The local chapter of SCBWI sponsored an event last night where three dozen writers listened to Carol Lynch Williams discuss the art of critiquing. Carol knows her stuff. She writes, she blogs, and is a creative writing instructor at BYU. Carol heads up the annual WIFYR conference. In her quiet but humorous style, she shared her thoughts.
The purpose of critiquing is to improve writing. We get too close or so attached to our own work that we can’t see the flaws. We need fresh eyes to look at it and that is what a critique group can provide. It is a mutually agreed upon thing. You will look at another writer’s story and try to make it better, trusting they will do the same for you.
It is important to find the right people with which to form a writer’s group. There is a lot of trust involved, not only that each member will dedicate their time to your work, but also they will do so in a positive, yet constructive manner. Ask not only what your critique group can do for you. Ask what you can do for them. It usually is the same things.
The rules and expectations should be clearly laid out ahead of time. Dates for submissions and meetings should provide enough time for all participants to read through and make comments. Obviously the faults of a work must be pointed out. A mention should also be made of the positive points, the things that worked well. Carol says the one being critiqued should remain silent, that if there is anything they need to explain, it should have come out in the writing.
Some writers fear a critique. They spend hours on a piece, massaging it to perfection, then don’t want to share with others who could find its flaws. An ideal critique group will treat your precious baby with tender care, offering suggestions for its growth and development.
Ultimately with a critique, you are the writer. Your group can make suggestions but it is your work. It is your story, your vision, so go with your gut.
Carol said there were four steps to do before sharing with a writer’s group. You should first read your piece silently on the computer and make changes. Then you should read it aloud on screen and make changes. Then print the piece and repeat the steps. I’m okay with the silent reading. It’s the reading out loud that struck me as problematic. Not sure the rest of the family wants to listen to that and I don’t feel like sitting in my car doing so. Yet as a teacher, I’ve asked my students to do the same. I made little reading phones out of PCV pipe. Kids can whisper their story without much disruption of the rest of the class. It is amazing the mistakes you find when listening to your own writing. I may have to pull one of those things home.
If you want a pat on the back, go somewhere else. If you want to improve your work, take it to a critique group. Then be willing to listen with an open mind.
Matt Kirby once told Carol that he would rather not be published at all if his work were not the best writing he could produce.