My dance teacher has been taking us through a somewhat intensive critique session for the last few weeks. Last night we worked on improvisation. We were instructed to choose a dance prop (silk veil, fans, sword, cane, and so forth) with which we would improvise a dance to music of the teacher’s choice, music we had never heard until the moment we had to start dancing. While we danced, our peers would be watching and offering critique of the performance. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was excited about the prospect. This was the chance for me to get some valuable, honest feedback that would assist me in improving.
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to join a writing critique group. I’ve mentioned it before, as has Faith (’cause she was there, too.) Once a week, we met in a member’s home, and read five pages of our works-in-progress. Over time, we grew into a highly functional group, who could not only give useful, constructive criticism, but who could also take it criticism in the spirit in which it was offered. I developed a thick skin in those days, one that has served me well in dealing with the professional publishing world. A good writing group is a beautiful thing. A lousy one can chase people away from writing forever. So how do you tell the difference?
Go to a meeting, with the understanding that you’re just there to observe the first time. A good group will welcome you. Watch how the group gets started. You want a group that recognizes the value of everyone’s time. There’s nothing wrong with chatting for a few minutes while people are arriving, but if they spend the first 45 minutes gossiping about the people who didn’t show up, they aren’t using time properly.
Once the meeting begins, pay attention to the way it runs. Our group was pretty simple – a reader handed out copies of his pages to the others, then read them out loud while we followed along silently. We did not interrupt, instead making notes on the copies to ask about later. When the reader finished, he remained quiet while we discussed the work, unless he was asked a direct question. Everyone had an opportunity to comment, and we always tried to balance criticism with praise. When we were finished talking about the reader’s work, he was given the copies with our comments to take home for further consideration. If the group you’re visiting is disorganized or allows a lot of argument between reader and critiquer, you probably won’t get much help from being there.
Speaking of praise…it’s a lovely thing. Everyone likes to hear their work is wonderful, but when you’re in a critique situation, you also need to hear what isn’t good. A group that only praises isn’t helping you improve. The same goes for vague comments. When people say “It was good” or “I liked that”, they aren’t doing you any favors. Why was it good? Why did you like it? You want critiquers who’ll tell you exactly what they think.
Last night, I danced with my fan veil (scroll down to the bottom of the linked page to see what they look like), and I had a wonderful time. After the class last night, my teacher took me aside and mentioned one or two things I needed to work on. It didn’t bother me at all – instead, I felt energized to improve. Then she said, “I want to see a fan veil solo from you sometime soon.”
Sometimes critique is heavenly!