Sunday, July 5, 2015

Writing Groups, critiques and criticisms

Twice now I have been lucky enough to live in places with writing groups and writing workshops. The first time was in a small mountain town in Massachusetts, and the second is the town in which I currently live. It was a scary thing at first, taking my work in to someone and asking them to look at it and critique it. 
Receiving it back with red all over it was crushing, but only in that first moment before the woman who would become instrumental in shaping my writing told me to take a seat.

She explained that she didn’t just mark papers until they bled, she liked to sit down with the writer and talk about what their vision was for the story. It soon became clear to me that if I couldn’t vocalize that, than I couldn’t get my story from opening line to the place I wanted it to be. She worked with me on revisions, she worked with me on streamlining my thoughts and expanding my horizons. She got me to attend poetry workshops, and workshops on one act plays. I attended her novel writing workshop two years after first beginning to work with her, and created two drafts of a novel I plan to revisit one day.

Of course this was not without the help of the wonderful writing group that ended up being formed from that 8 week workshop. For the next year and a half we met once a week, brought in the new sections of our writing and discussed the pieces we’d turned in the week before. We gave one another feedback, helped one another through writers block and wayward plots, encouraged, supported and even cried with one another.

Fast-forward ahead a decade. I’ve been with the writing group in my town about three years now, it’s mostly poetry based but still with that nurturing, supportive base I loved from my first group. In fact, I’m in the process of creating a flyer to see if I can generate interest in a weekly novel writing group in my community. Writing can be a lonely craft, but I don’t think it has to be.

One of the first things that was discussed in each workshop I participated in was the importance of not ‘killing babies.” Let’s face it our stories are our babies and it’s important not to stomp all over someone’s work. New ideas can be fragile things and having someone read a draft and say ‘that’s crap’ isn’t helpful to anyone.

Which brings me to the difference between critique and criticism.  A critique points out strengths and weaknesses and offers suggestions as to what someone can do to improve their work. More showing and less telling, adding in more details, working on making dialogue more natural, these are all helpful things to point out.

Criticism, however, tends to lean towards being a string of lines like, “this is horrible. No publisher will ever publish this. This was boring. Have you ever written anything before? Who would want to read something like this. This was a waste of my time.” These are all criticisms, I have seen given to writers in online writing groups and workshops in the last year alone and the number of those types of comments seems to be growing.

There is nothing helpful in replying to someone’s work with those kinds of comments. There is nothing specific for the writer to focus on improving. They are left wondering what parts were horrible or boring and what, exactly was it about the story that made someone consider it horrible, or boring.  Rather than being helpful, those kinds of criticisms can crush a writer’s self-esteem and kill any desire that they might have to improve and achieve. It can also leave writers new to asking for help with their work feel afraid to do so, and thus leave them unwilling to seek out the help they might need.

As writers we are lucky to be part of an industry where there is room for everyone, a genre for almost everything, and readers who are always looking for something new. New ideas are not something we should be afraid of, if anything we should be willing to embrace them and the writers who brings them to the table. I hope that in time all of our writing communities, groups, and workshops are as welcoming and encouraging as the ones I’ve been lucky to find. Let’s foster a positive atmosphere of learning and growth, rather than charging in and tearing others down. 

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