Writing Groups

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This post by Craig Snider

As writers, we often find ourselves writing in solitude with little or no feedback. Sometimes, we my feel tempted to ask our friends or family for their opinions. Inevitably, this often turns out to be a mistake. With a few exceptions (like Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha), asking a spouse can cause issues, and one may find themselves sleeping in the canine domicile after retorting, “What do you know about writing anyway?? You like the Twilight books, for God’s sake!!”

Anyway, a writer’s best friend is a reader or group of readers who can provide great and constructive feedback. But, to be a part of a great group, you have to be able to give that great feedback in return. Here are some tips on how to do that.

1. Read the piece: Yeah, I know. This one is pretty obvious, but let me explain. You should read the assigned piece–at least three times. Why? The first time you read it should be for sheer pleasure. Don’t make any notes. Don’t make any edits. Don’t do anything, but read it. When you’ve finished this first reading, take some notes about how you felt about the piece in general and any initial thoughts, but only AFTER you have completed the initial reading.

Now, read it a second time. This is where you’ll do most of your line edits. Fix the grammar and sentence clarity. Don’t, however, tackle any continuity issues or larger aspects of the piece. Just line edits. Be sure to take notes of any inconsistencies or questions you have, as well as any character notes.

On the third reading is where you’ll do most of the literary heavy lifting. Make sure the story is tight, consistent, maintains the same voice, has good pacing, and has a satisfying hook and ending, among the rest of the necessary ingredients.

*Note: if you are reading a partial story, or a chapter(s) from a larger work, be sure not to change anything that seems inconsistent, as it may be explained in an earlier/later part of the book. And, be sure to ask the author for a synopsis before starting.

2. Be specific: This is vital to a good critique. If you say, “It was good. I really liked it,” you aren’t giving the author anything to work with other than something they could have gotten from a general poll. This is more difficult than it sounds. It does require a little bit of knowledge about story structure and writing technique. But, if that is not your forte, then you can dig into other specifics, such as character interaction, how believable the dialog or plot is, or some other aspect that can be tackled without having any particular knowledge of writing technique. A little bit of insight about a scene or character can go a long way and is often more helpful than someone telling you your plot points are in the wrong spot, or that your characters goals are out of alignment with the theme of the piece…if that is even a thing. I don’t know.

3. Be objective: This can sometimes be hard to do, especially if the writing is tackling difficult subjects, or otherwise hits some hot buttons. The best think one can do is to try to remove any personal opinions from the process. This requires an open mind, and an understanding that writing is about expressing one’s self, and that the writer wants his story critiqued, not his lifestyle. This also means never addressing the writer personally. So, not a great idea to say, “Why would you even write that? It is bad enough you had the Nazi zombie priest officiate the human-animal wedding, but then you went and made fun of Jersey Shore. What is wrong with you??”

4. Understand the tone of the piece: You know how sometimes you are messaging someone and they send you something like, “sometimes, i just want to kill my boss,” and you can’t really tell if they are kidding or not because they did get fired that time for punching out a former boss, and it is really hard to tell if they are joking in text? That’s because it is really hard to make that determination unless it is really obvious.

It is the same with fiction. While it is up to the author to try to get the tone across, she may not realize that you’re getting a completely different tone. It is important to ask the author what they were “going for.” Because, at this point, they may have a disconnect.

5. Be honest: This one is tricky. You have to know how to balance giving the author an honest assessment of their work without being hurtful, or at least appearing so. This is important, as no one wants to be discouraged about their writing. We are all very sensitive about our work, and while you shouldn’t sugar-coat it, you don’t have to try do destroy them either.

6. Don’t interrupt/add: Once you’ve finished your critique, you’re done. Sometimes, when someone else is giving their critique it will make you remember an important point you wanted to make, or something they say you might agree with and want to let the author know. Don’t. This is the other person’s time to talk. Take notes and be sure to send a message to the author later. They are already in information overload. They don’t need you trying to get your final point in.

That will get you started.

But, what about receiving a critique? This is a skill in and of itself. Depending on how your group works, you shouldn’t talk, ask questions, or justify yourself during the critique. Wait until the end to do this, but even better is to wait until all the critiques are over, depending on the size of your group. Be sure to thank the group when they’ve finished.

