7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

In January, I started attending a Meetup group for area writers. It's the bomb, and the group has quickly become an important tool and monthly boost for me as I continue to grow as a writer.

Last week, I participated in my first group writing critique. Broken into two groups, twenty people spoke one-by-one about my submission and told me everything that was wrong with my writing. Each individual critiqued my story live, in front of me, and in front of everyone else present. 

Leading up to that night, I was scared out of my mind. My previous experience with writing critiques was pretty much nonexistent prior to joining this group, and while I knew I would receive helpful feedback, I also knew that the process would be overwhelming for me. Anxiety and verbal processing do not mix well with this sort of exercise!

Now that I'm on the other side of the critique, I can celebrate my own courage in submitting at all, as well as my composure throughout the evening. Seriously, maintaining my composure was a victory worth noting. There were some challenging moments--more on those below!--and I believe I managed to maintain most of my dignity despite some awkward comments. Huzzah!

Overall, I learned a lot from the critique experience, and in this post I share some tips for any of you who may be considering a group critique submission in your own writing journey. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

#1: Participate Before You Submit

Before I submitted my own piece, I attended four Meetups and participated in all four critiques as a reader. In doing so, I got a good sense of what to expect in terms of both process and people.

I had four opportunities to hear the rules, and to see how closely people followed them. From participating as a reader, I knew I would be sitting in a circle of individuals in a tight space, and that I would feel exposed as a result. I knew that some people would offer more constructive and helpful criticism than others. In particular, I knew there was one individual who would be unhelpful in his critique, regardless of his intentions. I knew I could expect him to offer unnecessarily harsh personal comments instead of constructive, respectful criticism. And I was ready for him.

Because I attended and knew what to expect, there were fewer surprises. I had more capacity to listen and take notes, and was less blind-sided by the logistics. 

#2: Provide Context

Though the rules may vary, you will generally have an opportunity to introduce your work. This is your golden opportunity to describe your piece, define your audience, and ask for what you need. Explain the intended impact, and name any concerns you have that you'd like the critique participants to address. For example, if you're worried that your main character is boring, say so!

As a part of this context, you need to know the intended audience for your submitted piece. This helps for a number of reasons, and quite frankly, you should know this long before you submit! If a piece is ready for group critique, it should be in good enough condition for you to describe the ideal reader. Have a sense of age/demographic/genre for your piece. Know and name that audience as you introduce your piece. 

You might even find it helpful to categorize your experience with writing, or your level of comfort with the critique process. For example, after introducing my story I added, "Also, FYI this is my first critique, and I'm scared." Vulnerable? Yes. Helpful? Probably. In most cases, I believe I got critiques that were tailored to my experience as a writer and were easy to digest at this point in my career. I would say that 95% of the participants respected that context and adjusted accordingly. 

In the future, I look forward to sitting down with my critique group, explaining my piece, and saying "Lay it on me! This is a solid draft. I know what I'm doing and I want all the constructive feedback you can give me. Do your worst." Until then, there's no harm in saying that I'm new to this and need the "big problems" identified more than the less severe nit-picked offenses. 

#3: Capture the Comments

This goes without saying, but for the sake of appropriate and thorough preparation, be ready to take notes! You can sort through the individual comments later, but be sure to capture all that is said. Bring a laptop, write notes by hand, capture audio (with the group's permission), or whatever works for you. Regardless of the medium, come prepared, and make sure you have what you need to get all the details down. 

If you're like me and are freaked out by the prospect of submitting for critique, taking notes is a particularly helpful tool for you. The act of taking notes allows you to disconnect emotionally from the process. You have a job to do, so you can focus on transcribing notes instead of letting the comments sink in too much. By taking notes, you might even protect yourself from overanalyzing what is said, or taking unhelpful comments too personally.

On top of that, you walk away with a good record of the group's feedback which you can reference after the critique is over, when the adrenaline has settled. 

#4: Look for Common Threads

Twenty individuals served up a LOT of feedback during my critique sessions, and it was a little overwhelming to sort through, even when I was home with my notes. To help analyze and organize the feedback for application, I found it helpful to look for common threads. What was consistently named as an issue, by multiple participants? Sure, one line of the text may not have registered for one or two readers. A reference flew over somebody's head. But the majority response is what you want to focus on, especially when considering comments from participants within your "ideal reader" demographic.

Depending on the quality of your critique group and the specific feedback you get, some of these common threads might be drawn for you. During the conversation, pay attention as participants build upon one another's perspectives.

For example, a member of one group noted that several people expressed varying levels of responses to the emotional tone of my story. He accurately diagnosed the issue by pointing to the lack of situational context at the beginning of the piece--that was a gap that I left for the audience to fill in, but the gap didn't serve me well because the responses were so varied. By providing more context up front, I could more effectively contain and direct the reader's response to the character's emotions, thus eliminating the varying concerns that participants expressed about the emotional range of the story. 

