Monday, June 29, 2009

Writing Group Etiquette Part II

I wanted to include a follow up to the writing group etiquette post from June 16, and relate a recent writing group experience.

Last week I attended my usual writing group, where we were critiquing 50 pages each from two writers. At one point when I had the floor, I started talking about a problem I had with the story under discussion. Overall, the writing was excellent. I found the story engaging and the location vivid and unusual. But one of my points was so prescriptive, that as I spoke it aloud I realized a few things:

• I had failed to heed my own advice and critique the work as written, not force my own writing wishes for what I would like to have seen within another’s pages.
• I had not read the pages closely enough. If I had, I would have come to them with the understanding that the rest of the group seemed to have.
• I had (I imagine) achieved the one effect I was hoping to avoid: I pissed off a fellow writer. At least momentarily. By the end of the meeting I had embraced a much less extreme solution to the problem, suggested by some of the other members of the group.

Lesson learned: be honest, but be tactful. Try to determine what you don’t like about a piece, and take the time to come up with helpful recommendations. You might need to read pages more than once to really get to the core of what you want to say about them.

Final Writing Group Thoughts

Online Writing Groups. I’ve traded writing over email, but I’ve never been part of a continuing online group. You should be able to carry over many of these experiences and tips into cyber critiques.

If you’ve had experience with online groups, let me know if you like them better than meeting in person. My sister, romantic suspense writer Cynthia Sherrick, just joined one for the first time. I’ll be interested to find out how it goes.

Try More Than One. Robin Smith-Johnson (another sister—I have three, all writers) left the following comment:

"It actually has been helpful to have two reactions to my poems (and fun to take the same poem to different meetings). The feedback is always helpful and has helped me shape poems that were later accepted for publication."

This is a great idea: showing the same work to more than one set of writers. Like Robin says, she uses all the feedback to help shape her work to be publish-ready.

Read Aloud. I forgot to mention this last time. If you get the chance, have somebody read a few pages of your writing aloud. Hearing your writing aloud immediately highlights problems with dialogue, rhythm, pacing, tone, and more. You can hear previously unchecked cracks in what you thought was the smooth surface of your pages. Flat dialogue truly lies like a wet dishtowel when you hear it spoken. Clichés you had no idea were there bare teeth. Uneven paragraphs and sloppy sentence structure become much easier to detect. Part of this phenomenon happens when you are faced with an audience for the first time. You become your own toughest, hyper-vigilant critic, concentrating intensely as if for the first time on your own phrases, segues, and dialogue.

Okay, enough. There’s nothing more I can do for you. You’re on your own now. Send a postcard occasionally and let me know how it's going.


Robin said...

Hi Dell -- Your writing group story sounds so familiar. I have often offered a suggestion and had the whole group turn down my idea (of course, sometimes it works the other way). Sometimes it is important to give someone's work a second look before giving your opinion. It's a fine line between being helpful and critical. I also like your idea of reading your writing aloud. This is something I recommend to my writing students.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Engaging in a face to face critique group, whether giving or receiving comments and suggestions, can be one of the most difficult aspects of writing.
I always get a bit nervous either way. ;]

Liz's Mom said...

I am impressed by how carefully you think about what you have written, how diligent you are about what you say to your readers, and how honest you are!

Dell Smith said...

There's nothing quite like handing over a piece of your writing to a bunch of people, whether strangers or not, and ask them to tell you what they think. It's like telling somebody you love them, and then waiting a week or two to find out if they love you back. Or find out how they love you.