Writing groups can provide valuable allies in our quest to be better writers. Members provide feedback, free manuscript editing, and general moral support in return for a few hours of our time. Writing groups also offer us an opportunity to grow as writers, by providing the same services for others.
Learning to give useful, constructive feedback is the first step in receiving that type of feedback from others. I think of that as the “golden rule” of writing groups. And if it isn’t happening, it’s the best place to start. (More about that next week.)
It’s rare for first drafts to require only a bit of editing to become timeless gems. Normally, every manuscript needs a combination of substantive editing (format, structure, etc.), copy editing (grammar, word usage, etc.), and proof-reading.
Here are some of the ideas that I’ve used successfully, during some 15 years of participation in writing groups, workshops, and courses for various genres:
1) Start with something you like about the work. Consider the themes or ideas the writer is trying to communicate, or the characters, or the story line. As you read, look for a sentence or two that “sing” so you can point those out to the writer. We all need to hear what works, as well as what needs “fixing.”
2) Don’t try to catch everything that’s wrong with the manuscript (unless you’re being paid for a manuscript critique). If you’re one member of a writing group, likely everyone will be asked for feedback during a meeting, so concentrate on two or three things you can mention when it’s your turn. It can also be overwhelming for writers to hear a long list of problems: better to focus on one or two at a time. That helps develop a more positive attitude in the group, and more chance for individual success.
3) Approach each manuscript individually. Some group members may develop specialties, or areas they always look for and bring up in critiques. I think it’s better to try and approach each manuscript with fresh eyes, because it improves your skill as a writer and reader. (It also prevents members of the group from writing for critique, to anticipate group comments, rather than writing for readers.)
4) Keep a positive, respectful tone. If you’re addressing a common problem, say so by using a phrase like, “All of us have this happen from time to time,” or “I’ve noticed this in my own work as well.” Some writers may ask you to watch for problems they’ve been having with their writing, but generally, try not to anticipate that a writer’s past problems will repeat themselves (and try not to feel annoyed if it happens. Remember, in critique, you usually get back what you give.)
5) Try to frame your critique as a question, rather than a solution. I learned this during my MFA at the University of British Columbia, and I find it keeps the writer in their rightful position as expert on their own work. Try a phrase like, “Have you thought about…” and then give one or two specific ideas that might work in that instance.
Often members of a writing group need to “get on the same page” with their critique methods. Why not put it in writing: write up a sheet of ideas together to help everyone approach each member’s work in a similar fashion.
These are just a few ideas about how to give feedback, based on my experiences in writing groups. For this week, I want to focus on the positive. Have you had positive experiences with writing groups? What are some of the strategies you use to give manuscript feedback? Please click “Read more” below to leave a comment.