Recently, friend and fellow author, Sharon Overend, was invited on CBC Radio One to talk about the CBC’s short story contest and her current writing group. Sharon is one of the best short story writers I know. Her stories grab you at the opening and will not let go until the very end. Her short fiction has won awards, made it into literary journals and has even been nominated for the prestigious Journey Prize. But instead of focusing on the CBC annual contest, their conversation turned to the value of a writing group.
Writing groups can take different forms. They range from casual gatherings where there may be writing on the spot to more structured critique groups where a writer can get immediate feedback on their work. Sharon was discussing the inspiration that may be found through a writing group, and one thing she said particularly caught my ear:
“Sometimes the creative collective is enough to spur you on.”
When I listened to Sharon’s interview about the power of a writing group, it reinforced for me what a gift it is to surround yourself with that support.
It got me thinking of my own experience. I’ve been with the same critique group for the past six years, and I consider that the decision to join was the best one I made for improving my craft.
The group is called Writing Is Hard Work. Though it perfectly captures a writing truth, it is not the catchiest of names, we all admit, but it does state what we do. If one was looking for a perfunctory pat on the back every time they strung together a grammatically correct sentence, this isn’t the group for them. No, our goal was to hone in on the weakness of the piece being examined to help the author strengthen their story.And the discussion has never been boring. Some of our members have developed into budding thespians who dramatize exactly why a scene doesn’t work. Trust me, those performances stay with you. Over time, we could hear each other’s voices in our heads when we were heading down the same rabbit hole that didn’t work the first time. Sure, we’d offer praise when praise was due, and sometimes we did have to remind ourselves to focus on what was working with as much relish as what wasn’t working so as to help the author replicate their success.
Even though the feedback was direct and at times brutal, amazingly enough, I never left those evenings feeling discouraged. Instead, I’d feel revitalized and encouraged by their support, determined to rethink my story. They challenged me to dig deeper, and we all learned from each other’s mistakes. They also kept me writing.
The key, I believe, is the difference between constructive and detrimental feedback. The former has your improvement at heart, while the latter (intentionally or not) cripples your ability to continue writing.
Here are some thoughts on what makes for a constructive critique group:
- They will give you space to explore what is wrong with your piece. Of course they will make suggestions for improvement, but there is an explicit understanding that you are the author and only you will know how to fix it. A healthy group will encourage discussions to explore what isn’t working. Think of Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I keep this in mind all the time, and Neil is always right.
- Holds your piece to the fire, not your feet. Writers are more likely to accept criticism and be open to suggestions when they’re delivered non-confrontationally and with respect. No good will ever be come of nailing the other writer to the wall or belittling them. Instead, they’ll simply shut down. There is a fine between being direct and crushing.
- Considers the skill level of the writer. Some writers are at different stages in their development and when delivering feedback, it best to tailor your feedback to what the other writer can reasonably work on. It really doesn’t help to inundate a new writer with everything that they need to fix at once. Perhaps they have to work on the most pressing items, and when they have mastered that, drill down further on how to add those extra layers.
- Inspires trust. At times, it’s hard to be honest with another writer, worrying that you will crush them. It’s easier to say that the piece was an enjoyable read but this won’t help that author improve. A thorough critique will attempt to drill down and examine the work from different angles. The group exists to help everyone improve, and the circle won’t work if there is no trust between members. If you don’t feel the group has your best interests at heart or they aren’t truly rooting for you, then there is no trust, and you should find a new group. It works both ways. Be honest and respectful.
Not every critique group works. Even ours didn’t work for many authors who decided to take a break and never made it back to us. You have to go where you feel encouraged, not discouraged. Also, it’s best to find a group where the members are mostly at the same level as you are and who like to read your genre.
And to leave you with what inspired me, here is the link to Sharon Overend’s interview on CBC Radio One. I hope this inspires you too!
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