Supportive, structured critique groups are critical for a writer’s psyche. I’ll never forget my scariest writing experience—submitting a first draft for critique. I call it my scariest writing experience, but I wonder if I should admit that being a part of a writing critique group marked one of my scariest life experiences. Ever. The idea of lobbing over, via email, some amateur piece of fiction for the scrutiny of strangers—writing that’s naked and scrawny and scarcely out of the womb—filled me with dread.
I was afraid I’d never get my clothes (or my dignity) back.
I say this because those quivering first-timer critique-group days have long passed, and I’ve not only survived them, I’ve become a fan. Critique groups, the good ones, are the bomb. They seem especially helpful for writers like me who need the dynamic duo—support and accountability—to keep their creative motors running.
But I’m also learning that not all critique groups are alike. I’ve since talked to other writers about the different sorts of experiences they had in their critique groups, ranging from glorious to sufficient to butt-ugly bad. In studying my own first experience a little more closely, I’m figuring out what makes some critique groups tick, and others tank.
Since I can only speak from personal experience, I’d like to offer three things I notice about my successful critique group experience starting with the words “Join our Zoom session.”
Good critique groups appoint an experienced leader.
The Narrative Project paired me and three other writers with Colleen Haggerty, one of the program’s writing coaches. A published author and experienced coach, Colleen was there to nurture and guide us rather than receive our two cents about her writing. The Narrative Project’s nine-month Get Your Book Done program offers a particularly unique feature–every critique group leader is objective, supportive, and pre-published. Colleen wasn’t out to get me, or, for that matter, to one-up me. Already successful in her own right, Colleen’s main role was to model an effective critique process and make us feel comfortable and safe. So far, so good.
Good critique groups establish an agreed-upon structure.
Colleen reminded us all from the outset (in slightly different wording) we might be writers, but even right-brained people aren’t allowed to behave like orangutans during critique. She laid out the structure: each writer takes a turn being on the hot seat to hear from each group member about his or her submission: three minutes’ worth of “what’s working,” and then three minutes about “what doesn’t,” followed by a check-in with the writer taking in the critique. Whenever one of us got carried away while critiquing another writer, Colleen’s phone would emit the “enough already!” alarm, and we’d move onto someone else. Such a blessing for introverts who can only absorb so much commentary—fawning or flaw-finding—in a single day.
Good critique groups believe each writer has something to offer.
When it was my turn to receive my first-ever critique, Colleen paused and looked straight at me onscreen, her cornflower-blue eyes scanning the very essence of my soul. My stomach muscles clenched. I felt like throwing up. My writing is who I am, I thought. But what if Colleen says my writing sucks…ergo…I suck? What if I’m so humiliated by this experience I give up and go back to paint-by-numbers?
Then I watched her break into a smile. “Dana,” she said, peering at me like we were trading secrets. “I loved this piece. I could barely keep up with my laundry—I kept wanting to read more, wondering what your characters would do next.”
My cheeks burned. “You thought it was okay…really?”
She nodded, her eyes never wavering from mine.
My ancient fears melted away in that moment. To know I’d not only found a keen reader, but someone willing to put aside their hot towels to pick up what I’d written. All of the subsequent gushing from my fellow group members left me so warm and pliant that by the time we got to “bumps” and “curiosities,” I embraced each and every one. (I would later, as a seasoned critiquer, clamour after this “negative feedback.”)
My early fears about submitting for critique now seem overblown, especially since my ever-evolving writer hang-ups give me little time to worry these days about being critiqued. Supportive, structured critique groups are special, different, vital. I like to remind myself—every word committed to paper brings us a step closer to ourselves, does it not? Or, as the late, great author Toni Morrison once said: “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
So, tell me. How has being in a critique group helped or hindered your writing? What works best for you in critique? And what doesn’t?
I’ll give you three minutes apiece to answer each question…starting…now!