Writers groups can be an incredibly rich experience. In fact, you can learn more about the craft of writing from a good writers group or creative writing club than you can learn from a thousand blog posts on writing.
However, at the same time, a bad writers group can be a waste of time, and if particularly dysfunctional, can even be incredibly damaging to your confidence and your writing.
If you're part of a writers group, how do you take it to the next level? And if you're looking for a writers group, how do you make sure you choose the right one?
Good Writers Groups Critique
Here's the rule to judge a writers group by:
Good writers groups give good critiques. To grow your writers group, then, you must learn how to give better feedback.
Critiquing isn’t just a normal part of most writers groups, you may find it to be the best part.
However, if you’ve ever received a bad critique, whether it was poorly thought out or just straight up wrong, you know that sometimes critiques can do more harm than good.
With that in mind, let’s talk about how to give feedback as good as any New York editor, and then how to take it like a pro.
3 Steps to Giving the Best Feedback
Before we begin, let’s all acknowledge something about the nature of criticism: it sucks. Criticism is painful at it’s best, deeply wounding at its worst, and can often cause lasting impact to our writing and self-confidence.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, one surprising thing about criticism is that it’s also incredibly useful for creativity. In fact, researchers have found that criticism is far more effective for generating ideas even than brainstorming. Here’s Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at Berkeley:
While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.… Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating. It wakes us right up.
At The Write Practice, we always strive to critique in a way that is both encouraging and invigorating, and that’s why we follow the following three-step process to giving feedback.
The Oreo Method to Critiquing
What’s you’re favorite part of an Oreo? If you’re like me, the best part of an Oreo is definitely the two cookies (I especially have a weakness for Oreo cookie milkshakes).
In the same way, the best parts of a critique that follows the Oreo Method are the two cookies (the filling is the tough part!).
Here’s how the Oreo Method works:
Step 1: Give positive praise.
The first step of building your Oreo sandwich is to start by talking about all the things you liked about the writing piece you read.
- What is unique or effective about their writing style?
- What did you enjoy or respect about their characters?
- What is a phrase or paragraph that especially stood out to you? Why?
- Which authors that you’ve read do they remind you of?
The key here is to be as specific as you can, and to describe exactly what they did that was effective.
What if you can’t think of anything good to say? Then you’re not reading closely enough. I’ve edited some pretty bad writers, but even then, I’ve found that when I’m struggling to find something to praise, it’s my fault, not theirs. I find that as I look back at their writing and read closer, I will always find many things to praise.
The golden rule of critiquing is, “Seek first to understand, not to be understood.” Your job as a critique partner is to draw out what’s best about their writing. Don’t you want the same thing from your critique partners?
If you can’t give positive feedback on someone's writing, you’re not reading closely enough. (Share that on Twitter?)
Step 2: Give constructive feedback.
Next, the filling. It’s time share your negative feedback.
Honestly, I find it’s usually easier to talk about what I didn’t like than what I did (perhaps that says something about me!), but that’s why the first step of critiquing is so important. If you don't give positive feedback, the writer you're critiquing may not be able to accept your negative feedback.
Again, be as specific as you can. Say exactly what didn’t work for you, and give precise examples. Here’s what I mean:
I really liked the way you drew us into the scene by describing the setting as if we were actively walking through it. I especially enjoyed your description of Manhattan here: “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward.”
However, I found that your language was overly stiff and formal, especially when you use words like “thence” and “circumambulate,” which are so far out of common use I had to look a few of them up. I think you’ll find that people will be able to connect emotionally with your novel much more easily if you used a more informal vocabulary.
See how specific I was? Easy enough, right? (Bonus points if you know which famous novel I was “critiquing.”)
Step 3: Give more positive praise.
You always remember negative criticism more than the positive praise you get, and that’s why it’s so important to complete your Oreo sandwich by overwhelming them with something positive.
What I find is that I’m much more ready to take the negative feedback if it’s surrounded by insightful, positive praise. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” right?
Hint: If you run out of nice things to say, copy and paste something from Step 1.
Positive. Negative. Positive.
That’s the formula for giving a critique that can transform someone’s writing (for the better!).
Why We Critique
It’s easy to avoid giving this kind of feedback. It can be incredibly time consuming. It can also be difficult to give tough feedback to writers you don’t know very well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just say, “Great story!” And move on?
Be better than that. Be a writer who cares about the craft enough to say the hard things as well as the good things. And at the very least, be a writer who cares enough about your own writing to give the kind of feedback you hope to receive in kind.
More Resources on Writers Groups:
- The Becoming Writer Writers Group
- Writers Groups Meetup Directory
- Why Creatives Need to Criticize Each Other More
- How to Give and Receive Constructive Criticism
- Critiquing Can Make You a Better Writer… and Person
How about you? What other tips do you have about critiquing? Share below.
Give a good critique! Go back to an earlier post on The Write Practice, choose a practice to read, and then leave a critique using the Oreo method described above.
And if you're looking for a good writers group, click here to learn more about Becoming Writer.