Sunday 27 January 2008

Learning from the Good, the Bad, and the Bloody Brilliant or Why We All Need Critique Groups

In an earlier incarnation as a young playwright, literary editor Sol Stein went on a writing fellowship in which he got to work with American theatre icon Thornton Wilder.
Thornton Wilder taught me ... the necessity of sitting through bad plays, to witness coughing and squirming in the audience, to have ears up like a rabbit to catch what didn't work, to observe how little tolerance an audience has for a mishap, ten seconds of boredom breaking an hour-long spell.
To this day, Stein urges his writing students
Once they have begun to master the craft, to read a few chapters of John Grisham's The Firm, or some other transient bestseller, to see what they can learn from the mistakes of writers who don't heed the precise meanings of the words they use. they also learn to read the work of literary prize-winners to detect the rare uncaught error in craft. What they are doing is perfecting their editorial eye and their self-editing talent, learning to read as a writer.
Critique groups perform this service for us. At critique groups we are learning not just to fix our work but to develop an instinctive ability to edit our own writing, the ability to see our work without the rose-tinted spectacles of a creator. We are "perfecting our editorial eye".

I wish someone told me that six years ago when I started writing. I made the mistake of listening to the advice of a (published) close friend:
Don't show your work to anyone. It will put you off writing.
But knowing what I know now, those two years of not showing my work to anybody was a complete waste of time. The fact is, writers who are put off by criticism are not cut out for publication. One only has to read the reader reviews on Amazon to realise that this writing business is not for the thin-skinned.

As Aussie Fantasy Author Ian Irvine says in his piece The Truth About Publishing:
Anyone who can be discouraged from writing should be.


  1. Letting folks look over my shoulder moved me on I'm sure. I love seeing my work develop after someone has pointed out a gaffe or a weakness. Must be a masochist!

  2. Absolutely spot on. My writing improved very noticeably when I joined a critique group. It really does make the world of difference. And it's not just having our own work critted that helps, it's in critting other's work too that we start see where potholes and glitches occur.

  3. I had an online critique group for about 18 months, and it was as good as an MA in creative writing, I swear.

    Not only did I learn what worked, but even more importantly, what didn't. It was a kind group, reluctant to be negative, but I learned to read between the lines and realise what wasn't liked...

    Equally valuable was reading other people's stuff - seeing the patterns of what worked and what really, really didn't. Seeing the hideous glitches taught me what never, ever to write. It's easier to see what's bad than detect the good...

    The critique group gave me a huge injection of confidence (non-existent before) and great support. I highly recommend being part of such a group, but know you're lucky if you find such a good one.


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