Tips for Writer’s Group Etiquette

By Julie Rogers and June Ford

My editor and I frequently talk to writers—many who are or have been members of writer’s groups. More and more we find ourselves pulling out these tips because we believe healthy writing etiquette among peers encourages good writing habits. When a writer begins working professionally with an editor, the carryovers from training, etiquette, and experience become clear. If a writer is inflexible or impatient, that comes out in the process. On the other hand, if an editor is a frustrated writer, the end product will be overwritten and stylistically untrue to the writer’s original vision.

We encourage struggling writers groups to put the following tips into practice for at least three meetings. We believe the best writing comes from writers who, by hard knocks or intention, are moving into higher realms of personal growth. Above all, we encourage all writers to continue becoming good writers, a process we believe never stops—by studying the craft, reading, and of course, writing your dream.

  • Inventory—Who are the participants in the group, and what are they writing? A writers group with longevity caters to the writing interests and skills of the entire bunch. Periodic surveys are helpful in determining whether needs are being met.
  • Involvement—Encourage members to speak to the group on topics they feel comfortable presenting. Topics don’t necessarily have to center around the craft of writing, but can pertain to work, experience, hobbies, etc.
  • Reviews—Book or movie reviews teach writers about elements of critique and how to examine their own work. Encourage members to present reviews, allowing ten-to-fifteen minutes, or one per meeting. When writing a review, include all statistics (genre, author, screenwriter, publisher, producer, director, year of copyright, etc.). Give a brief synopsis of the story, including the protagonist’s external and internal conflicts. Compare the work, if applicable, to other works that author/writer has produced. List strong and weak points of the work.
  • Written Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. The subgroup should be no larger than three people. Members should bring a predetermined amount of material (usually around five pages) to be read. The subgroup will read every set of pages silently for ten minutes and make notes or corrections on the copy. When all sets of pages are read, the group or subgroups will discuss each manuscript for ten minutes.
  • Oral Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. Each member should bring a predetermined amount of typewritten pages (no more than ten) to be read out loud. Allow ten minutes after each reading for oral critiques from other members of the subgroup.
  • Guest Lectures—If the group has no coffer for paying guest speakers, seek out possible freebies from new authors, editorial services, agents, area experts, and area colleges. Remember that these lectures should not center on the craft of writing. Area newspapers, and radio and television stations are good resources for who’s who or the latest up-and-coming in your area.
  • Positive Feedback—Read the entire work. As a general rule of thumb, find and list three positive points first about the work you’re critiquing.
  • Negative Feedback—Critiques that offer solutions to correct a problem are preferable. If you offer negative criticism, be prepared to present two possible solutions for every negative comment.
  • Share the Work—Whether by election or by proxy, members should rotate secretarial and moderator duties to avoid staleness and burnout.
  • Socials/Outings—Downtime and socials provide a more casual, less structured and intimidating atmosphere for discussing lengthier projects or writing woes. If the group consistently meets at one location, this change of setting can do wonders for fueling creative energies.
  • Respect Craft—Writers who truly love the craft will respect its difficulty and be enthused by any effort to write. Whether a manuscript is great, good, or terrible, someone took the time to write it. That’s commendable. No one writes the best work the first time out. We encourage writers groups to respect writers who really work at craft regardless of ethnicity, background, or education. These writers may be the very ones who become really good working writers.
  • Second Opinion—Most writers share the experience of limping away from a critique. Subjecting your baby to criticism—even good criticism—is tough. Collect a spread of criticisms, usually between two and five, and never, ever rework a manuscript on one critique alone. Good critiques will adhere to the feedback tips given above and will genuinely seek to be helpful, versus simply ripping someone’s work apart. If a writer in your group goes home, puts away the project, and never pulls it out again, due to a critique—there’s a good chance it was a bad critique.
  • Read, digest, study—Writing is challenging enough, and making time to read can be even more challenging. Purchase a cassette or CD Walkman for listening to audio books while doing house chores or exercising. Stowaway books and audio books in your car. You’ll be surprised how much time you have on the road, waiting in line at the bank, or the post office, or at restaurants—even if it means reading in snatches.Share book and movie reviews with other writers. You obviously don’t have time to read everything, but a comprehensive review from another writer or book club member can broaden your horizons. Read good, acclaimed works, classics, trades, magazines, breaking news and events.

    Read what interests you, but also try broadening your perspective (and writing capabilities) by reading a variety of genres. Consider forming or joining a book club. Reading lists are available from Writer’s Digest as well as some editorial services, book clubs, and online writers’ web sites. Reading story analyses and summaries is good practice, as well. Study what works. Cliff Notes usually offer good story, character, and writing element analyses.

