How do you know if what you are writing is any good? Too often I reread something I wrote years ago (or days ago) and discover it’s shamefully incoherent.
Writing is a mostly solitary profession. We craft the words while alone. But we release them into the world at our peril if we don’t get some feedback first.
I am blessed. I belong to a critique group that’s been meeting weekly for 25 years.
I know I can trust these women with my “babies.” They examine them carefully and give me well-reasoned evaluations. Sometimes they change a word or suggest a restructure of a section. Other times they cross out unnecessary passages or propose taking a completely different direction. Although I am not bound by their input, I consider it carefully. My friends have proven the value of their expertise.
So, what if you’re a Lone Writer? How do you find good, honest feedback?
Step 1: Join a Writers Group.
I live in a major metropolitan area. If I do an internet search for “writers groups near Phoenix AZ,” dozens pop up. Twenty-five years ago I didn’t even have internet, but I found a writers group meeting announced in the newspaper.
If you live in a remote area, you’ll have a more challenging hunt. But writers gather in senior centers, book stores, coffee shops, libraries, and church basements, among other spots.
Writers groups function in a variety of ways. Some offer how-to presentations or hands-on prompts. Others share information about possible markets for your work and what editors are looking for. They spread the word about professional writers’ organizations and conferences. And most eventually get around to critiquing a few short manuscripts each meeting, usually by voicing their comments after an out-loud reading.
The advantages to this approach are you get to hear what others are contributing (and you get to listen to your own words spoken, which is so different than looking at them on a page), and you hear everyone’s take on the work being critiqued. You also learn how to offer encouragement and constructive criticism by observing others.
By the way, don’t be offended by the feedback you receive. Don’t take it as a personal attack. Let it roll off your back, and write it down anyway to reconsider it tomorrow. There might be a germ of truth in there.
If you are unable to find a writers group, adult education programs and community colleges often offer inexpensive writing classes geared to particular genres: fiction, screenwriting, memoir, journalism, etc. You can interact with writers there while you learn the craft.
Step 2: Grow Your Own Critique Group.
Writers Groups are an excellent place to start getting feedback, but most can only take you so far. Gatherings are often large groups, and if everyone brings a manuscript, time won’t allow them all to be read, unless the group breaks up into smaller segments.
Also, some groups are made up largely of beginners, with a few experienced writers who sincerely want to help the initiates get to the next level. Sorry, but that makes for a pool of limited expertise. Additionally, many groups only meet once or twice a month. People are busy, and it’s not easy to find the time.
I would recommend you continue attending the writers group for six months to a couple of years. Meanwhile, look for the participants whose work you admire, people who give perceptive feedback and with whom you feel comfortable. When you can identify six or seven such people, ask them if they would be interested in forming a critique group with you.
Set a time away from the original group when you can discuss the logistics and agree on expectations. My group meets weekly for about 3 hours, and I would recommend that. The more frequently you meet, the more rapidly you will improve. (Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule—see the above link.)
3: Give Quality Feedback.
Do for your groupmates what you hope they will do for you—carefully review their work and determine how to make it even better.
At our group, we bring a paper copy of our manuscript pages for each of our attendees (usually five or six of us). We mark our suggestions directly on the paper. The optimum length of a passage to critique is 1000 words, about 4 pages double-spaced, but we vary on that as needed.
Try to bring something to critique every week. But even if you have nothing, go anyway, to support your colleagues. Hold each other accountable. Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write. (Family first!) But if someone is being lazy, call them on it. If they’re stuck, help them get unstuck.
When you read your partners’ work, go through it more than once if necessary. Get the overall feel of the piece, then go back and look at specifics. Try to catch the author’s vision for the piece. What has to happen for the vision to be achieved?
- If the writer has done something particularly well, be sure to mention it.
- Correct the typos you see.
- If any section is unclear, mark it. If you have a solution, suggest it. If not, write a question about the content so the writer can address it.
- Cross out unnecessary words.
- Replace passive words with active ones.
- If the passage would benefit by organizing it differently, suggest that.
- Point out redundancies and inconsistencies.
- Write a word of encouragement.
- If you know of a potential market, identify it.
I have written this essay from the point of view of a writer, but feedback is valuable—if not crucial—to all artists. What suggestions do you have for finding/giving feedback for your art? Please share your comments below.
Guest post contributed by ARHuelsenbeck. She is a wife, a mother of five (grown) children, and a former elementary general music teacher. She blogs about the arts and the creative process at ARHtisticLicense.com, and is currently writing a YA mystical fantasy, a Bible study guide, and a bunch of picture books.