The Process of a Critique Group
It’s not always easy to join a critique group because it means we will receive criticism. Most of us have probably experienced wavering, had times when we struggled to ask for help, or avoided listening to input if it is contrary to what we thought we are doing with a piece. Even the competent, confident or boorish amongst us have insecurity or self-doubt and, for me, there’s an ever-possibility that I might end up perturbed at receiving criticism, particularly as my pieces often come from a personal place.
Overwhelmingly though, I have to say that if you find the right group for you, people are usually supportive. Critiquing can be a helpful, strengthening, intelligent way to improve your writing. It might take some time to get used to, but it’s worth it.
The first obstacle is finding a critique group that suits you. There are loads of writing groups around and most of them critique in one form or another. Once you have found one you like the look of, ask questions via their website or social media, meet a member and have a chat, or even just go along and sit in to see what it is like. It often seems easier to grasp the intricacies of something in person.
No matter what group you choose or how they work, what helps is that usually everyone attending a critique understands what’s about to take place, the process, timings, the need for constructive feedback, and so on. There’s often a knowledge, too, that they are not there to sugar-coat any responses. Simultaneously, a critique is not a place to attack the politics of a piece, destroy someone’s confidence, or pooh-pooh their efforts. What helps is that everyone knows we were all in the same spot once and we are there to improve.
It’s okay to try a group for a while and then walk away. Sometimes it’s the chair or a forceful member that people can’t get on with. Sometimes it’s too focused, or not focused enough. If you are a screenwriter there may be better ways to spend two hours on a Sunday than sitting in a room with a group of poets. Try different groups until you find one where the attendees and methods suit you. Scour social media. Ask at events. Throw yourself on writers (not literally) because even if we aren’t right for you or in your area, you can bet we will signpost you to someone who is.
I am a member of four creative writing groups, and they are all different. Some write in meetings. Some perform at events. Some like to do public workshops. The unifying factor is that all critique, and they all do so in slightly different ways.
Some groups send around pieces in advance, giving the members time to print them off, read them, annotate them, and take to the next meeting, whereupon ideas are fed back to the writer. This has benefits if your meetings are short and is also helpful for people who need more than one read-through to fully access a piece, members who share complicated pieces, or occasions when there is a very specific or technical/theoretical query.
There are also meetings where feedback is on the spot, and either verbal only or with in-line notes provided via annotation on copies distributed at the time, or where only the writer takes notes from conversation. These feedback meetings tend to be where the group is either large, with a lot of people wanting to share work, or where the writing is seen as the most beneficial or fun part of being in a group.
The other type I will mention (there are plenty more) is where members request/reserve a critique slot in advance. The session duration is then divided equally between those being critiqued. The writer brings enough copies for each member of the group. At their allotted time the writer reads aloud (though not always) the piece they wish to be critiqued. There is then a silent period where each member annotates their copy of the piece. After this, the group usually take turns to feedback and possibly ask the writer questions, before handing back their annotated copies.
No matter what type of group I’m in, without a doubt there are aspects of the meetings and people in each group that have been beneficial to my writing. It will be up to you what group you favour but whichever one you choose I know that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now if I’d never had my writing critiqued.
Over a period of time you will hopefully find people you trust to critique your work. They may not write like you, or even write in the same discipline. They may be published, or not. It might initially be or feel comforting if they are similar to you as a writer, but if they critique with your piece in mind it doesn’t matter what they write. What matters is that they are objective; that if they do find issues or have questions about the writing their feedback is about the words on the page, that it is balanced, focused and constructive rather than vague, curt and dismissive.
You don’t have to like them as people. Instead, you will hopefully see the benefit of someone who takes the critiquing as seriously as you and hits upon points that help you improve.
In truth, all pieces of writing we create are ours and as such we have the final say in what we do with them. If we never intend for them to be read by anyone else, then whether they work or not is purely a case of what we like. With a poem or piece of prose that I intend to enter a competition with, publish, submit to a magazine, or perform, it is important that it is accessible, articulate, interesting, and does what I want it to. In those instances, the writing has to be clear to the majority of readers and listeners. This is one of the reasons I take pieces to be critiqued.
When you are unsure about a piece of writing, it helps to know why before you have it critiqued. There are writers in every group who are able to critique the writing and not the writer, who can offer practical advice with regards to line-breaks, enjambment, metre, tone, character, resolution, and ask pertinent questions on the spot, but not everyone has that capacity. Some people need a little more help—including, on occasion, you: the writer.
A good way to help each other is to let members know what your queries are just before you hand out copies or read a piece, asking them to focus on a particular passage, phrasing or device because you need a pair of fresh eyes on it. This will also mean that you are sure of what you need to focus on.
Personally, I prefer not to lead or prompt others’ responses by flagging up questions as my doubts are usually organically answered during the feedback and because I want the fresh opinion and insight of each member, at that moment, around the table. But that’s just my method.
