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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! 

Path to Writing

Looking back, I find it completely hilarious that I never saw writing coming. It has been sneaking up on me for years, and in my typical unobservant fashion, I had no idea. Completely, 100% oblivious.

Growing up, I was absolutely a reader. I devoured scads of books in record time. Late into the night, my parents would often find me on my bedroom floor with a box of Club crackers, a package of pepperoni, and my nose in a book. I couldn’t stop, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to. I read through meals, and periodically in the car on longer road trips, though it made me nauseous to do so.

Specifically, I was a delighted reader of fantasy. I was a proud member of the blessed generation that was the same age as Harry with each book release. Hermione was my homegirl...she understood me. At every opportunity, I hungered to be whisked away to another world, more magnificent and adventurous than my own.

I wept and rejoiced with my fictional friends, but never really thought of creating fictional stories myself. There was a brief period where I snuck my parents’ typewriter into my room and made up some two-page stories. The feel and sound of the keys was divine, but I struggled to come up with content. Frequently, I ended up with an unfinished and unsatisfying tale about an encounter with a cute boy at summer camp.

My first journal entry is dated October 12, 1998, which puts me around 10 years old. The diary itself is about 4”x4”, glossy white covered with rainbow colored hearts, and capped with a little gold lock and release button. I handle it with fondness even now, though the content is absurd. And I always hated the word ‘diary’ -- it was too frilly for my purposes. I took journaling very seriously. Which is pretty ironic, considering the rainbow hearts.

I have upwards of 20 journals spanning 1998-2016. Though the habit has died out a bit, writing has never ceased to be a cathartic and necessary part of my life. The format and content have gone through countless iterations: Xanga poems about middle school crushes; a blog about the challenges of being 15; notebooks full of song lyrics; another blog about restaurant and recipe critiques; thoughts on my experiences, fears, pain, joy, dating life, trauma, disappointments, and spirituality.

But all of this was happening in patches of spare time, while I focused on the “really important stuff.” I got a bachelor’s degree in music after studying to be a high school choir teacher for 3.25 years…a terrible, hilariously ill-suited career choice. Graduating with honors, finding Mr. Right, and figuring out how to pay my bills were my absolute top priorities.

Then came depression, hopelessness, and a bittersweet end-of-the-rope experience that led me to Jesus. I won’t tell that story today. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to do it justice when I do.

Even then, armed with a better foundation for my identity and purpose, I flailed when it came to career direction. In the five year period following my undergrad studies, I held the following positions, most of them full-time:

  • Assistant Manager at a rock climbing gym
  • Sales Specialist at Apple
  • Executive Assistant to the General Director at an opera company
  • Admission Counselor at my alma mater
  • Director of Operations at a non-denominational church
  • Search Associate for an executive search and strategic planning consultant company

From 2014-2016, I had four separate careers. When I say that I “flailed” professionally, I am not exaggerating. I had no idea what I was meant to do with myself. I have always excelled in the broad base of skills one needs to succeed in the 9-5 world. My performance reviews were always sky high, yet I felt like a prisoner every time I tried to make that sort of traditional career “fit”. I took every career and personality assessment on the market, and time and time again, the professional involved would say, “Hannah, you just won’t be content until you work for yourself, or have a significant amount of freedom.”

“That’s super!” said Hannah at 23. “But I have bills to pay. So I’m keeping my 9-5 in the nonprofit sector because I can get behind the cause. I’m working toward something meaningful. I’ll be just fine.”

I was never fine. I lied to myself over and over again, and was bored out of my mind. I cried in the bathroom at work and wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just suck it up and do my job like everyone else seemed to be doing?

I got engaged to my best friend and the best man I know in December 2014. I made a transition to working for the church, and he was also pursuing work in full-time ministry. I was elated. We were on an energizing, joyful path, and I couldn’t be happier.

That season leading up to our engagement was the closest I had ever come to professional contentment. When I was working for the church, I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, I was treated as an equal even with my lack of experience, and I was surrounded by wonderful people. True to God’s nature, though, he had better plans. So havoc wrecked my world for the next 18 months.

