Critique Groups

This month’s guest post is by Ed Abell, author of the award-winning My Father’s Keep, a deeply moving memoir of forgiveness, promise-keeping, and the power of love and grace over addiction and its deep effect on others. In this post, Ed shares his experience while he was in the process of writing his book and conveys well the importance of critique groups and their many benefits. To learn more about Ed’s journey and to purchase his book, which I had the honor to edit, please visit him at www.wisconsciousness.org.

 

Just the words “critique group” strike terror in most folks. Someone else will judge my work, in front of EVERYONE. They will all be better than me. Do I even belong in the same room as those other writers?

Yes. I know from experience. I had been an industrial designer. I drew pictures for a living. I’d never written anything in my life, but I found myself with a compelling story to tell. I had a book in me. A comprehensive writing class led to honing my skills in a critique group.

To learn to swim, you must enter the water. To write well, you must first find your voice. Where in this wonderful world do you look for that? Simple, you start banging on the keys or scribbling on the pad, writing what you think you should. You read it to the group and get reactions. Of course I sucked for starters, but I’d been a professional designer sitting in front of clients. Criticism wasn’t personal. Additionally, I had this wonderful chance to experiment and I had a very passionate story to tell.

I was writing a memoir so I read other memoirs that I felt had voice. It wasn’t my voice, and it’s not something you can copy, but I began to see what works. The best of them always seemed to be rendered without wasting a word.

My group averaged eight people a session. I learned straightaway that I could depend on good feedback from the group leader and several others. Many members were there to show off or simply read the same things over and over again. Fair enough. I was learning, and I knew who was there to help me.

We only brought 1,500 to 2,000 words with us to each session. Nobody knew the whole story, not even me at the time. That wasn’t the purpose of the critique. We all brought copies for the entire group. Each individual would pass his or her copies around and read it to the group. Then he or she sat in dreadful silence for ten minutes as each member wrote comments on the copies. The group leader would choose two or three people to comment, saving her own opinion for last. The author’s job was to sit and listen, without debating or defending him- or herself. All the marked-up copies was then returned to the author. I would read all the comments on my copies when I got home. Punctuation was generally ignored. (That’s what editors are for later in the writing process.) Sometimes there were question marks. Parts people liked were underlined. Everyone wrote notes in the margin. Those notes were the tiller, private comments, usually positive, sometimes extremely personal, and always a course correction or a steady as she goes. In a little over a year, I found I had a knack for similes (painting word pictures) and syntax (words arranged to create well-formed sentences).

Then came the day when I shared a scene. When I finished reading, the group leader canvased the members, “Who wants to go first?” One of the ladies, whose opinion I trusted, looked up at me from her copy of my paragraphs and said, “This is music.”

On the way home that night I felt like my mission had been accomplished. I could write. My voice turned out to be me, sitting quietly, brutally honest, and writing from my heart. Dipping into the same well of creativity and inspiration I had used as a designer, only using words rather than magic markers and pencils.

Not every critique group is the same. Some are even genre specific. Ask around and do some research. Also, ask yourself why you are joining a group. What do you expect to get out of the experience: learning, sense of community, networking, or perhaps finding your voice?

Our leader at Red Oak Writing paid me a wonderful compliment when my book, My Father’s Keep, won two international and two national self-publishing awards. She said, “You were successful because you came into the group knowing that you didn’t know. You were a sponge, unafraid to learn. That’s not everyone’s agenda.”

Terrifying yes, but it was worth passing through that portal.