One of the best things you can do to improve your craft is have your writing critiqued in a workshop setting. Whether you join a writer’s group, take a class, or find an online critique club, you will learn so much when you let others read and provide feedback on your work. I won’t sugarcoat this: it’s going to be hard—especially in the beginning. But as long as you’re willing to set your ego aside, it will be worth all the pain. You will come out of the experience a stronger writer.
My first serious critique partner was my best friend. Normally I wouldn’t recommend asking a friend to fill this role (they’re apt to go easier on you than they should) but I am fortunate that this particular friend subscribes to the school of tough love. I sent her the first five chapters of the first book I wrote with high hopes.
She tore them apart.
When I opened the files and saw the miles of comments and mark-ups she left for me, I was ready to give up on the spot. Forget writing, I was clearly no good at it. I was devastated.
But then I got my head out of my ass and remembered my friend wasn’t trying to tear me down: she genuinely wanted to help make my book better. So I took a deep breath and dove in. I stopped being precious about my story and stopped taking her feedback so damn personally.
And you know what? It worked. Two years later, that book was among 50 winners in a global writing competition that received over 280,000 entries. Is it the best thing I’ve ever written? Nope. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it was before I received that valuable critical feedback.
While that friend will always be my first (and most trusted) reader, I’ve since broadened my critique circles. I’m currently enrolled in SFU’s The Writers Studio and regular, in-person writing workshops are part of the curriculum. Last night, as I sat at the table and listened to my classmates give their feedback on my latest project, I couldn’t help but marvel at how far I’ve come. Not only has the quality of my writing improved, but my ability to receive and work with feedback has too.
If you’re planning to join a critique group to workshop your writing, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Don’t be precious
As a writer, there is truly nothing quite as painful as having your work picked apart. It’s easy to get defensive when someone is critical about our writing, regardless of how well-intended the comments are. Writers who are new to getting feedback often feel the need to justify their choices or accuse their readers of “not getting it”.
Please, I beg of you: don’t be that person.
No writer is perfect right out of the gate. If you’re joining a critique group just to have people tell you how amazing your work is, you’re coming at it all wrong (and you’ll probably end up really disappointed).
If you truly want to improve as a writer and make your work as good as it can be, you need to learn to let go. The people in your group aren’t trying to tear you down — they’re trying to help you and your writing be the best it can be!
In my class workshops we observe something called the “cone of silence”. When a writer’s work is being critiqued, they enter the cone and must spend the duration of the feedback round table discussion in silence. No interjecting, no questions, no clarifying. Only once everyone else has provided their feedback does the writer get to ask and answer questions.
If the idea of not having an opportunity to defend your work sounds unfair, think of it this way: if your book got published, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to stand over every reader’s shoulder to provide context or clear up any misunderstandings. You’ve got to get it right the first time.
You don’t have to take every note…
When you get critical feedback in a group setting, you’re going to come out of it with a lot of notes. This can be really overwhelming and disheartening at first. As you pore over your notes, it can feel like you need to change everything about your work.
But the truth is, not every note needs to be addressed. Every reader comes with their own perspectives, likes, and dislikes. In some cases, the notes you receive will just be a matter of personal preference. As the writer it’s your job to filter through the feedback you receive and decide what serves your story and what doesn’t. Take what you need and leave the rest.
…but pay attention to trends
Probably the best argument for working with a critique group vs one-on-one is the opportunity to see trends emerge from the feedback. If you see the same issues being raised by multiple people of your group, that’s something you want to pay attention to. Generally what this means is you haven’t done a good enough job of conveying something to the reader. And remember, resist the urge to accuse them of not understanding your intention. You should want your readers to be able to follow and buy-in to your work. If you don’t, who are you even writing it for?
Do you have experience with writing critique groups? What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from listening to reader feedback? Tell me about it in the comments!
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