In the time leading up to and following our wedding and honeymoon in September 2015, all hell broke loose. I am not exaggerating. One church leader called it “the perfect storm of awful communication, timing, and circumstances,” among other things. We have many colorful names for that particular season of life.

I lost my roommate and was having anxiety attacks. As a result, I moved once, and then again after six weeks. An important relationship in my life turned destructive, and I endured months of manipulation and psychological abuse. As a result, I was later diagnosed with complex PTSD. With no alternative employment, I left my job at the church, and Andrew left seminary to pursue his original line of work in the business world. We had no income. I quickly took on a job to pay the bills, but my PTSD symptoms made it impossible for me to continue on in that position. It just wasn’t the right fit, and I wasn’t ready to work. Full of shame and self-defeat, I resigned after four months. Andrew’s job search continued for an additional four months.

Needless to say, it was an exhausting season. There was a lot of crying, and a lot of Netflix. And fortunately, there was a lot of support and encouragement from our wonderful family and friends. Perhaps most fortunately, our marriage survived the madness. We joked often about writing a marriage book years from now, based on the absurdity of our first year and what we learned from it. Perhaps we’ll do that, someday.

In addition to vegging and binging our favorite TV shows, there was also a lot of reading in that season. The local library was suddenly a paradise of entertainment as a household with no income. I think I read the entire Dresden Files series in something like four weeks. We read the existing Way of Kings books, and many, many others.

On September 2, 2016, we sat on a picnic blanket in Lafayette Square watching one of the annual Gateway Cup cycling races. (Bless you St. Louis, and your abundant, free events!) It was a beautiful evening, and we were having a lovely date night. Andrew was quiet, as he often is, and then mused, “What would you write about if you could write a fantasy story? What would your magic look like?”  

It would be dramatic and wonderful if my response had been “Eureka! That’s it!”, but it really was more of a slow realization. A revelation that became more exposed by the millimeter, melting warmth and light over my life like a sunrise.

Our conversation continued for the rest of the evening, considering possible systems of magic, character backgrounds, possible underlying themes. And the conversation hasn’t really stopped since.

I’ve never been so thoroughly and pervasively eager to make something a reality. I bought a notebook 3 days after our date, and went to the library more times in those first few months than in the previous 5 years combined. As I always have, I devoured books on writing speculative fiction, and a number of prominent books in the field of fantasy and science fiction. I created my first system of magic for my first project, axed that system, and replaced it with a better one.

I spent 3 months brainstorming, researching, developing characters, and outlining plot. Then I wrote my First 350 Words. The project continued to grow into something surprising and wonderful, and it was a delight to wake up and make a story unfold every day. I finished my first draft of my first book on March 15, about 6 months after that first lightbulb moment. Subsequent (and more marketable) projects have developed since, which I continue to pursue daily, and I love it.

Not to say that it isn’t daunting. It’s daunting as hell. Initially, the writing process was literally just thousands and thousands of questions:

Who is my heroine? How old is she? What does she look like? What are her relationships like? How does she view herself?

Well, that depends…

Where does she live? What is her culture’s world view? What is the landscape like? What resources do they have? How does that affect trade? Is her region part of a larger world? Where is this world? Does it follow the rules of Earth?

What does magic do in this world? What can it do? What can it not do? How is it limited? What happens if you try to use it the wrong way? What fuels it? What is its origin? Has it existed in time before this story? Who can use it? How do they learn to use it? How do non-magical people respond to it?


And on, and on, and on, and on, and on it goes.

So yes, it’s daunting. And normally the lazy person in me would throw up her hands and say “Ugh, whatever! I’m taking a nap.” But I can’t get enough of the writing process. It feels as if the words are a part of my flesh… a subconscious biological process like breathing, and my body doesn’t consider stopping.

Thanks to these moments along my journey, I can say that I’m here today. I’m an author; I’m a writer. I haven’t been published, but I thrive on writing. I embrace the thrilling opportunity to craft a reader’s experience through fictional stories. I hope to have the opportunity to share those stories with you someday.

Do something you love today, friends. And whatever that may be, embrace the experience as the extraordinary gift that it is.