"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: On Writers' Crit Groups

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Writers' Crit Groups


Many writers swear by critique groups.

They rely on them for good solid feedback from a wide variety of other writers - because it's helpful, confidential and, best of all, it's free.

But many new writers join critique groups for the wrong reason.

Actually, it's not so much wrong - and it's common enough - but it does hamper what you might get out of judgment by your peers.

Namely, newbie writers usually only want one thing, and that is: validation.

It can come as a great shock to new writers to venture out into the world - to finally summon up the courage to show their work to other writers - only to discover that they are not universally and immediately acknowledged as a genius.

I have seen this phenomenon over and again.

New writers come down to our own crit groups and read their material.

You can tell they most times only want one response - to be told that their work is brilliant!

Any other gentle criticism from group members can result in a tirade of explanations and justifications from the author - who is hell bent on defending his/her work to the bitter end.

At this point we often ask, "Why are you here?"

"Do you want help? Do you want to improve? Or do you simply want praise and accolades?"

Writing doesn't really work that way.

And writers are generally hard-wired to criticize other writers.

Not always in a bad way.

Most writers just want you to improve your own writing.

Mostly, when a new writer appears in a crit group, they need to be warned against all the usual mistakes that newbies make.

And, don't forget, we all make them.

My own experience at my first writers' crit group is typical.

I read my cherished story and in no particular order, the dozen or so writers around the table informed me of the importance of point of view (don't change it mid section etc), the overuse of adverbs, the desire for less verbiage, adjectives etc, the need to quash the indefinite article (it) and excessive description, the ugliness of exposition, being active rather than passive, and various of the other faux pas that tend to litter newbie's work.

Of course I was crushed.

Weren't they listening to the story, I wondered.

Why all this nit-picking?

Now I know.

It's the nit-picking that will teach you the most...

Because you can't really take anybody's writing seriously unless they get the basics right first.

And this, to me, is what writers' crit groups are best at providing: a sound basis to move on to a more professional attitude towards your writing.

The story and the concepts are all well and good.

The emotional roller coaster is a grand thing to create and experience. 

But the impact and relevance of a story can only be assessed when you have the basics down pat.

Style too is irrelevant before you get the fundamentals.

Every new writer has to learn this.

Technical competence is not something you can leave till later - or hope that an editor can fix for you.

No, you have to learn this stuff yourself.

And learn it quickly, so you don't spend years submitting work that is routinely rejected for basic errors.

Because this is the number one reason why 70% of all MSS are rejected.

Not story or ideas - but basic technique.

If this thought scares you, it's supposed to.

So, if you join a crit group and find the other writers tend to pick on the basics, don't fight it or be hurt by it.

Listen to what is being said, ask for clarification, appreciate the reasons for the basic rules of writing - and learn them quickly.

Because if you absorb the fundamentals immediately - and act on them - you'll find that the next time you read out your work - or submit it to a crit group - you'll find the reaction is completely different.

Because only when your basic errors are corrected - the ones we all make at first - does your writing deserve to be taken seriously.

Writing rules are made to be broken, sure, but ideally only when you know them all!

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Howard Aiken

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