By Ingrid Keriotis
For a handful of years, when I was new to Grass Valley, I was not part of a writing critique group. The sad result was that I wasn’t writing.
When I have a deadline and people are expecting me to submit something for critique, it gives me the push I need to write.
For nearly every writer I know, a writing critique group is an essential and supportive place that helps them take their writing to the next level, whatever their writing goals may be. As a writer, if you are disciplined enough, you might be sending out poems, short stories, or personal essays to be considered for publication in literary magazines. Of course, this is a good idea as it motivates you to polish your writing. But the truth is, while getting published in a literary magazine can feel like it lends legitimacy to your work, it usually doesn’t provide a connection between you and other writers who will help you become a better writer. Once in a while, literary magazine editors throw an editing suggestion your way, but most likely you will receive the regular form rejection letter. These letters pile up, and you might wonder, “Why wasn’t that piece accepted?”
A critique group can help you know what is working in your writing, where your readers might be getting tripped up, where you might expand your ideas, scenes, or metaphors, and where you might want to trim so as not to put your readers to sleep.
Members of your critique group see things that you can’t. They help you to have an epiphany about how to revise your piece (the roots of revision being, of course, ‘a seeing again.’)
The unfortunate truth, for those of us who love to write, is that writing is hard. I don’t know why; it seems so simple to put words on a page. But to sit down, and in a disciplined way, actually write something is part frenzy and part meditation. And in that moment, you are the only one you can depend on. But your lonely hobby (or vocation) can be transformed if you have someone waiting at a café table or in a conference room with a smile and hands held out for our work. To have others see and reflect on your creative piece is validating, even if you go home with reams of constructive criticism. Sometimes we all need to be steered in the direction we weren’t even sure we were headed. A writing group can give us that. Here is a question: why can so many of us who love to write attend book groups—read a 300+ page novel we may not even like that much—in order to meet with a roomful of people to discuss it, and we can’t devote that amount of time to a group to discuss our own writing? Fear, certainly. It is troubling to think of how many things we don’t do because of fear. How do we grow without facing our fears?
If we wish to have a creative component in our lives, we should be willing to put our work out there once in a while, for good or bad, and say “Here it is.”
I remember chatting with the poet Dorianne Laux after she had given a wonderful reading. She asked me whether I wrote. I timidly said that yes, I wrote poetry. “Are you sending anything out?” she asked, encouragingly. When I muttered that I hadn’t been, she said, “So, you’re being selfish with your poetry.” Taken aback initially, I reflected on what she was saying. She was right. Think of all the folks who can’t write for whatever reason. They haven’t found their voice yet. They are in prison and only have the margins of bibles as white space. They have been silenced so many times they aren’t even at the point of fighting to get the words out. When we write and express ourselves, we invite others to do the same. If one person reads your writing and is touched by it, then whatever you went through was worth the struggle. And here is another wonderful benefit to the writing critique group: when you see someone muster the courage to bring their writing forward to the group, it often emboldens you to share your story, your novel chapter, your poem.
So, what I am saying is this:
Write. Even if there are clothes on the floor and the toilets haven’t been cleaned all week. If you are longing to write, write. Even if you are tired and need to get up at 6:00 AM. Even if you wanted to be published by 30 and you are 57.
Go to some readings, mill around some bookstores, go to writing conferences, meet other writers, and take part in a writing critique group. It will help you take something that is interesting, though perhaps ragged around the edges, and turn it in to something that might inspire everyone, even you.
Sierra Writers Conference held in Grass Valley, CA. Her first book of poetry, It Started with the Wild Horses, is available now for preorder from Finishing Line Press. When it comes to writing poetry, she believes in Richard Hugo’s advice: “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”
Start-Up Critique Group Guidelines
- Decide what you want. What kind of writing do you do regularly? Do you write blog posts, correspondence, grant proposals, or social media narratives? What are your writing goals?
- Look for interested people. Network at a Sierra Writers Conference, ask at the Madelyn Helling Library, and study group guidelines on SierraWriters.org.
- Talk to other writers who attend a critique group. Better yet, attend an existing group to get a sense of how it is structured.
- Start small. Establish ground rules before inviting new members.
- What is your greatest writing strength and what do you need to improve?
- What role do you usually play? Are you a leader, follower, organizer, or a motivator?
- Will one person be in charge of meeting facilitation or multiple?
- Do potential group members have comparable writing experience and goals?
- At what stage of the process may writing be submitted? Loose ideas, outline, rough draft, polished draft?
- Are group members interested in reading/listening to the topics other members are writing about?
- Take a schedule inventory. How often do you want to meet? What are the best times? Do you want to meet in a quiet environment like in someone’s home or an active place that serves food and coffee?
- How will members communicate between meetings?
- Will all members read at each meeting? If not, how many and how is this decision made?
- Will writing be submitted ahead of time? How? Where?
- What happens when scheduled readers are unprepared or skip a meeting?
- Are their styles of writing that is off-limits for the group?
- What kind of feedback is most beneficial? Grammar, editing, story arc, etc. How will members communicate this?
- How many times can a single piece be resubmitted?
- Meet a few times, then evaluate how the group is functioning.
- If any members feel that the group is not meeting their needs, how will they make their concerns known?
- Advertise your group: Announcements may be made using Sierra Writers website, newsletter and at monthly meetings.
Jane Friedman - How to Fing the Right Critique Group or Partner for You
Lifehack - How Start a Writing Critique Group
Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Writing Group Starter Kit - interludes handouts