers' Group

I may not be a bestselling author, but I do know what it takes to be a great member of a writing group. It takes a combination of practice, empathy, and resilience. In fact, it takes much of what it does to be a great writer. Here are some tips. 
  1. Read. 
  2. So what if you don't like post-modern horror.Read outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself to learn from and enjoy reading books and stories that you normally would avoid. There are lists of great books of every possible type all over the place. Choose a few. Read them. Just fucking read already. 
  3. Did I say anything about reading? Read everything from the back of the cereal box to Tolstoy.
  4. But the new James Bond is opening tonight...Show up as often as you can. If you only show up when your own work is being critiqued, you will quickly fall out of favor with the group. 
  5. Was that middle, end, beginning? Learn the rules of storytelling. You can do this by reading. Yes reading. Did I mention reading?
  6. Orange you glad I didn't say banana? Does the hero always have to reluctant? Do we always have to like the point of view? Once you learn the rules, break them. At least once. (Oh wait, that was a writing tip...Oh well.)
9 Tips for Critiquing Others
  1. Why do you keep harping on reading? Have you been reading? Because if you haven’t, you have no business critiquing.
  2. Share the love. Be generous. Your critique is important, but your generosity and encouragement as a fellow writer and reader are even more so. Help the other members of your group become better writers by praising what they do well and pointing out what could be better. 
  3. Establish trust. This might mean restraining your wildly inventive and brilliant ideas for a session or two while you get to know the group and how they communicate. But there will be time for you to shine as you become a valued member of the group.
  4. Nice is as nice does. Nice doesn’t make for good critique. Once you have established trust in the group, you can become more critical. 
  5. Lock up your inner snark. Zingers aren’t critique.
  6. It's not your story. When you critique, remember the writer may not be writing for you. She may be addressing someone else. It’s your job to make her more successful in her storytelling. It isn’t your job to change the writing into something you would prefer.
  7. Know your limitations. If you’ve been reading, then you know what you like and what you don’t like. If a book has been read and loved by many and you can’t stand it, then  that is something worth noting. Why don’t you like it? A little self awareness will help you become better at critiquing work you don’t like.
  8. They heard you the first time. When you find yourself (and you will) in the position of trying to convince the other critical readers of your take on the piece under review, stop before it becomes an endless loop. Say your piece, trust that the writer has heard it, and move on. Trust me, that's easier to write than to do. (For me, at least.)
  9. Lose the red pen. Critique groups are not editorial groups. There are times when you just cannot avoid picking up the red pen and rearranging words, fixing punctuation, and rewriting sentences. This should never be done for more than a few paragraphs. You are not an editor. You are there to engage with the writing in a meaningful and careful manner that goes beyond fixing poor grammar or a misshapen sentence. This can be extremely difficult. I find the group helps me formalize my critique. So do time and practice.
8 Tips for Getting Critique
  1. Mirror mirror on the wall... If what you want from a critique group is an affirmation of your talent, then get an agent and be done with it. Don’t burden the group with your easily bruised ego.
  2. How do you keep your armor so shiny? Try to drop your defensive posture. When you have a chance to respond to the critique, use that time to ask questions and get more out of the group. (Hat tip to Eric for pointing this out in his comment.)
  3. Know when you need critique and when you need editing. If you don’t want to change your work, then don’t submit it. Give it to an editor.
  4. Set expectations for the group. Tell them what you want to learn. Give them guidelines. Every submission you make to the group should be accompanied by 3 questions you want your critical readers to think about. 
  5. Don’t wait for something to be perfect. You joined the group for their help. Let them help. Don’t try to impress them with your expertise. 
  6. I can't stand up for falling down. Sometimes the best way to succeed is to fail. It’s often easier to make a horrid piece of storytelling great than to improve a mediocre one. 
  7. Stand up for yourself. Avoid the critiqued-to-death story. You need to have enough confidence in your story to take the critique that improves your work and leave the other stuff behind. 
  8. Remember a project is never finished. It’s abandoned. There is only so close to perfect you can get.
(UPDATE: Thanks to Jackie for advice on the lead ins... and for the best ones.)


  1. Fabulous write-up! I especially enjoyed your tips for receiving critique. My only addition would be to drop any kind of defensive posture and avoid the temptation to explain yourself instead of using the time to probe for other critique that might be available from the group. I always thought our group's "cone of silence" was a valuable concept for critique.

    1. I couldn't agree more...I plan to write a post on what we've learned about running a critique session as well, so the cone of silence will certainly be there...

    2. And your comment has been added.

  2. Thanks for posting! It's a good sign when the writer whose piece was critiqued leaves with a positive feeling that he knows how to make the piece better. And he's ready to tackle revision with enthusiasm. Then we've done a good job!

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with, Barbara. Not only is it about critique, but it's also about support.

      I'd also like to add that a writer simply cannot make everyone happy. There will always be some people who love it and some who don't it. The most important is if the writer loves it and feels true to their own story. Another way of putting it, critique something for what it is, now what you would do but in the spirit of what the writer's goals are. It is not the critiquer's story, it is the writer's.

      I don't think it's good to defend, but I do think it's good to have the guts to stand up for what you feel in your heart is right. It goes back to what I mentioned, you just can't make everyone happy. So there's a fine line here.

      Also, I think critique should be on the craft, not subjective taste. Nearly everything I read in the critique groups is not something I would buy for myself to read, but I critique it for the writing and the story it is conveying, not whether I would buy it. So I actually don't like getting this question - would you buy this book?

      And lastly, we are all writers so we need to learn to be careful in our choice of words in how we express our critiques. There's a whole lotta difference between: 'I hate the main character' and 'I would like to feel more empathy for the main character.'

      Okay just some thoughts...I could go on for ages here so I'll stop now. ;-)

    2. I agree with what both you and Barbara write. I hope that is reflected in the giving critique section. I think it's really important to get critique in a way that makes you feel energized to keep on writing. But in the getting critique section, I wanted to make it clear that critique can be painful. That's just the way it is. Thanks for the feedback.