This post is for anyone who is a member of a writers’ group, or thinking of joining one, and is anxious about accidentally being a dick. Critiquing other people’s work can be a minefield, especially if (like me) you’re prone to verbal clumsiness.
It’s worth making a little effort here, because being a dick to other writers is definitely something to avoid. You don’t want to discourage inexperienced writers, and you don’t want to end up cast as the villain in someone’s novel.
I’ve been a part of two writers’ groups, and examples of dickish behaviour were thankfully few and far between. Other writers haven’t been so lucky, and of course any writer who gets their critique from the internet is potentially in for a world of pain. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Feel free to passive-aggressively pass these tips on to anyone who could benefit from them.
Always Be Constructive.
There’s no point in tearing into someone’s work (no matter how bad it is) without helping them improve it. Keep your criticism specific. For example, don’t just say a piece of writing is boring – work out why it failed to hold your interest and help the writer ramp up the tension and intrigue.
You should also think carefully about the language you use. Writers tend to be much more receptive to “I think the dialogue needs some work. It’s a little stilted in places.” than “What the hell? Nobody talks like that!”
Maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like to sugar coat things. Maybe you enjoy doling out tough love. Fair enough, but believe me – tough love isn’t always welcome at a writers’ group. Like it or not, most writers are delicate little teacups who pour their heart and soul into their work and don’t enjoy having it trashed. Just … be nice, okay?
Know when to shut up
You can make a really positive contribution to a writer’s group by knowing when to speak up. Is there a plot hole that nobody else has noticed? Is the “genius” protagonist making stupid mistakes? Is the only female character a pretty face with zero personality behind it? By all means, raise your voice. But it’s equally important to know when to shut up.
At one of the writers’ groups I attended, a new guy arrived with a chapter of his work-in-progress. Someone pointed out a small flaw, and instead of discussing it briefly and then moving on, we proceeded to analyse it from every angle, while he squirmed uncomfortably. Understandably, we never saw him again. Moral of the story? Don’t get fixated on little flaws.
Respect all writers and all genres
Everyone at a writers’ group deserves thoughtful feedback. Whether they’re a published author with decades of experience, or a newbie poet who writes like a teenager and uses the word “soul” too much, they’ve had the guts to share their work and they deserve a useful critique.
Unless you join a very specialised writers’ group, it’s likely that you’ll be exposed to a range of different genres, and not all of them will be your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to be sniffy about them.
At one of my writers’ groups, there was a woman who wrote vampire romance. There was also a man who, whenever she read a chapter of her vampire romance, would say he didn’t understand why the hero had to be a vampire. I wish I’d explained to him that this is a daft question. Kind of like “Why is there magic in your fantasy novel?” or “Why do people keep getting killed in your murder mystery?”
Don’t tell anyone to write a different story
If a fellow writer is struggling with the plot of their story, there are all kinds of ways you can help. You can offer ideas for introducing conflict and jeopardy. You can help them fix a plot that’s unrealistic, or confusing. You can help trim back the tangle of superfluous sub-plots. One thing you shouldn’t do is tell them to write a different story.
This is a difficult line to walk, because only the writer (if anyone) will know what the “essence” of a story is. If you want to advise a writer to change a major component of their story, now is the time to ask plenty of questions.
Ask who their target readers are. Ask what kind of tone or mood or message they are trying to convey. Get as much information as you can and use it to tailor your advice, so that you are helping the writer tell the story they want to tell, rather than the story you, personally, want to read.
Everything I’ve written so far has been about giving feedback to other writers, but if you’re attending a writers’ group, you’re presumably there to get feedback for your own work too. Be prepared for this to be a less than ecstatic process.
Some people won’t “get” what you’ve written. Some people will “get” it all too well, and spot half a dozen genuine flaws. It’s easy to get more interested in defending your work than improving it.
Stay calm, and try not to battle everyone’s advice. It’s a good idea to note down the feedback that people are offering, so you can look at it later and ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it.
If you have tips you’d like to share, or a memorable writers’ group experience to get off your chest, feel free to comment!