There are times in the life of any writer when it can be beneficial to learn from more experienced teachers and mentors. At other times – particularly when we’re in the midst of new creative projects – it’s helpful to receive feedback from our peers, our fellow writers down in the trenches. Their objective insights can help us to get a sense of how well we’re communicating our main ideas. In the process, we identify strengths and weaknesses in our work.
One of the best ways to take advantage of this invaluable feedback system is to form a critique group composed of serious writers who all have something in the works. We need not be more selective than this, because writers who work in different formats and genres can still be good sounding boards for each other. There is always the danger, however, that stronger or more extraverted personalities can begin to dominate these critique sessions. Some members may also lose focus over time. But there are ways to keep everyone on course and motivated without compromising the general sense of freedom and fun within the group.
These roundtable discussions should be limited to whatever material members have actually written, not what they’re considering or intending to write. Speculation and brainstorming consumes precious time. Also, writers tend to be more vulnerable and suggestible during the initial stages of their work. They should allow their inspiration to crystallize through the writing process before they allow these fragile and budding ideas to be scrutinized and dissected by others. Most of us will benefit most from reading completed first drafts. At this stage of the work, we’ll likely have a firm idea of the story that we want to tell or the theme we want to impart; but particulars won’t be so set in stone that we can’t take advantage of any feedback that might help to improve subsequent drafts.
It is essential that each person be allowed to read for a predetermined length of time. This can feel confining to writers who prefer to reach a natural break in their story or article before stopping, but if time is not structured then this can shortchange other members and deny them the same opportunities for feedback. Reading turns of ten to fifteen minutes usually work well, especially for groups composed of five or more people. Someone can be appointed to give readers a warning – perhaps a minute or two before time has elapsed – so that they can find a good stopping place. Each person should then take no more than two or three minutes to reply to what they just heard, so that everyone is allowed their input.
A well-structured writer’s group can afford each member the opportunity to be exposed to aspects of their own work that they may be unaware of because they’re working too closely to it. A few basic ground rules can facilitate smooth discussions and insure that these meetings won’t be derailed by dominant personalities or overly lengthy debate – which is oftentimes just a fancy form of procrastination.