Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Crit Groups, Time Sinks, and Other Misconceptions

A number of writers I know consider critique groups time sinks. I used to feel the same way--until Vermont College taught me otherwise.

Crit groups--the ones that really work--don't dampen the writing process, they inform it. Sure, critiques take time, and sharing your writing when it's still raw can be a nerve-wracking experience. But if our true aim is to grow our writing and share it with the rest of the world, don't we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of the experience?

The problem is not all crit groups work. And if you're like me, you can recall at least one time when you were critiqued by someone who was less than constructive about what worked and what didn't in a piece.

I've come to believe that one of the main reasons crit groups fail is that the majority of members think with a writer's heart instead of an editor's ear. I'm the first to admit I used to give critiques this way. Over the years, I've praised beautifully written prose that stalled the plot rather than propelled it. I've allowed favorite characters to act out of character rather than question the authenticity of their actions. And I've endured hours of debate about proper comma placement instead of redirecting discussions toward more substantive issues, such as plot, character, and setting.

Unfortunately, safe approaches may protect feelings, but they don't serve the story. Or the writer hoping to reduce the number of rejections gracing his or her mailbox.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating cutthroat critiquing. No writer needs a group like that--not when our inner critics give us enough of a beating on their own, thank you. What I am suggesting is that we owe it to our process and our fellow writers to hone our editor's ear because only through honesty can we ever truly grow our craft.

For the record, my own editor's ear is far from perfect. But it's getting more reliable thanks to fellow crit group members I can trust to be honest, and a few techniques I've picked up along the way:

*Eliminate use of the word "you" when giving a critique. Face it. Launching any crit with "you should write it this way," or "you shouldn't write it that way" sets up the listener to be defensive from the get go.

*Since one of the main reasons for meeting regularly with other writers is to get support and encouragement, start with the positives in a piece. Lift up its strengths, follow with questions it raised, and close again with strengths.

*Don't get hung up on commas and line edits. Think globally--about plot, and themes, and imagery, and setting. Sure, strong writing will carry a piece a long way, but few manuscripts will merit a second look if the plot makes no sense, or the characters are unbelievable.

*Read. Read. Read. If a book really works for you, find the parts you like. Dissect them line by line, word by word, until you're able to define what's working and why. If you lose interest in a book halfway, investigate what bugged you about the book. Did the plot collapse? Are the characters acting out of character? Identify what caused you to lose interest, so that you can avoid the same mistake(s) in your own writing, and articulate those problem areas in others' work.

*Don't stay in a group that berates, or praises everything. Find another group or start your own with members willing to be as honest about your work as you are about theirs.

Appetite for writing: On hold this morning. On my way to crit group. Eager to hear what my fellow writer/editors thought of my latest installment.


Chris Barton said...

Ack. It occurs to me now that it's been two years since I was last in a crit group -- I dropped out when my younger son was a newborn.

But you've whetted my appetite for getting back into one, though "appetite" doesn't quite do the feeling justice. "Need" is more like it. Thanks for reminding me how valuable a good crit group can be.

Kelly said...

Good points all, Kim. I'm in an online crit group now and I find it works really well for me to have that flexibility of when to respond (3-day window). And my novel is going to be a lot better because of my group.