It had been over 15 years since I workshopped my writing, but this winter I got a shot with a new critique group. One of your first questions might be how I did that. The internet is thick with posts about finding a great critique group, and I can’t imagine I’d have much to add. As far as where to look, online options include Inked Voices, which also offers workshops and critique partners, and Codex, which is for sci-fi and speculative writers. If you’re looking for in-person groups, Meetup is one place to start. But today’s post is not about that. It’s about the benefits of a critique group.
Yeah, yeah, sure. Your writing will get better. Blah blah blah. This is true. Good critiques force you to think more deeply about the choices you’re making and can challenge you to get out of your comfort zone. If you listen, you’ll learn what your weaknesses are. Good readers tell you where they get lost or bored. It’s your job to solve these problems, but just knowing what the problem is can be a game-changer. You’ll also get a clearer idea of who your target readers are, who “gets” your stuff and who doesn’t.
But even this isn’t what I’m talking about today. Today it’s all about the baggage we bring to writing and how a good critique group can help us drop that shit.
So look. Long-time followers know I’ve been through some shit. If you’re writing from some deep personal place, my bet is you have, too. The shit we’ve been through varies. The one thing that generally doesn’t? Insecurities. Boy, have we writers got some insecurities. Here are two of mine: As a woman, I’ve often been talked down to, ignored, or dismissed by people of all genders because I’m quiet and smile a lot. As a result, at my worst I’m out to prove how much smarter I am than you. Number two? Because of that deep fear of being silenced or unheard, I will say the same thing two or three times. As if that will hammer my words into someone’s brain. As a writer, the problem with these impulses is that they don’t make for great writing.
Here’s what a good critique group does to all that ego:
The places in the story where I let anxiety dictate things—by overexplaining or by mimicking some technique that I considered clever—were of course the places where the reader’s interest ebbed and they remembered that they needed to put on dinner in 20 minutes. So Lesson #1: Don’t try to be smart or shore up your story against the worst kind of reader you can imagine, and never adopt a voice or style that is someone else’s.
But humility isn’t just about where we need to grow. It’s also about what we’re doing right. Lesson #2 is that sincerity always wins. This one surprised me. It’s easy to feel like the hardboiled, wizened choice is what readers want. It’s not. Even those hardboiled PIs? The best ones get somewhere deeper and truthful, usually by bumping up against their own feelings or their past.
So it turned out that the places where I added things in for the fun of it or simply because it felt right—places where my ego winced because those passages and characters were unguarded, instinctual, and maybe even joyous (even if they were dark)—those were the places where the reader remarked on enjoying the story most.
For example, in one of my stories that’s currently out on submissions, I inserted a character when the mother-daughter dynamic became static and dull. He just came to mind, and I thought, “He seems like a nice way to shake things up and get out of this rut.” I liked him, and it embarrassed me because I thought maybe such a serious story shouldn’t have likable, benevolent characters. But once I added him, there was no going back. I couldn’t take him out again. From there, he just spread, and the main character’s reaction to him is wildly imaginative, even comic. I thought this isn’t right at all. This is too fun. It won’t seem smart anymore. But the truth is this character was a joy to write, and he surprised me. Maybe it shouldn’t be such a shock that those effortless, joyous passages felt that way to the reader.
This all brings me back to what George Saunders said early in the semester:
“The story has a will of its own, one it is trying to make me feel, and if I just trust in that, all will be well, and the story will surpass my initial vision of it. I once heard the great Chicago writer Stuart Dybek say, ‘A story is always talking to you; you just have to learn to listen to it.’”A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, 113
My critique group reminds me that revision is really a conversation with myself—attending to my own reactions and motivations as I decide what is and isn’t working in a story. And the more honest I can be with myself about that, the more delight I can bring to my reader.
One last thing. I hear there’s a new trend on certain sites to skip reading other members’ stories and just rake in as many critiques as possible. But unfortunately for these folks, critiques are not chips to cash in after a winning hand at poker. My best critiques come from people who know me and my work, who get what I’m trying to do, and who can point out when I fall short. If you’ve ever received a critique, you know what I’m talking about. The best critiques come from people who want us to succeed. And how do we get people to invest in us? It’s simple: we invest in them.
Plus, it’s not just the critiques that make my writing better. It’s also the effort of nailing down what is and isn’t working in someone else’s piece, finding a constructive way to say that, and watching to see what choices they make. A real critique group is a win-win for all the members.
So do you need a critique group? I have no idea. I just keep hearing from Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Tan that you should give it a try. For me, it turned out to be just what I needed.
Featured image by Photo by RF._.studio