My recent reposting of my comments about critiques from workshops and/or writing groups brought some questions from readers, which can be boiled down into these basic concerns:
I’ll take a stab at tackling these broad issues and then (of course!) offer some advice.
With regard to craft issues, it seems imperative to me that members of the group have a general sense of the basic tenets of good writing, whether that be good genre writing or good literary writing. There’s a potential problem right there: if what you want to write is a good genre romance novel, and the other people in your group are more interested in writing the next Pulitzer Prize winner, they may not be as helpful to your particular project as you would like. I don’t believe that everyone in a group must have the same goals, but it certainly is helpful—and at the least, everyone should have an understanding of what other writers are working for.
I sometimes see this play out in the graduate workshops where I teach: someone will show up with an idea for a science fiction novel, say. I have no problem with that, but honestly, I don’t know much about the field, so I’m not as helpful as I might like to be. Is this idea fresh…or has it been done a zillion times already? How do other sci-fi writers solve that problem of plunging into a world that’s so different than ours? Are vampires allowed in outer space?
On the other hand, I DO know about good writing and telling stories, so I know that I can help lead the way to more textured scenes and deeper characterizations; I can point out clichés and problems with point of view. And, also on that hand, is the fact that I’m always mindful that I’m teaching in a graduate writing program; it does seem that the goal there is to learn to write in a literary, artful way, so that’s what I stress. I believe that good writing will enhance a genre novel—while I love Harry Potter, fixing those clunky sentences would have improved the books without scaring people away from that wonderfully imagined world.
The equation feels more challenging when flipped: the lone literary writer in a room full of genre writers. Believe me, I’m not saying that it’s easy to write a genre book—I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it—but that reading a literary work and offering suggestions take a certain base of knowledge (i.e. an understanding of point of view, deep thinking to see through to thematic concerns). Also believe me when I say that obviously there are writers who are interested in writing genre fiction who are also excellent critics, editors, and readers.
BUT—if you’re working on a more literary project, and you sense that the members of your group are not offering comments that show a depth of understanding of the goals of your work*…well, no amount of “I really like it” is going to advance your writing. A good critique should open your eyes, challenge you, and make you excited for your revision.
In a writing workshop, it’s the teacher’s job to draw forward more useful comments from inexperienced readers who offer “I really like the mother character.” It’s also easy to discount the few voices in a class that aren’t helpful.
However, in a writing group, that issue may become more pronounced because there’s not usually a leader who can take control in that way. And a writing group is usually composed of people that you have CHOSEN to share your work with, which leads us to the second point: personality issues.
A group (and a teacher-led workshop) should be respectful and constructive and honest. The goal should be to help the writer find his/her way through the story on the page. All should willingly enter this covenant of trust:
I trust that you will tell me the truth about my work in a respectful way.
I trust that you will be able to hear the truth about your work in a respectful way.
Defensiveness has no place in a writing group/workshop, and neither do personal attacks. In the end, the type of people in the group is as important as the writing skill. Other aspects of personality come into play—seriousness of intent, hard work, generosity of spirit, etc.—but to me, the most important has to be the ability to remain detached (at least in the public of the group) about hearing criticism and about giving criticism.
I have the same bit of advice for anyone in finding themselves in one of these common writing group problems: Get out. A bad writing group is way worse than no writing group. Leave, take a break, think about what you want/need for your work, and then, when you’re ready, try again, either by starting a new group or by finding a trusted reader or two.
Life is too short—and the work is too hard—to do otherwise.
*Here, I mean basic issues of what good writing “is,” not a room full of people who keep telling you, “I have no idea what’s going on in this book/story,” because in that case, I might think the readers are on to something and that perhaps your work lacks clarity. Or else you’re James Joyce.