14 July 2009

The Downside of Critique Groups

Writers benefit from critique groups in a multitude of ways as writers will learn when my friend Becky Levine's new book -- The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide -- is released by Writers Digest early next year.

Personally, I've found critique groups a helpful place to:
  • Connect with like-minded people
  • Learn more about my own individual writing strengths and weaknesses, both from feedback on my own pieces and just as dramatically, if not more so, from giving feedback to others in the group about their own individual pieces
  • Improve at my craft
  • Brainstorm
  • And more...

However... I continue to believe for many writers, DO NOT SHOW YOUR FIRST DRAFT TO ANYONE.

This practice can prove detrimental in that many groups require that everyone submit. Still, I'm sticking to my belief.

Why? Because for most writers getting the first draft down on paper is like trying to capture the fragile thread of a dream. Whether you pre-plot or write by the seat of your pants, this generative stage comes primarily from the right side of your brain (for an absolutely terrific book about this, check out the non-fiction New York Times bestseller: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.)

Yes, the two hemispheres are "neuronally integrated" and "two complementary halves of a whole rather than as two individual entities or identities." However, each side does process information in uniquely different ways.

For those writers with a preference for the right hemisphere and who excel at seeing the big picture and the "congruity of the overall expression", to bring in too much feedback, too early in a "linear form of creating sentences and paragraphs that convey very complex messages" (left hemispheric strength) can throw the writer into a tailspin and actually derail their progress.

Also, for most, with feedback too early, the writer tends to get ensnared in the lethal cycle of Going-back-to-the-Beginning Syndrome. Rather than forge ahead all the way to the end, writers attempt to please everyone in their critique group by going back over the critiqued information over and over and over again. Thus, a project that should take months, ends up taking years.

I feel like I'm ranting again, but I've just had two writers thrust into this position and it pains me.

We, as writers, bring enough of our own insecurities to the process. It takes discipline to shut out the inner critic during the first draft. Why allow in a group of critics (because isn't that what a critique group is made up of??? Supportive and helpful, but... According to thefreedictionary.com, critique has been used "to review or discuss critically" since the 18th century, and used to be a neutral verb between praise and censure, but is now mainly used in a negative sense).

I'm not saying that critique groups are negative, if so, run. But, too much analytical input too early can actually shut down the muse and you end up writing for your critique group rather than for that magical realm of the creative process itself...

Once you have written all the way to the end, especially speaking = the Climax, and begin your rewrite (and only then), get all the feedback you can from trusted sources.
  • Find yourself a critique group that excels in both praise and censure.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Stay open.
  • Have fun...