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Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Writing Groups and Critiques

Do I recommend that new writers join writing groups?
Writing-group members as editors
Taking critique

"This book fills a much-needed gap. "

                                  - Moses Hadas (1900-1966) in a review

Do I Recommend that New Writers Join Writing Groups?


There are lots of reasons people want to be in a writing group.  Some people want a friendly, supportive atmosphere which will help them build the self-confidence to continue writing or to try getting published.  A writing group can help with this.  Some people need for someone else to set their deadlines, so that they can complete projects they would otherwise put off or abandon. Writing groups can be structured to do this.  Some people want a test group of readers on which to try out their stories.  A writing group certainly provides this.

However, some people want professional-level critique and editing to help them prepare a manuscript for publishing.  I have not personally seen or read about any writing groups which offer this service to their members.

In general, when people ask me about joining a writing group, my response is to say, join a university or college.  Take more writing classes, take literature courses, take journalism.  Put in a couple of years studying psychology and economics, philosophy, religion, and history.  Read other authors for style and traits you would like to emulate and for those habits or aspects you would like to avoid.  Studying writing methods and tools and then attempting to recreate or use them in your own stories has always seemed much more useful to me than trying to write for a particular group of people.

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Writing-Group Members as Editors

If you are looking for a writing group to fulfill your need for professional-quality editing, you had better think about this a bit.  How many professional editors do you know who hang out in writing groups just so that they can give away their time and skills for free?

Writing-group peers can be good readers, but a manuscript reader is not necessarily a professional editor with highly developed story editing skills.  And no, I'm not talking about grammar, spelling, typos, or glaring story errors here -- any reasonably skilled reader can do that.  In addition, a member of the Grammar Police is more likely to distract you from what you are trying to say in your writing, than he will help you develop your story.

"I don't split 'em.  When I go to work on an infinitive, I break it up in little pieces."

                      -Jimmy Durante (attributed)

Professional story-editing skills are not the same as technical-editing skills, journalistic skills, or other writing skills.  Without professional story-editing skills, readers usually identify the results of problems, rather than the causes.  Having someone tell me only that there is a problem, without helping me identify why that passage stopped the reader, means that I can spend days trying to figure out what is really wrong.  Having someone speak specifically enough about the problem to allow me to identify the cause saves me tremendous time and frustration.

For example, I don't need someone to tell me that the book drags in Chapter 8.  I need someone to tell me that there is just too much farting around in the forest, that the description of XX enzyme is not clearly described, that what's-his-name is not interesting enough to have so much time spent on him, or that, because one of the philosophical threads got lost back in Chapter 5, the sense of direction in the story petered out by the time we reach Chapter 8.  General comments are usually about problems of which I am already aware, but for which I cannot see the chapter for the words.  By the time I start needing readers, I need readers with more discerning eyes.

However, most readers are great at finding obvious and glaring errors.  For example, in Wolfwalker, I forgot to write one of the most important scenes.  One of my readers pointed this out to me rather emphatically, and it turned out that it was that scene which ended up selling the book to my agent.

Whether or not they are capable of clearly identifying and articulating issues, your writing-group peers may not--and probably do not -- have the editing/storyline experience, time, or inclination to provide a full, specific critique of your manuscript.  They are readers and writers, not editors.  In my experience, it would take at least 20 readers (who have at least some writing/editing skills) to give me even somewhat the same feedback that my editor gives me in a single pass through the manuscript.

For example, none of my readers for Wolfwalker (I had eight or nine readers for that novel, half of whom were professional writers) noticed that a character who had died in Chapter 7 was suddenly back in the story in Chapter 15.  It was a naming error, but it was definitely there. Needless to say, I was a bit embarassed about that call from my editor.

Mind you, I am not putting down readers--I need them and their critiques as much as the next writer does.  I make sure my manuscripts are read by at least five readers before I ever send my work to my editor.  However, what I have found is that each of my readers usually finds only one particular type of error or inconsistency.  Put together, several readers can give me a general picture of my manuscript:  Does it still need serious work?  Or is it in good enough shape to be packed in the Fed-Ex box and shipped off?  Without readers, I'd have to rely on my own judgment to determine if my novel is ready to ship, and we all know how writers are about judging their own work...

There is a saying that comes to my mind:  Going to church no more makes you a Christian, than going to the garage makes you a car.  Taking an editing class doesn't make you a professional editor. And, just because someone was good in grammar in high school doesn't mean he knows how to edit a story.  It takes just as much time and experience to hone editing skills as it does to hone skills in other fields.

One last thing to consider when thinking about joining a writing group:   People who are concentrating on writing are not concentrating on editing.  Figure out what your priorities and goals are, and you will have a better idea of whether or not a writing group will meet your needs.

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Taking Critique

The writing field is filled with people who find it hard to accept criticism.  This is especially true of writers who have the attitude that their work is their selves, and that critique is thus an attack on their selves.  If you want to be a professional writer, the first thing you have to do is separate critique of yourself from critique of your work.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.

                         - William Maugham

Critique is the process by which you learn to identify strengths and weaknesses.  If you can't learn to identify both, you will never be able to overcome weaknesses or fully exploit your strengths.

Critiques -- I'll qualify that:  most critiques -- leveled at you or your work are designed to get your stories into good enough shape to sell as product.  In many cases, it's to get your stories up to the level of quality required to sell them as a product that will make a profit.  No engineering company would sell software code without some kind of evaluation process, followed by fixes to at least some of the major bugs.  Evaluation/editing is, simply put, fixing bugs. It's part of the process of bringing a product (the story) to market (the readers).  And you might as well not begin that process if you're not ready to fix the bugs.  Because if you're not willing to fix the problems, you're just wasting everyone's time by asking for critique.

Critiques are not about creativity and the essence of the idea (except as far as helping you clarify your meanings).  Critiques are about the business side of writing.  If you're writing for only yourself, you don't need critiques.  But if you want someone else to read what you wrote, you've entered a different world.

Honest criticism is hard to take,
particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.

                               -Franklin P. Jones

If you have trouble accepting criticism, try to think of it this way:  the moment you decide to get published, you don't own your story any more.  The first time you give your story to a reader -- especially with the intention of eventually getting published -- you've given up some ownership of that story.  In fact, you might as well start thinking of your writing as work-for-hire.  You now work for someone else:  the reader.  And your primary reader is your editor.  (The editor, of course, represents the rest of your readers.)   Writing for only yourself does work -- and is necessary, in my opinion, when you first start putting down the story -- but only until you try to get published.  You are then working for others.

Critique is not about changing your story.
It's about improving the relating of the story to the reader.

                            - Tara K. Harper

Writing-group members try to take the place of an editor in helping a writer fix up his story.  They are (hopefully) working in good faith to teach a writer something about himself and his writing.  A writer who complains, rebuts, or derides the criticism he receives from his critiquers simply shows himself to be discourteous and unprofessional.  Writers should always accept comments and critique with good grace, especially since they ask for it in the first place by putting their work out for review.

Self-critique/editing or external critique/editing -- both are necessary parts of the writing process.  Writing is 95% rewriting, and critique (self-inflicted or otherwise) is the foundation of rewriting:  You can't fix a problem that you cannot discern.  Learning to accept critique from others, not just from yourself, is as necessary to getting published as negotiating a contract.

Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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