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Writing Groups #2: Accepting Help and Criticism from Other Writers: Part 1

Lemming Writers Critique Group

Putting Yourself Out There

Writing is about vulnerability, about putting yourself and parts of your mind/reaction to the world on display for others to see, think about, and participate in. Because you are so vulnerable and open, you have to know when to take help/criticism from you peers and when to avoid it.

In this two part blog, I am going to talk about my own experiences, and what I have learned from them. How such interactions can give you a real leap forward with your work and others can do serious damage. I have had both kind of interactions.


Good Criticism and Advice

We can all be blind to the faults in our own work, especially when we are starting to learn how to write. And it does help to have an honest, CONSTRUCTIVE critique from someone else. However,i t is not helpful to have an axe session with someone who uses the guise of  “honesty” to make you feel bad about your work either.  When I was the main liaison for our local  writing group, I would get calls from potential new members who asked what kind of group we had, and if we would give blunt, totally honest critiques because “they could take it.” The idea that there are groups where “they ream someone a new one” really isn’t something I would be involved with. It was great that these folks wanted to improve their work and were looking to learn, but does anybody really need to abused for their art?

The trick in getting anything out of a critique situation is KNOWING when the group has got your best interests at heart, cares for the craft itself and seeing you improve. The other thing you have to know is when not to take a suggestion: you can’t be wimpy and be an artist. On the other hand, if you really want to learn the craft, you can’t have a tremendous huge ego and think you “sprung fully-formed and perfect from the head of Zeus like the Goddess Athena.” If you  believe your work is as good as Bradbury, Faulkner, Hemingway or any of the greats with just your first novel (unpublished) and/or  first ten short stories (also unpublished)—then you aren’t looking to improve, you are looking for a fan club.

When taking criticism from other writers and deciding to make changes, ask yourself: Is this person right and is this really better for the work? If you gut feeling is: YES! Then make the changes. Otherwise, stick to your guns! It’s your work, not theirs. You have to write for yourself, unless judgements of  others means more to you than your own voice. I know this is confusing, but part of the whole learning process is teaching you to trust yourself and your work.


Bad Critiques, Attitudes and Hidden Agendas

I think sometimes the worst thing anyone with artistic aspirations does is kill those of another person. Venom can get very poisonous between people in the arts sometimes, especially among those of us who write. This has been part of  my experience and totally anecdotal, and maybe you have been lucky enough to avoid it.  I have seen writing critiques used as blood sport between certain parties, and it ain’t pretty.

Some of the stuff I have seen I would like to attribute to cloddish behavior (lack of social skills, social ineptitude, whatever you want to call it), other times its jealousy and other times it is just plain mean. The just plain mean stuff is usually from writers who aren’t writing themselves and appear to be jealous of others who are. Then there are people who would rather snipe and criticize the work of others, rather than put their own head on the block and actually write something. In this last instance, they have literary pretensions not any real desire to actually write. (See wants a fan club above.)

I will be going into this more in Part 2 of this blog, and share some of the  things I have had happen to me along the way. Most of this  happened to me when I was a “newbie” and so desperate to have creative contact with other writers I was willing to put up with nearly anything. It is a good thing to get older, survive and know that when you think something is wrong or stinks—is usually is and it usually does.


Make It About the Writing

Writing Groups: Critique or Support  are among the most positive and horrifying experiences you’ll ever go through. Make sure to find a supportive, constructive one where the focus is on the work and nurturing the artist. Avoid those that are about cults of personality, egos, and sniping—unless this sort of thing appeals to you. Everyone enjoys a little comeuppance for certain people or a little Schadenfreude for the pretentious, but in the long run make it about the writing and improving your work—that was the reason you went looking for help to begin with.

The last any of us needs to deal with is fighting with our own peers. Be a writer who is also a good sport! If someone gives you a thoughtful, beneficial bit of advice—take what you can of it, and pay it forward. Advance the craft, not your own ego.


Credit: Please go to Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s website: inkygirl.com to see more of her wonderful cartoons and illustrations.

  1. Loved your blog on writing groups #2. Very insightful and totally true. Thanks for this ~ it doesn’t get said enough. 🙂

  2. Good subject. Thanks for this. Now I’m waiting for the next piece…

  3. Excellent post, Pam. Even when the critique is accurate, it can still be delivered in a mean-spirited fashion. When that happens, it’s important to find a way to ignore the cruelty while putting the advice to good use. If it weren’t for my support group, I never would have survived my first critique.

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