All posts in Writing Groups

09 Mar

On Receiving Critiques

In Drafting,Editing,Writing Groups,Writing Process by MK England / March 9, 2016 / 2 Comments

Getting critiqued is hard.

There’s really no way around it. When you first start getting hardcore critiqued, it hurts. It took me the better part of a year to grow thick enough skin to really get something useful out of my critiques, and I felt horrible the entire time. Part of it is the battle of what you tried to do vs. what you actually did. The following thoughts tend to creep in when being critiqued for the first few times:

  • But they just didn’t understand this part, even though it was obvious
  • Well, they completely missed the point here
  • I know they think this, but I really like this part as-is, so I’m going to leave it
  • It’s MY book anyway, so I’m going to do it my way

thanks input

Don’t shut out your critique partners!

Secretly, everyone who submits their work for critique for the first time wants one thing: VALIDATION. We want readers to come back with a few little comments here and there, maybe catch some typos, but overall want our work to be loved and understood. Above all else, we want to know that we do have talent, we can do this whole writing thing, and we aren’t wasting our time. We all want to be the exception, the one that really is talented enough to get by without revisions.

I get it. I’ve been there. I still wrestle with these feeling every time I submit something. But you have to let it go, because there is exactly one purpose to submitting your work for critique: getting better.

If you’re writing purely for your own enjoyment, you shouldn’t worry about having your work critiqued. Don’t even bother! So long as you’re happy with it, mission accomplished. If you want to share your work with readers, though, critiques are absolutely necessary.

There are two sides to any creative work: the work itself, and the audience’s view of the work. We all have things we hope to convey through our work, but if we’re conveying those things in a way that doesn’t come across to the reader, it doesn’t matter how in love we are with our own words; the meaning has been lost. Our work must stand on its own once it’s out in the world. We can’t be there to defend it or explain it to those who misunderstand. It is a product wholly separate from ourselves, no matter how much of our hearts we pour into it.

These days, when I present my work for critique, I have a very different attitude: Be ruthless. Overlooking mistakes doesn’t help the work become stronger. It doesn’t help me become a better writer. I want to know everything I’ve done wrong. Everything that’s unclear. Everything that makes the reader pause and question. I don’t want my feelings spared if it means the book is worse for it. That said: don’t be a dick. Self-explanatory, yes?

And of course, there’s a whole other essential skill set to master once you’ve become numbed to the pain: Sifting through the feedback, identifying the useful bits and, hardest of all, figuring out how to fix everything. Learning to spot the problems and learning to fix them are two separate skills. Fortunately, I think the key to both is the same: critique other people’s work. As you learn to see things in others’ work, you’ll start to see them in your own work. It’s a brilliant symbiotic relationship, and it really helps with internalizing that a story isn’t any less yours because you’ve incorporated feedback.

Critiquing others, more than anything else, helps writers understand that it’s not about following the rules of style because they’re rules, but because of the psychology of reading that backs up those rules. There are reasons you need to say things in the clearest way possible, reasons you should ensure your first chapter sets up certain elements of your story, and so many reasons you should show instead of tell.

As my brilliant agent Barbara Poelle once told me: you need crit partners who can kick your ass. I wholeheartedly believe this now, and not just because a good ass-kicking got me the greatest agent in the world. I can see how much better I’ve gotten, and it’s exciting. That’s my new form of validation: Being able to look back and see the improvement with my own two eyes. I’m a completely different writer than I was a year ago, and I have so many brutal crit partners to thank for it.


Also, seriously, grammar is not optional. But that’s a post for another day.


(I’ve written two other posts about receiving critiques: It’s Not Selling Out: On Revising From Feedback and Critiques and Cultivating Self-Awareness)

22 Jul

Collaborative Prompt Building

In Prompts,Writing Groups by MK England / July 22, 2015 / 0 Comments

Summer has eaten me alive, as it always does to public librarians working in youth services, but I always make sure I have the time for my bimonthly writing group meetings. I’m the co-coordinator of my local group, along with crit partner extraordinaire Lisen Minetti, and we’ve been making a lot of changes lately to try to appeal to the needs of our local writers.

We’ve recently changed to an alternating structure where we do group critiques one meeting and prompt writing the next meeting. To keep it fun and engaging, I’ve designed two ways to build prompts with group input. These both work best in groups of 5-7 people, so larger groups should be broken down to allow everyone a chance to contribute and share their final story. For each exercise, either go around the table in order, or have participants draw scraps of paper with the various elements written on them.

Collaborative Build-a-Character

The group builds a character together that will feature in each person’s story. Each person contributes one of the following pieces of information about the character:

  1. Something they’re carrying
  2. Something they feel
  3. Someone they know
  4. A strong personality trait
  5. Something they did recently
  6. Something they said
  7. Wild card

Each individual writer then chooses the age and gender of their character and writes their story.

Collaborative Story Elements

Each person contributes one of the following story elements:

  1. Setting
  2. Main Character
  3. Character Trait
  4. Problem/Obstacle
  5. An Item
  6. An Emotion
  7. Wild Card

In both exercises, you can increase the number of wild card entries to account for more people. At our last prompt writing meeting we ended up with a terribly funny version of the prompt and seven very different takes on the same story elements. My sense of the group was that there was much more buy-in for the prompt because everyone contributed, versus being fed a pre-written prompt. We’re trying out the collaborative character build tonight, so we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I’ll be doing my best to survive the last month of the summer reading program at the library. Keep me in your thoughts, and if you hear uncontrollable screaming, just tune it out.