  • Golden Rule—Sadly, many conferences and online critique groups today feel they have to post requests for participants to be kind to each other. Cutthroat behavior can permeate a writer’s world at any level. We encourage writers not to play that game. Working writers with longevity in the industry establish their careers with genuine courtesy and appreciation of other people, especially other writers.

Julie Rogers’ articles have been featured in numerous self-help, inspirational, and fiction publications, including Coping With Cancer, Daily Meditation, Complete Woman, and the annual anthology Writes of Passage: Every Woman has a Story! She is the author of Happy Tails: How Pets Can Help You Survive Divorce.

Julie is a journalism graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the 1999 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Grand Prize Winner for her short story “House Call,” and has received numerous awards for her stage and screenplays. She is a producer at True Grit Films and represented by Jeff Ross Management.

Rogers’ book Happy Tails is available on www.amazon.com. You can read more at her blog.

June Ford has worked in a variety of editorial positions for publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers, including in-house for publishing companies as a managing editor, project editor, and editor. She has been commissioned to write trade books ranging from psychology to business and finance, coffee table pictorials to true crime.

In the genres of children’s, juvenile, and young adult, June has worked with everything from board, picture, and educational books to nonfiction and fiction series. The majority of the books she has worked with have been or are slated to be nationally or internationally distributed. June has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

How (and Why) To Take Criticism

By Monique van den Berg
“I am an artist. The critic is my nemesis.”

Have you ever heard this internal dialogue? Well, you’re not alone. We writers exist within a paradox. Our egos tell us we’re brilliant, yet one word from a critic can convince us (at least temporarily) that we’re worthless. Criticism strikes at us where we’re most vulnerable: the place inside ourselves where our creativity lives. And as a result, even criticism designed to be constructive can be hard to take.

Yet there is a reason to take criticism. If you want to improve your writing, there’s few other ways to go about it. I will concede that you can improve by reading other writers, and writing tremendous amounts on a regular basis, but that still doesn’t give you what a good critique gives you: an objective opinion. A look through fresh eyes. The trick is in separating the grain from the chaff: realizing which criticisms are worthwhile, and which should be disregarded.

It is tempting to listen to the negative opinions of others, and discredit their positive opinions as mere “politeness.” I used to do this all the time. In fact, one of the earliest pieces of criticism I got was in the form of a rejection letter for a poem called “Above The Timber Line.” The note on my manuscript read:

Above the Timber Line shows real genius. Why decorate genius with dimestore adjectives?

This stung. I ignored the part about the genius since obviously he was just being polite. How could he insult my precious adjectives? How could he attack words like “hollow” and “shiny” that I just liked the sound of? I threw the paper in a desk drawer and tried to ignore it. But it wasn’t that easy to forget the words. What if he was right?

It took me a while, but I started re-evaluating my own use of adjectives. I found that I had been making what I now think is the number one mistake of amateur poets: using adjectives that are weak, overused, or superfluous. Once I stripped away the dimestore adjectives, I did get a little closer to genius. My new attitude towards criticism had taken root.

It was years before I really became sanguine about the whole process. Eventually, I realized that the visceral, emotional reaction will always be there, but it can be mitigated—you can make criticism work for you. The following 10 guidelines will help.

  1. Not everyone will like your writing. Not everyone shares your taste, your school of thought or your perspective. Your talent is not erased or diminished just because this person or that person doesn’t like the way you write. They may like you, but they can’t critique you, because they don’t share your vision. Just move on to someone who does.
  2. Beware of ulterior motives. Most people will reflexively try to lead you away from your own style and into theirs. Be wary. Although some people are conceited enough to think that their way is the only way, for most people this is unconscious and subtle. It’s a side effect of trying to set aside bias and evaluate a work on its own merits. This is hard to do, and it’s common to slip up.

    If you are considering someone’s suggestions for your writing, remember that they are ultimately subjective. Always make sure that what they are suggesting is true to the text and to your own style.

  3. Nothing you write is all bad. You should never listen to a critique that doesn’t say at least one positive thing about your work. A review that is 100% negative is either unfair or offered by someone with their own agenda. There is at least positive element to any work of art, and if your critic doesn’t bother to seek it out, they aren’t worth your time.
  4. There’s always one asshole. In any creative writing workshop, you’ll find this person. You will learn to see the signs. He or she has a lot of talent, a respectable number of publication credits and an ego the size of Delaware. You may be tempted to respect them; after all, they do have talent and attitude. They are accustomed to inspiring awe in unpublished newcomers like yourself. Don’t fall for it.

