How to improve your own writing – Critiquing

When I started writing, I had a huge inflated ego. I always got good grades in English. Some of my middle school and high school short stories and poems had been published. So when I wrote my first Nano length “novel,” I felt pretty smug. Having this pretty, wonderful, awesome novel, I wanted someone else to read it and praise me. So I started researching how to send my baby out into the world.

I lucked out. Instead of finding the right path to publishing, I found collections of online critique groups. It was exactly what I needed. Here’s what happened:

  • I gave the critique group my shiney new novel.
  • They tore it apart saying things like: overly descriptive, not enough conflict, the inciting incident needs to be closer to the start, reads more like a character sketch, there is no emotional feedback/reaction from the characters, the scenery is confusing.
  • I overreacted. You don’t love my novel!?!?! You just don’t know what good writing is. I rock. I am a Goddess of prose. Lay off my writing.
  • Then I went through the grieving process and decided to get even. I read what they had written. And damn. I found myself saying things like: what’s with the three paragraphs describing the space ship when the chapter is about a fight in the dinning hall.
  • Being ego centric, it was all about me. So I ran back to my own work and cut the description of non-necessary stuff down because I didn’t like it in their writing.

For me, critiquing lets me see how others approach their writing. I find myself learning from pieces I consider more polished and less polished. Here are some of the things I am looking for when I critique to help my own writing:

  • Did I get lost in a piece? What drew me in?
  • Did I find the conflict for the chapter/scene engaging or did it feel contrived?
  • Who was my favorite character and why did I pick that one?
  • Was there something I absolutely did not like about the chapter/scene? Do I do something similar in my own writing?
  • A day later, is there something I still remember about the piece that might draw me back?

I grabbed this image from http://imgarcade.com/1/shoe-polish/

But critique groups are not all about improving my own writing, here’s some of the other things I think critique groups offer:

  • Community – other writers or aspiring writers to talk with
  • Brainstorming – some critique groups are more like communities where ideas can be discussed and developed
  • Knowledge – because people tend to be in various stages of writing, critique groups offer people with knowledge on publishing, revision, editing, areas of strength in fight scenes or romance scenes or settings
  • Enegry – there is an energy about a critique group. Active ones force me to find time for my writing when all I want to do is sleep. Laid back groups don’t make me feel lazy when it takes a month for me to write a chapter or when it takes me longer to respond to a critique request.

I believe writers should be involved in critique groups, but there are varieties of critique groups. Finding the right fit is important.  The Critique Corner mentions one thing to consider is whether you are looking for line editing versus “overall editing.” Writer’s Relief indicates that finding a critique group should include finding trained critics (or critiquers). I’m not sure trained critics are necessary, but I like their advice that a good group or partner should be someone more than mom. It should be someone willing to objectively look at the piece and provide either reader or editor feedback.

Our group, Second Chapter, uses an online community called Scribophile to facilitate our critiques. This is not the only online critique group and may not be the best fit for everyone. Some other options include: the Critique Circle and Critters for Sci-fi and Fantasy (I used to use this one a lot and would continue if I had more time). The Writing World has a long list of online communities that is worth checking out.

There are also real life critique groups. Second Chapter started as an in-person critique group from a collection of Nano writers who wanted to encourage each other all year. We are located in Kansas City, Missouri. There are other real life critique groups in the area. Some charge dues to be a part of their circle, some are closed groups, and others are open to new members. My best suggestion for finding these groups it to rely on Google, local writing communities (like The Writer’s Place in Kansas City), area Art Councils (like the Kansas City Regional), local Nano groups, and area colleges. Of course, if you are in the Kansas City area, you could stop by one of the Second Chapter meetings which can be found on our calendar.

Caution:

Even though I have found critique groups to be very helpful, they can be harmful too. Writer’s Digest offers two articles worth reading on choosing a critique group. The Top 10 Worst Types of Critique Partners adds labels to the types of critics to be weary of. Critique partners who are snobs, who don’t show up, who want their stuff read but never return a thoughtful critique, and who are always or never harsh. The other article worth reading on the topic is 5 Things to Look for in a Critique Partner. Most of their advice is about finding a partner that can help you as an individual writer, someone who is not going to over push but also not going to offer nothing but praise.

I’ve fallen into some of the negatives of critique groups. Here’s my list of cautionary tales:

  • The Frankenstein Novel — When I first started getting critiques and accepting them, I took them a lot like a teacher’s corrections. I accepted and made every suggested change. Wow! The result was a mess. The original idea and purpose was lost behind the vision of many writers who had only based their opinions on a chapter versus the full novel and such wildly different styles of writing. Even I was frightened of my own creation after that experience.
  • The Editor — I’ve run into many critique partners who edit my piece and never offer real feedback on the content. While these kinds of edits may be great, I wasn’t at the point that I needed perfect grammar. I needed tighter content. What good is the correct comma when I’d just be changing the whole sentence later?
  • Retaliation — This is a problem of my own making. When I critique I tend to focus on the negative. Even when I love a story, I am not focused on the parts I love. It’s a personal failing that has caused some of my critique partners to have their hackles up. I have had others retaliate and be overly harsh on my pieces because they perceived me as being overly harsh on theirs. My best suggestion to avoid this is to make sure when giving a critique to balance the good and bad. To find the time to note the parts or a story the do work not just the ones that do not. I have improved over time and have less of this kind of problem now.
  • Rewriters — I have had critique partners in the past not be able to continue to critique until they felt I made every change that they wanted. Ghost writing another person’s version of my story is not what critiquing is about.

Brandon Sanderson (don’t be fooled by this link. It goes back to another one of the group blog posts where Sanderson’s video is embedded) in his 2013 class cautioned that critique groups have natural pitfalls that also include obsessing on small details and feeling like there is not enough conflict. I’ve never noticed this tendency, but I can see where he might be right.

All in all, I think critique groups are worth it. They helped me grow as a writer and learn a lot more about the industry. Writing is meant to be shared. This is just one way to share and hopefully improve enough to publish. If you look for a critique group or partner and find yourself in a bad situation, my advice is to step back and find a better critique group that fits your needs. Don’t let one bad experience stop you.

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