Critique Groups for Writers

By Jerry Waxler

I illuminate my magic lantern and enter the caverns of my mind, searching for insights and the words to express them. As ideas appear, I gather them, rearrange them into sentences, and structure them into a completed piece. But until someone reads what I've written, it remains a private trophy. Finding the path towards readers becomes my next challenge. Fortunately I've found a simple first step along this path. I share my work with fellow writers in a peer critique group.

Through teaching you learn
When I first joined a peer group, I was looking for feedback. I've received plenty of that. And over the years, I've discovered a slew of other benefits, most of which I didn't expect. For example, as I think through what I do and don't like about a piece, my general impressions come into sharper focus. Over time, I've improved my ability to see beyond the surface of a piece to its inner workings.

And I learn from other people's critiquing style. Each one of us sees the piece in ways I wouldn't have thought of on my own. One woman in our nonfiction group was passionate about good essay structure, and often plotted out the development of each point in our work. Another wanted to guarantee that our tone embraced the reader as a trusted confidante, rather than lecturing down to them. In fiction groups, writers focus on themes of character development, plot, "writerly" sentences, and the perennial favorite: replacing "telling" with "showing."

Variety of levels and genres
Everyone comes from their unique background, at a different level of expertise, writing in their own genre and subject. This variety adds to the value of the group. When you review a more advanced writer, you learn from their techniques. You also learn by critiquing writers at a beginning level. It's amazing what I've learned by listening to myself offer advice.

Reading other writing styles and genres broadens my experience. For example, I've learned about art history, the restaurant business, weapons in outer space, and marriage. Memoirs have given me insights into childhood suffering, triumphs, the immigrant experience, and other intimate themes. And by feeling the power of memoirs, I've expanded my appreciation for this fascinating mix of truth and story.

People you don't want to be with
We make no pretense of weeding out mere mortals, and so we make mistakes. Despite my own honorable intentions, I've seen a few of my "helpful" comments result in a crestfallen look. Afterwards, I put myself in their shoes, and hear the rudeness they must have heard. But once it's left my lips, I can't delete it. So if I miss the mark or worse, blunder up against a sore spot, I can only hope to move on. This messy process does put each writer at some risk of hurt feelings. It's scary to hear feedback, more so than we would like to admit. Even mild comments can challenge our self-confidence. But I, like many others, show up month after month, exposing myself to being hurt in exchange for the possibility of being taught.

I thought I had developed a resilient attitude, until one woman bluntly rejected my piece with the sweeping statement, "I hate all such writing." I swallowed hard, and forced a smile. When I was a couple of decades younger, a comment like hers would have been justification for dropping out. But now, I wanted to learn from it. Struggling to make sense of her comment, I realized that her opinion belongs to her alone, and there's nothing I can do about it. As my pride picked itself up off the floor, I recognized a powerful lesson. I met someone face to face who is not in my audience, and who does not want my message. This helps me get over the "everyone must love me" syndrome, and allows me to write more passionately to those who do. Her feedback brought me a step closer to accepting the wide variety of public opinion. That interaction stands out as a highlight of my critique group experience. Later, when she praised one of my articles, I knew I'd earned it.

Improve your writing
So far, I've emphasized the psychological benefits of a critique group. But critique groups also build writing skills. The individual pieces I bring to the group get picked over with detailed attention. With so many eyes on my copy, they often pick up subtle errors or awkward spots that I missed after a dozen readings. Group brainstorming provides a new slant for a paragraph, a word choice, or title. Seeing the piece through their eyes, I learn what works and what doesn't, what devices earn praise, and which ones raise eyebrows.

I've been privileged to receive teaching moments that left a lasting impression. In one of my early sessions, a woman crossed out my whole first page, and said there was no reason for such a long preamble. She said the piece works more effectively when I jump right in. And after rereading it, I agreed. That single session helped me reformulate the way I start my pieces. Over the years, various readers told me my pieces were more compelling when I talked about my own experience. Their comments convinced me to reveal more of myself. The accumulated result has been a richer writing voice. And I've seen stylistic progress in every writer who sticks with the program.

Where can you find a group?
The first place to look for a critique group is your local library. Since I couldn't find one there, I tried the internet. I typed the phrase "writer group" along with my town name. Then I expanded the search by using the name of my county and surrounding towns, until I found the Writers Room in Doylestown, a fabulous organization which changed my life, and then faded into the past. I have since found or formed other groups to feed my habit.

Once you find a group, decide if it's the right one for you. Attend a few meetings before making up your mind. You'll soon discover each group, and even each session takes on a unique personality, depending on the subject matter, the mood of the participants, and the mix of people who show up that day. Over time, you realize your initial impression was merely one sliver. Benefits add up, so if you suffer through dull meetings, you'll be there for the enthusiastic ones. And they all contribute to your development.

If you can't find a group you like, start your own. Place an ad at the library or in the local newspaper. Finding a location can be challenging. Most libraries have community rooms for such purposes, and some school districts make rooms available. Perhaps your recruited members have a home or office where you can meet. At your first meeting, pick a facilitator who is willing to tend the schedule, confirm the meeting place, and take care of other administrative details.

How does our group work?
Here is the way most of my critique groups work. At the end of each meeting, four people volunteer to offer a piece for next time. Then two weeks before the next meeting, they email their submission to the whole group. (Online groups such as yahoo and google simplify this process.) We all read the submissions before the meeting, and mark them up. At the meeting, we devote a half hour to discussing each piece. The writer is encouraged to listen quietly, since the important question is what the reader got from the page. After the discussion we give the writer our marked up copy for further reflection.

That's not the only way to run a critique group. Occasionally, if requested, we brainstorm marketing directions for a piece. I've also been in groups that free-write together and then read their work aloud. If you're not sure how to run meetings, ask if anyone has had experience with a critique group and if so, what worked for them. Or find instructions for critique groups posted on the net. Or make up your own rules. Experiment. Have fun.

Breaks the isolation
It's strange working so passionately at a task that's as isolated as a Montana park ranger. Few people see me in the act of writing, and I have few people with whom to share shoptalk. By joining a critique group I can fix those deficiencies.

Alone at my desk, I delve into the source of ideas and words, and fashion some sort of orderly statements. Then in the group I watch and listen as my peers tell me what happened when my words entered their mind. Their response puts a human face on my readers, reminding me that writing is ultimately a form of communication. In collaboration with my fellow writers, I transform my thoughts into an intimate act of sharing.