5 Rules for Writers Groups–Break With Care

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Writers are a funny bunch. If you’ve been to a writing conference, you know it’s true. We’re wise beyond our years, with varying degrees of artistic ability, wrapped in emotional pain and plenty of passion. We’re just really, really cool people–people who need each other.

Before my first book was published, I had no idea what the social norms were between writers. Three critique groups, dozens of interviews and signings and conferences and a million mistakes later, I’ve come to realize that yes, there are some rules that authors (and aspiring authors) should follow when it comes to critique groups and writing networks. Here are the big five:

Rule #1: Remember that writing isn’t a competition. 

Unlike in other professions, an author’s career isn’t threatened by other writers. In fact, s/he does better with a supportive writing network than without one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon–the longer you’re with a critique group, the more likely you are to get published. And once someone in your group hits success, the more likely others in your group are to achieve publication, too. My critique groups have been fantastic so far, and I feel myself being stretched further and higher every single month. 

Rule #2: Give as much as you take.

I’ve met writers who finish their manuscripts, scramble to find readers under the pretense of wanting a critique group, milk ’em for all the advice and help they can get, and then disappear again. I know life gets busy, and sometimes writing takes a backseat. But if you don’t contribute as much as you take, you’ll have very grumpy friends . It’s just like any other profession–carry your weight.

If another writer spent valuable hours reading your work and giving advice, they’re probably hoping you’ll do the same for them. If you just don’t have the time, offer to help in some other way, like reviewing their work on your blog, or at least reposting/retweeting their promotional efforts. Remember, what goes around comes around–especially in the writing world. 

Rule #3: Positive always comes first. 

Whether you’re critiquing someone’s work or giving an overall review, always focus on the positive first. Sometimes that can be hard (really, REALLY hard), especially if the writer is just starting out or if it’s not in your preferred genre, but trust me. You can find something of worth in anyone’s work. It could be a character you like or a clever city name or a funny line of dialogue. Collect those little bits of potential and start with those first.

Even the thickest-skinned author appreciates a little positive thrown in with the constructive criticism. It takes guts for them to hand over their “baby” to you, trusting that you’ll help them make it better. The least you can do is show that you respect them enough to start with the things you liked. 

I reviewed a book on Amazon today and gave it three stars, lower than any of my reviews so far. But half the review was about what the author did well. I wanted people to know that she had a lot of potential, and there was a lot I really liked about her book. And then I was honest about what needed to be worked on. When my first negative review comes for my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, I’m hoping the reviewer does it that way, rather than making it sound like my book has no redeeming qualities at all!

Rule #4: Don’t be a know-it-all.

You know who I’m talking about–that writer who knows more than his or her friends, whose lofty status as “author” or “writer” has taken over their brain’s common sense. Their advice is law, their opinion is gold, and you’re lucky to even be in the same critique group as them. Ugh. Who wants to help someone who is above your help?

The point of a support/critique group is to help your writing improve, not tear everyone else’s writing down and reject any suggestions that come your way. It should be about the person first, and their work second. Just be sensitive. Common curteousy, folks.

And that leads us into number five.

Rule #5: Be open to feedback.

In my very first writing group, there was a writer who seemed to think constructive feedback was negative and insulting. He never took anyone’s advice, and the fact that it was being offered at all seemed to threaten his pride. I stopped reading his work after awhile, because it was completely pointless. All he wanted was compliments. Not surprisingly, as far as I know, he hasn’t gotten published.

Let me just say this: if you can’t handle feedback, you’re in the wrong profession. Critique group friends are WAY nicer than editors are. Just saying.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we can connect with thousands of other writers on Facebook, writing blogs, Twitter, and in writing conferences, in addition to critique groups. They are absolutely priceless, if you follow these five rules. If not, you may find yourself out of the loop and out of support.

Thanks for reading. Can you think of a rule I missed?

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4 responses »

  1. I agree that positive feedback is great
    Personally I prefer to leave the best for last. I like ending a critique on a high note 🙂
    I would also add another rule. There is no such thing as perfection. Whether you’re a newbie just published or a multiple published author you can always improve.

  2. I too like to give the positive last. But what I do – for those who like positives first – is give the high level positive fillowed by my detailed feedbacj negative then positive. And finally I reiterate my high level positive. However, I have foind that some people still focus on the negative. Which (I constantly remind myself) is out of my control.

    But for most people – starting with good works well. I love all your rules. Finding good critique partners and groups is really hard. And these 5 rules really hit the nail on the head for that difficulty.

  3. Krista, thanks for your comment. You’re both right in that the order of positive vs. constructive isn’t necessarily what’s important, but the focus. I’ve heard someone (I think it was Tristi Pinkston?) call it a criticism sandwich–good, constructive criticism, then more good. What matters is that there’s both. Some people naturally gravitate toward negativity, like you’re saying, Krista, and that doesn’t help anyone. I’m lucky to have found such an awesome critique group that naturally follows all these rules.

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