Writing hands by Karen [CC-BY 2.0]
Who needs critique groups? Only people who don’t believe they need to learn more about the elements of writing, and think they already know how to create good authentic language. Or, they may think they are experts on grammar, or point of view, pace, structure, etc. Now, it is not as if we go about with the elements of writing as a list to draw down as we write, but when starting out on this writing path, it is good to check on our progress once in a while. Complacency can trip us up.
My belief is, that a well-run critique group serves a very good purpose for aspiring writers. And I speak from personal experience. A few years back, I was asked by an author who ran an organisation for writers of children’s fiction, if I would co-ordinate a critique group for a small number of people. I was an illustrator of children’s books at the time and thought my skills would gel well with the task. Plus, I was a trained teacher, and knew the importance of planning and time management. The group’s ages ranged from 30 to 75 years. They were an interesting, energetic and talented bunch. We were together for five years and within that time, all had stories published.
There were several reasons why this critique group proved so successful. No one’s work was overlooked – at each meeting, one person got to read their work aloud. If it was a short piece, perhaps two people would read work. The following meeting, the next in line would have their work critiqued; keeping in mind that not everyone produces work at the same speed, and often it is good just to listen to others read. I encouraged the ‘listeners’ to jot notes as the reader spoke and sometimes another person might be asked to read the piece a second time.
In turn the ‘listeners’ had their say, starting with the positives, and then bringing up one salient point (or two), offering a suggestion how the work might be advanced. This is where I might ‘lead’ with a question about pace, or point of view for example, ensuring I didn’t take up the group’s time.
Reading aloud is vital, as it shows up, for example, over-long sentences, adjectival redundancy, repetition, missing commas, etc. When the work is read back by another, then ‘flaws’ might be more obvious to the writer. I note here, that reading aloud is a skill in itself, and I can’t argue the necessity of practicing it enough. I feel rather lucky that throughout primary school, reading aloud was a daily event in my classes. I found it fun, remembering to lift my voice at a comma and drop the tone at a full stop. In short, we learned about cadence. It is cadence that our writing should reflect – done well, of course.
During the time we were together, the group tackled writing in different genres, from children’s picture books, to poetry, plays and short stories. These were writers who were keen to learn more, and did so by reading good writing, reading books about the craft of writing, attending conferences and taking online writing courses. I am a strong advocate for continuing education: meeting with experienced writers or tutors and sharing ideas about what constitutes good practice, and then applying that practice to your own writing, can only be a positive in my book.