There’s a universal image of an author sitting alone, fingers tapping on a keyboard or handwriting on a paper tablet as she writes her book. For the most part, writing is a solitary experience. At least in drafting the story one needs a room of her own, yet if we expect to get our work published, we don’t write for an audience of one.
Writers need first readers: people who they trust will give honest feedback on what works or what doesn’t in the draft. The preliminary reader may or may not be a writer, but they’re most certainly a reader. My first readers are a critique group comprised of three other novelists and myself.
Pre-pandemic, our quartet met weekly for three hours where we each shared 20-30 pages of our current projects. All of us have had books published and three of us are hybrids, meaning we are traditionally and independently published. Occasionally, we’d skip a week or two because of illness, family trips, or school holidays. We’ve had to adjust our routine, but overall, the group remains productive.
The key reason our group functions so well is that we’re all at approximately the same level of experience and writing ability. A newbie would be intimidated by the level of criticism we hurl at one another. For example, on recent pages two of the members, who I’ll call Jane and Paula, pointed out instances where a character’s dialogue sounded “demeaning.” Jane cited a paragraph that was just plain “boring.” Both partners agreed that one of my chapters deflated the tension and recommended I delete it. When Jane commented that, “this character has no personality.” It forced me to take a flat character and add details that made her stand out and now she’s one of my favorite characters.
Our fourth member, Sharon, has an eagle eye for red-lining lumpy syntax and punctuation and repetitiveness. She takes more time reading our work, but it’s always worth the wait. In my feedback I often ask questions in the margins, note when a scene starts to sag, or make suggestions for moving dialogue and blocks of text.
By pointing out the boring, flat, inconsistent, and inappropriate, my critique partners and I are not attacking one another; we’re doing each other a favor.
Not everything we say about one another’s work is negative. We also mark areas that are “great,” and “wonderful” and make remarks such as “I love this image, I like the trajectory your story is taking,” or “LOL” when a scene is funny.
Good criticism is a conversation that offers ideas for improvement, and all writers need to be open to this level of critique in order for their work to move up to the next level.
Most writers, particularly new ones, cringe at anything negative said about their manuscripts. Writing is hard work. Months, possibly years, go into constructing a book-length manuscript and you won’t get it right in the first draft. It will be littered with plot holes, bad syntax, and spelling errors. I trust this group with my worst.
I’ve had three novels and numerous poems and essays published, yet each time I begin a new project, it feels like walking into foreign territory. I’m well versed in structure, plot, voice, description, character development, and syntax, but my critique group teaches me what I need to know to make the current project better. Every story is its own entity.
So, if you want an audience wider than your friends and family, find a small village composed of other writers with whom you can exchange constructive feedback so that your writing will resonate with readers.
For more on handling criticism, here are six more tips for handling criticism.
— By Laura Moe