A few weeks ago I rejoined my local writing group. I originally left because the weekly homework and reviewing of other members’ work left me with little time to write anything else, and I felt I was getting into a writing rut and not learning anything new. However, I soon found that without that weekly discipline, I did no writing whatsoever.
So here I am again, and we’re making a concerted effort to be constructive in our criticism of each others’ work. We prefer to work from hard copy rather then listening as work is read out, as this gives us the opportunity for more in-depth consideration and a chance to spot that all-important punctuation and spelling. That’s not to say we don’t ever read anything out loud; we do and it has a value of its own – appreciating the rhythm of a poem, or picturing the setting in a descriptive piece.
With any long-established group, the tendency to be nice to everyone creeps in from time to time and it does everyone a disservice. It’s just not very useful. We’ve all known each other a long time and we’re all old enough to accept criticism as long as it’s sensible and constructive. We’re none of us shrinking violets – we might have delicate egos but we’ve also got a pretty good idea of the standard of our own writing, and we’re happy to expose it to the sort of critical comments a writing group might have in its arsenal. We also have a willingness to learn from others and accept that there might be a better way of expressing ourselves.
There’s something about the safety in numbers that can bring out the worst in a group of like-minded people and it’s easy for nasty comment to follow unthinking barb like a line of falling dominoes. There’s an etiquette to critiquing within a group that should avoid this mob mentality – sandwiching a negative comment between two positive ones, for example – and criticism shouldn’t be personal. Never forget that that you’re reviewing a piece of writing, not the person, and that you don’t actually have to like what’s been written to give it a valid critique. I’m not particularly keen on science fiction, but several members of our group use every opportunity to write it. That’s OK and I can be constructive – they probably don’t like my acerbic efforts much either.
There are many aspects to successful critiquing, but what makes criticism constructive? What should we be looking for in a piece of work? Our group refers to a ‘menu’ of critiquing points, so even if someone doesn’t like a particular piece, they are equipped to say why. This is quite important to the writer: if a member of the group makes a negative comment, it is more acceptable if there is a proper reasoning behind it.
Next week I’ll post the checklist with some accompanying notes. It covers all aspects of writing, including style, narrative, vocabulary, time frame and character. I’m not saying that every point should be addressed for every piece you critique, but they are useful guidelines that ensure that no one comes out with the dreaded, ‘That’s nice.’