Without a doubt, however, critiquing needs openness and willingness.
Openness on the part of the person reading to read fairly, to take the time to reflect and maybe change views, to share an observation, in the understanding that we all need to know where improvements might be needed, and willingness to offer this to the writer in a way that provides clarity and sheds positive light on the matter rather than doubts, which set people back. Openness is also needed on the part of the writer to acknowledge that there is work to be done in the first place, so it’s okay if someone else notices, and willingness to recieve criticism in a way that builds trust, and to not turn a chat into a war. Passion for writing is great but there doesn’t have to be blood or bile. A group’s ethos usually ensures there isn’t.
Feeding back after the annotation part of a session (if the group does that) can be done in many ways, but mostly people take turns to share their observations. Once someone starts a train of thought others will join in and comment on an idea, agree or disagree, and discuss. It is up to the chair and the group whether this happens and how far it goes.
Good-natured back-and-forth is natural, but it can be like a large game of catch if too many join in or if side-chats take place. The advantage of using a one-feedback-at-a-time approach is that all comments can be heard (especially as not everyone’s written feedback is legible), that there is a capacity to follow a discussion, that the members can ensure that comments remain focused and non-repetitive.
In some groups the members will ask the writer what they meant by a title or what it refers to before the sharing of a piece. In others, during the feedback session writers might be happy to take and answer questions about the piece as observations are shared. In some the writer remains silent and takes additional notes or focuses on what’s being said by each individual. All approaches are valid and what’s important is what works for the group or person being critiqued.
In the feedback sessions for my pieces, I tend not to answer questions until the very end because, in the past, people have verbally—or in writing—changed their comments in response to what I say. What I want to know is what my peers think of a piece purely from how I have presented the words on the page, rather than being coloured by my intent or what a certain title refers to.
I also write down my own reflections during the feedback in addition to trying to scribe some of the verbal chat around a piece. I do this in case there are additional comments that people haven’t put on paper or a nuance that can’t be recalled later. I admit to being relatively singular in this. How each writer deals with questions is up to them and the chair, but by now this is my standard response and most folk joke about it or leave me to it.
Having said that, after all comments are made, and if there are spare minutes of my allotted time, I am usually happy to answer the occasional query. The bonus of this is that I might get a chance to discuss a specific point that’s been raised. This is a personal thing and, in the critiques I run, any writer can ask their queries before and clarify matters after. That’s up to them; there are very few absolutes.
The joy of critiquing is you can take something you like and make it better. Take something you are unsure of and cement it in. Dissect a piece drastically to get two strong parts instead of one good part. Most I know bring a reworked piece back to the group or perform the new version soon after, and often reference how the writing group in general and critique itself helped them improve it. As a system, critiquing definitely works when it’s done well.
How we perceive a piece or what we think it is about is from our perspective. We are invested in it largely because we wrote it but also because it may be a vehicle for something we need to say or is being used to reach out to someone, to be understood. We wrote it. We know it. We are it. However, one of the sheer joys of critiquing poetry and prose is that there can be a myriad of interpretations of pieces as each reader brings their own day’s vibe to the room: their own predilections, their own education or reference points. As such, there are times when even the most straightforward pieces can be understood differently.
Sometimes the best thing is discovering a reference, view, or behind-the-text thing which you hadn’t intentionally put in but someone else swears is there. When you wrote the piece, it meant X, but someone else thinks it means Y. The human brain is infinitely adaptable and that’s a great thing. We can’t always predict what’s going to surface or tell what will chime with others.
Every session ends and you go home and, after thinking upon it, later act. Sometimes to celebrate first, sometimes to brood. Maybe the next day you will have a spring in your step and read through your piece again, smiling. Maybe someone might have said something offhand and flippantly that overnight has burrowed its way in; it happens, and often it’s unintentional. Sometimes the discomfort is precisely because a member highlighted the part you were unsure of. Maybe you get cracking on improving a piece right away.
No-one knows what our words in feedback or on paper will do to another writer, but we can guess at what they might. Do you have to critique and be critiqued? Well, it’s not a legal requirement. I assume there are famous writers out there who never did it and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people are perfectly happy with what they’ve written and feel no need to get anyone else’s opinion. I knew someone who didn’t see the point as only they could “truly understand or appreciate” their writing. Someone else feared that it would be like their schooldays when, as a not very confident scholar, they were humiliated by being made to read aloud in class. Likewise, there are also people who are nervous about being critiqued or offering critique because they have never critiqued anyone before, or as someone said on one of my courses the other day, “I don’t feel qualified to give an opinion.” So no, you do not have to critique, but with a good group it will very probably help your writing, so why not give it a go?
© 2019 Gary Studley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Gary Studley is a writer, artist and teacher. He co-runs SoundLines and two live-lit nights at The Jolly Sailor and The Lighthouse.