If nobody is drawing these connections for you, that's ok! Look for them as you read through your notes. What threads can be tied between comments that fall into the same category, even if they might not be presented from the same perspective? What is the root of the obstacles your readers butt up against? Find the common threads, and note those as the most prevalent issues. 

#5: Celebrate Your Strengths

One of the most beneficial outcomes of my experience is that I know I'm doing some things right! Having never shared my writing for critique before, it was difficult to gauge my own abilities.

Through the critique process, I learned that I have a good grasp of humor and voice. I learned that I have some solid pacing instincts, and naturally incorporate devices that serve the story well in terms of theme and pacing. I learned that the quality of my writing is good enough that people weren't hung up on grammatical issues and mechanics. Finally, and surprisingly, I learned that I can write about sensitive and divisive subjects like faith without alienating readers of different viewpoints. 

If I hadn't participated in the critique, I would never have known these things for sure! It is affirming and encouraging to have these strengths noted, and to have that opportunity to celebrate my "wins" as a writer. 

Writing in itself is fraught with opportunities for self-criticism and self-doubt. We read what we wrote yesterday and feel like banging our heads against the wall because it's so terrible! So even if you only get a small number of positive comments, or maybe there's only one thing you do well, I invite you to marinate in that reality for a few minutes. Celebrate what you got right, and delight in the fact that you are not starting from square one!

#6: Disregard the Haters

As I was preparing for my first critique experience, I was nervous as hell. One of my dear writer friends offered a bit of advice that was tremendously helpful: "It's easy to critique somebody else's work and tear it to shreds. It's much harder to produce that work, much less share it, so you have already succeeded by writing and submitting!"

While you might be tempted to call that advice sentimental, it is also entirely true. We live in a critical, self-centered culture that has been raised on internet comment sections. People are downright careless and disrespectful online, and that attitude occasionally translates in a live critique. From one perspective, I see why. The framework is set up for it; as a critique participant, you literally have permission to openly and thoroughly criticize someone's work. Why wouldn't some people run with that permission?

But it's also true that writing is profoundly personal. In my case, the piece was extra personal; I submitted an autobiographical essay about a challenging day when I was fed up and emotionally wrecked (based on a previous blog post). I introduced the piece as being 100% true, and about me. I set up the context and hoped that people would respect it.

For the most part, everyone did. But there was that one individual I knew would take it too far, and even though I expected some negativity, his comments caught me off guard. To be fair, I believe his intentions were good and that he simply does not understand how to critique effectively and respectfully. Whatever his motives, without accurately naming the problem or providing a constructive comment, he stated that my 'character' (AKA me!) was completely dislikable because she was a brat and had the emotional range of a 9 year-old. Ouch!

Yes, that was a pretty major burn. But it was also laughably unprofessional and useless as a critique. I don't know what inspired him to frame his critique so personally and harshly, but I made a solid effort to disregard his comments entirely. I redacted his comments in my notes and highlighted more constructive, related comments from other participants. Thanks to the other feedback I received, I identified the underlying issue that his comments were rooted in without having to linger on his specific wording.

As with many things in your writing journey, take what is helpful and leave what is not. Your work is not defined by the haters, and there is no value in lingering on that 'feedback.' Instead, focus on what you can actually do to improve, and on the comments that were presented in the appropriate spirit of constructive criticism!

#7: Identify Growth Opportunities

After the sweating and note-taking is behind you, you come home--blessedly alone!-- with your mountain of notes. You sort through the stack of comments and pull out common themes. At that point, it's time to translate those major points into growth opportunities.

Yes, by all means edit your submission according to the critique feedback! Fix the problems, and improve the piece. But what can you take away from these comments that will translate across the full spectrum of your work? What are the overarching "bad habits" you've developed, and what is submission-specific? 

From my critique, I learned several valuable lessons that apply beyond the scope of my submitted story:

  • I learned that autobiographical writing is particularly prone to gaps on the page -- because the entire experience is in my head to begin with, it's easier to leave out crucial context or information.
  • I learned to avoid text devices that frustrate the reader, like blocks of all-caps text rants.
  • I learned to provide the appropriate context so that I have more control over the reader's response.
  • I learned that it is dangerously easy to offend people regardless of my best intentions, and that I need to amp up my caution or prepare for some backlash.
  • I learned that I utilize good storytelling devices, but don't necessarily carry those through the full piece. I have a tendency to let those devices fall away, and do not maximize their effectiveness as a result. 

That's a good amount of feedback that I can apply to my future work, and those are just the highlights!

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Yes, critique groups can be scary, but if you can find one that has some ground rules and captures a good variety of perspectives, the feedback is invaluable for you as a writer. I invite you to take the plunge and share your writing for critique. Use the tips above to get you ready for the experience, but believe that you will walk away with some fruit for your efforts.

Trust me...if I can do it, I promise you can get through it, too!