All writers can benefit from having someone to critique their work, whether that work is poetry, fiction or non-fiction. We writers tend to view our work as either nearly infallible or severely flawed. We’re a fickle breed. Thus, an objective second pair of eyes is indispensable to unearth our mistakes or confirm our achievements. Note the stress on the word objective. Although best friends, spouses, siblings or parents may be capable of offering unbiased critiques, we dare not rely solely on them for objective criticism. After all, they love us. They don’t want to dash our dreams of literary immortality.
How do we find people who will offer honest assessments of our work?
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that you are not already a famous, published author. You are, as are most of us, a creative writing junkie who seeks to improve your work.
For the novice or even the long-term writer there are several ways to procure those extra eyes to read and critique our work. These include joining a live creative writing group, participation in an online writing group, attending writing workshops, taking creative writing classes or paying an editor for their services.
While hiring an editor might be a viable option for a more seasoned writer with at least some modest success with publishing shorter works, the reality is that most of us can ill afford the expense simply to hone our craft. That’s not to say that hired editors are a bad thing; it’s just that paying for advice is best left for that time when you feel quite confident you are near that magical time for paid publication.
Writer’s workshops and retreats are another great paid option. The pages of Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Writers’ Journal magazines regularly announce workshops that last anywhere from a few hours to several days, many presented by major names in the writing field. Enrollment in these events can range from around $100 to many hundreds of dollars. There have even been cruises dedicated to creative writing seminars.
Are these seminars worthwhile? As with anything else that comes with a price tag, value can vary widely. A good rule of thumb is that seminars hosted by major universities tend to be credible and worthwhile. It’s unlikely that such institutions would lend their prestige to a venture that isn’t reputable.
Although online connection with other writers is invaluable, there is nothing more beneficial to a writer than live interaction with fellow writers, especially fellow writers who have published! You’ll not only get real-time feedback on the project writing you do at these seminars; you’ll get real-world tips on how to publish and learn how the presenters landed contracts. Almost as important, you’ll find out from all the other writers there that you are most definitely not alone.
Still, whatever the venue, it’s a good idea to do a little leg work to find out more before handing over the fees. Online writing groups are great sources of feedback, since there’s a good chance that at least someone in the group will have attended seminars in the past. The magazines that advertise these events will also sometimes run features on the events or print letters from readers offering pros and cons on their experiences. Just don’t go in without at least having looked into the events.
f a paid editor or seminar isn’t right for you at the moment, a live writing group is your next best option for objective criticism. Such groups usually meet anywhere from once a week to once each month, and the meeting environments vary greatly. I have seen croups meet at libraries, churches, coffee shops, people’s homes, in parks and even in corporate cafeterias. One thing they all seem to have in common is their memberships tend to be relatively small. In my experience, active members tend to range between four to about ten or twelve.
Why join a live group? Well, the basic human desire for personal interaction aside, live groups offer real-time critique by several individuals with different perspectives, and they do it either free of charge of for modest dues – dues that generally cover donuts, coffee and photocopies of each others work. Deep friendships frequently form through such groups, and the fact that you meet live leaves the option of remaining after meetings or meeting separately on other days to dig deeper into our work. Live groups also offer the intangible and sometimes magical element of being surrounded by other humans who get us that often spurs us to be even more creative.
You can inquire about local writing groups at local libraries or bookstores. The online organization Meetup.com may also reveal groups dedicated to writing. But if you can’t find a group, you can always start your own. Simply post a flyer at your local libraries and bookstores asking for interested parties to meet at some designated public time and place and you’ll likely draw at least a couple of initial participants. Don’t be disheartened by a low turnout; first meetings rarely draw crowds, but it has been known to happen. But those curious first few will likely spread the word, bring friends and help you focus on group goals. You’ll have a beginning.
One word of caution: Although you are the one initiating the group, do not try to own the group. Nothing can kill a group faster than a leader who isn’t willing to allow the entire group to shape its goals. It is certainly desirable to start your group with a set of guidelines as to what you envision; however, you must be open to input from fellow members. Some ideas may not be acceptable to the membership, other ideas may be things you would never have considered but which will add tremendously to the success of your group.
Perhaps the easiest way to become connected with fellow writers is through an online creative writing group, such as our Writerspark group hosted by Yahoo Groups. There are literally thousands of such groups spread across the social networking landscape. There are groups dedicated to poetry, rhymed poetry, free verse, short fiction, flash fiction, novels, romance… If there’s a genre or sub-genre, there’s an online group dedicated to it. Just type the words “creative writing,” “poetry,” “fiction” or some other word relative to your area of interest and you’ll be flooded with potential groups. From there it’s simply a matter of joining and seeing which groups are a good fit for you.
One word of advice that I give to anyone looking for a decent online group is that they look for one that has been around for a few years is moderated. What is a “moderated” group? Simply put, a moderated group is one where someone – usually the group founder – takes an active role in watching what happens within the group. Moderators have the power to set basic group guidelines and then take action against members who break those rules. Rules that may require action might include posting advertisements (spam), attacking other members, drawing members away to other groups, posting materials that are against group rules, etc. Actions taken might include a stern private admonition; being placed on “moderated” status, which means that member’s posts must be manually approved by the moderator before the system posts then to the group; or the member could be removed from the group entirely.
The purpose of a moderator is not to play god with the group. Moderators exist to keep the group on topic and at maintain the peace. A good moderator helps provide a safe environment wherein writers can share free from fear of attack. Odds are that if a group is moderated and has remained viable for several years they are doing something right.
Another important thing to look for in an online group is the number of members it has attracted. While thousands of members may seem to spell success, it may not necessarily be right if it’s your first foray into the world of online writing groups. For one thing, if a sizable percentage of those thousands of members actually participate every day, wading through the flood of messages may be near impossible for a newbie. It takes some time to get to know whose work you’re interested in critiquing and for others in the group to learn whether you’re worth their efforts. Over time, your brain will learn to spot the names of people you’ll connect with, but it is impossible for you to read, let alone critique, several hundreds of messages every day, or for the others to all critique you. There’s also the issue of the moderator being able to adequately monitor so many posts.
Smaller groups – say, groups with memberships under a few hundred – tend to me far more manageable. Since only about ten percent of group members tend to participate on a daily basis, moderating 30-40 people is a relatively simple task. With a lower number of regular participants, you’ll have less to read and have a better chance that others will quickly start to read you. Smaller groups also tend to be more hospitable toward new members than are larger groups. With less to read, you’ll be better able to compose a more thoughtful critique to more authors; likewise, others will be better able to give your work more consideration.
If, after a while, you don’t find a group that’s a good fit for you, or if you feel you’d like to launch a group of your own dedicated to some unaddressed facet of writing, starting your own group is as simple as naming the group and declaring it open.
Whether you pay an editor, attend seminars, join a local group or sign up with an online writer’s group, getting prompt feedback on your work from others reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, it’s great to hear those close to you rave about what a gifted writer you are, but without those objective eyeballs to give it to you straight, you’ll never grow as a writer and you’ll be in for a world of disappointment if your supporters turn out to be wrong. Connection to fellow writers is among your most powerful creative tools.
Stop back next week for a discussion about how to benefit most from live or online creative writing groups.