    In my second poetry workshop, The Asshole was a supremely irritating graduate student who rarely had anything good to say. When he did dole out the occasional favorable remark, he acted like he was bestowing a royal favor. And he loved to say pretentious things like, “The penultimate line of your penultimate stanza requires a certain panache that is lacking in this piece’s current iteration.” Blech.

  5. Quid pro quo. Part of getting helpful criticism is dispensing it to others. Don’t be condescending (as I once was) of the people that you think have less talent, experience and skill than you do. We all start somewhere.

    Yes, offering criticism is a skill, and the only way to develop this skill is through practice. Always start off by listing the good points of a piece, then list the weaker points. Offer concrete solutions to the problems you see. The more specific you are, the better. Figure out what you find the most helpful in a critique and offer the same kind of input to your peers. In the long run, this skill will serve you well.

  6. Build up your defenses. Don’t seek out criticism until you are ready to hear it. At first, your writing will be extremely close to your heart. Nurture the writing that makes you feel like this, but don’t show it to anyone. If anyone suggests that you change it, you’ll probably feel like they are proposing plastic surgery on your newborn infant. This may well discourage you from giving birth to any more poems.

    First, find friends who will lob (figurative) softballs at you. Once you can take their mild suggestions in stride, you may be ready to move on. Do you suspect that your writing has weaknesses that they are hesitant to point out? Time to move on to colleagues, acquaintances and workshops.

  7. Value honesty. It is an increasingly rare commodity. People may be afraid to tell you the blunt truth for fear that you’ll become antagonistic towards them, dislike them or attack their work out of spite. Other people are simply too polite to tell you their negative opinions, no matter how much they sugar coat them.

    One day, you will find someone who seems to “get” what you are trying to say and who genuinely appreciates your work, but isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re off your game. You will often agree with them, whether their comments are positive or negative. Hang on to this person. A good critic is worth their weight in gold.

  8. Only submit early drafts. If you have a work that in your mind is “finished” or that you’re particularly attached to, it’s probably too late to have it critiqued. This applies especially to pieces you have put a lot of work into. If you’ve spent an hour fine tuning every word, you’re going to take criticism a lot harder. You will stubbornly resist changing a single syllable. On the other hand, if you’ve just casually tossed off a first draft, it’s quite easy to carve it up with impunity.

    I know your inclination is to impress the people in your workshop. Trust me, if you tinker with you’re your writing too much before submitting it, you’ll reach a critical mass point where suggestions for change become utterly futile.

    This also applies to older works. When I read some of my earliest poems, I fully recognize how I could improve them, but there’s no way I would even try. A lot of them made me the writer I am today. I can’t stand on the top floor of a building and dig the foundation out from under me, now can I?

  9. Be as objective as possible. Don’t ever expect criticism to be easy. It will sting at times, no question about it. The trick is being to set aside your wounded pride and try and be objective anyway. Evaluate each suggestion carefully. Your responses will range from, “Oh, wow! Why didn’t I think of that before!” to “How come nobody gets my message—is it really that well hidden?” or “That bastard doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    Before implementing or discarding any suggestion, give it careful consideration. If you’re equally willing to accept or refute someone’s suggestion, you stand the best chance of getting all you can from the input of others.

  10. The writing is yours. Never, never give other people’s opinions more weight than you do your own. No matter how much you respect someone, you should never give up ownership of your own words and ideas.

    First of all, even the best critic can be wrong. Music teachers told Mozart he couldn’t play. English teachers told Stephen King he couldn’t write. Don’t take everything so much to heart that you ignore your own inner voice.

    Also, don’t waste your time trying to convince critics that their opinions are wrong. Just thank them politely and don’t act on their words. If you feel that you have to get everyone “on your side” then you’re missing the point.

    Secondly, even if the critic is right, so what? There’s no rule that says you must take X or Y piece of advice, even if you know intellectually that it is good advice. Even if everyone you know and everyone you ask hates something you’ve written, it doesn’t mean you can’t love it. Just don’t expect to get it published.

There’s no magic formula that will make criticism an easy medicine to take. But believe it or not, it is good for you. And with the right outlook, you can begin to see criticism as a welcome, desirable, and necessary part of the creative process. Good luck.

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Monique van den Berg runs a poetry workshop online. You can find it at http://www.onelist.com/subscribe/surreality