Everyone touts critiquing groups as a great way to get feedback for your writing. That’s debatable and depends on the dynamics of the group. On the other hand, what is perhaps the most advantageous reason for participating in critiquing groups is that they allow serious writers an excellent way to strengthen their skills even more by giving feedback, rather than getting it.

Critiquing groups can provide very helpful feedback, if – and this is a big if – the members of the group are serious writers, understand how to critique, allow for a variety of viewpoints, and spend considerable time looking at one another’s writing with an eye to developing each other’s skills. Too often these groups just “chat” feedback – “Oh, I liked your character; she seemed nice. I was a little confused when the dialogue seemed to go back and forth a lot. I thought maybe the maniacal killer was a little too dark.” While pointing out the parts you like about someone’s writing can be just as important as pointing out ways the writer can improve the story, these kinds of simple comments don’t really help anyone, because they offer no specific feedback that the writer can address. Which pieces of dialogue were difficult to follow? Does the writer need to include more attribution or beats to help the reader know who is speaking, or was the problem that a lot of the dialogue wasn’t really needed. What, specifically, is too dark about the maniacal killer? Is he so one-sidedly hateful and cruel that he’s become a stereotype, or did the reader not believe the killer would be as cruel as he is portrayed as being.

On the other hand, though, I’ve heard people brag that their critique group brings writers to tears, as if it is a badge of courage to withstand their critiques. This isn’t helpful either because none of us deal well with a barrage of criticism that sometimes is more about relationships within the group than it is about the writing. If readers don’t like something, they should be able to say specifically what the problem is and even offer suggestions for improving the writing: “I thought there was too much detail about how Marilyn feeds her fish. It didn’t seem that important to the story, but the description went on for half a page. Perhaps you could shorten it or connect it to something more in the story. I can see how it shows that Marilyn is meticulous, but I was able to figure that out in the first three lines.”

Critiques should be as honest and text-based as possible. They should be couched with “I felt,” “I found,” or “I thought,” because that is what the comment is about: “I felt the ending was weak and needed to tie in more of the details about her relationship with her mother, such as finally answering why she refused to see her mother at the hospital.” That is your take on it; someone else may have a different take. It’s up to the writer to hear what you both have to say and then decide which, if either, would be helpful to heed. I will post a piece on how to critique on MY BLOG  this Friday, with examples of what readers should pay attention to when they are critiquing.

Additionally, critiquing groups should not censor their writers. Your group may set certain standards, such as not allowing porn or outrageously violent material – but I have talked to so many people who are worried their material will be deemed inappropriate because they use cuss words, have a same-sex relationship, include a sex scene, or are grotesque. If your members can’t bring in what they write without being worried they will be accepted, it’s either time to change your attitudes or change your members.

Finally, the goal of every group should be encouraging all members of the group in their writing efforts. This means cheering each other on, giving useful, valuable criticism and positive strokes, and taking your job as a critiquer seriously.

Next week I’ll talk about how critiquing other people’s writing improves your own. Until then, for tips, advice, and inspiration on writing, please visit MY BLOG.