A talented and well-honed group can provide some vital feedback for beginning and advanced writers alike. But, in the end, a writer has to judge for themselves if the group is providing helpful feedback. Here’s one clue: if everyone is telling you the same thing, like having a Nazi zombie priest could be offensive for a kid’s book, then it may be a good idea to think on it.

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19 Responses to Writing Groups

  1. Wranglers says:

    Thanks Craig, you always have very insightful, and humorist blogs. I learned a lot of what you are saying years ago when I was in an online critique group. I loved that group. It started out as Spoiled Ink then went to Edit Red. It was a great place for me when I was just starting out. It didnt take them long to teach me proper critique etiquette. Enjoyed the Blog. Cher’ley

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thanks Cher’ley!

      Yeah, I think anyone that has been writing for a while knows what groups are helpful, and what to/not to do. They can be so beneficial. But, on the flip-side, they can also be detrimental… Hmmm… I guess I should make my next post on how to tell the difference!

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  2. Mike Staton says:

    I participate in an online writers’ workshop — Online Writers Workshop of SF, Fantasy and Horror. I’ve run chapters of my books through it since about 2002. At one time I had four real good critters who did helpful critiques. Now I’m down to just two. I’ve gone to a local writers group in Las Vegas where members read their chapters and short stories aloud and the hear critiques from fellow members. I read chapter 1 of my third novel, but I don’t think it’s as good as the written critiques I get from my OWW online friends.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thanks for reading Mike!

      I hear you. I am lucky that I have a group where I trust the opinions of ALL the members. That is pretty rare. So, stick with those you trust until it becomes absolutely necessary to find new readers.

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  3. These are good points, most of which I try to follow with the writing groups in which I participate.

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  4. Travis says:

    All great points, Craig. It sounds like you have a well honed writing group. I’m in one and they have helped me tremendously.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Thank you Travis. I am! I was very lucky to fall in with them. What is nice is that they all provide a niche critique. While one may not have as much technical experience as another, they may point out things from a unique perspective. I love that.

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  5. Doris says:

    Timely and useful information. It is not easy to give or get a critique, but they are so valuable if done correctly. You have given a good spine to the process. Thank you. Doris

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    • Craig Snider says:

      I appreciate you reading the post.

      Yeah, it really is. I still find myself focusing on the negatives when I give a critique and have to remember to focus on the positives too. I don’t do this to try to tear anyone down. I just feel like that is the quickest way to improve a piece. But, it is important to balance that feedback. Unless you’re like me. I want to hear all the bad stuff. I only want to hear the good stuff when it was so good, they had no choice but to comment on it. 😉

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  6. Joe Stephens says:

    I would love to find a group like this! I have a few beta readers that read my books, but it’s all done by email and I would really like to have a face-to-face writer’s group that I met with regularly.

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    • Craig Snider says:

      Hey Joe!

      I agree. It is certainly nice having someone you can send your work to anytime. But, meeting face to face has that added benefit of camaraderie, and just gives you a chance to sit and talk with other writers. That is a huge benefit. Thanks for reading!

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  7. wyoauthor1 says:

    Great post, Craig! My writer’s group is wonderful, and though we do things a bit differently, we are a close-knit, encouraging and helpful unit from whom I always learn something. Just like this group! Thanks for your insights and helpful post!!

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  8. Nancy Jardine says:

    I’ve never been able to regularly attend ‘face to face’ writers groups- due to time constraints – and haven’t had any on-line groups or critique partners along the way, either. That’s meant my author journey has been a pretty lonely one to date, but I certainly see the value of getting an overview at a pre- edit, and pre- submission to publisher stage. The list you describe above is a really useful and detailed one, Craig, but to me it looks more like the work an editor is paid to do if it is over a completed manuscript. If you can be perceptive like this, then it seems to me that you’re doing an editor’s job. However, it looks to be a fabulous list for a short story or for a part of a novel.

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  9. katewyland says:

    I was in a great crit group for a number of years. Each of us had different skills and thatp roved really helpful. Hope I can find another like it in my new place.
    Good post.

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  10. S. J. Brown says:

    Craig, Great advice. Writers groups can also be great motivators. When others are expecting to read your work in a certain time frame it seems to help me get my butt in the seat and get some work done.

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  11. sstamm625 says:

    Great post, Craig. I like the three times through reading advice and what to do with each round very much.

    Like

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