Dancing with words

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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!

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7 comments to Dancing with words

  • Solo!!!
    Misty that is great! You go, girl!
    And ditto from me on critique groups. A good group can make the difference between getting published and not.
    Faith

  • That soiunds like a group I want to be involed in as well, Misty. Hopefully I can organize something similar around me.

  • Mark, good luck with the organizing. The best advice I can offer is that you set ground rules from the start, and hold the members to them. I hope you’re able to create a group that functions as well as ours did – it’s a real gift when that happens.

  • Great post, Misty. I’ve never had a positive writing group experience, and so I know little about such things. But what you offer here sounds like sound advice.

    And very cool about the dancing. Yay you!

  • Melanie

    Joining a writers group – as every writer/author worth their salt will tell you – is awesome. And hard.

    Awesome because they get you to think, to rewrite, rephrase, clarify. They say if they like it, and as Misty said, explain *why* they liked it so you know if you were being effective. (Yay!)

    Hard, as in they home in on your most underdeveloped, vague or weak points and effectively say *ahem* – here needs work. (That’s phrasing it politely.) And you know it and sigh. Or if you didn’t know it, you do now. =P

    Then there are those critiques where you need to realize that any of your colleagues might have been rushed, had a bad day, or just couldn’t relate at the time they read your work. (Hopefully they read it through twice, first.) Those are usually the reviews where you find yourself getting aggravated or offended about their input. It’s something I had to learn to see for what it was. It wasn’t necessarily my work.

    And to tell the difference? *grin* I’ve found it was time in.

    Just an outline of how the one I belong to has evolved to work. This for suggestions by folks here, or to help for those who don’t have a group and are considering starting one.

    My writers group is lucky to have 8 of us. Only two people overlap genres, so we get quite the variety of POV’s brought to the table. We (try) to keep close to time allotments.

    We’ve got a moderator , a position which rotates for whomever can do so each meeting. They send email reminders for submissions and clarifications, keep time, and get to suggest whose work is reviewed next.

    First, there’s a 5 min per person check-in (what we’ve been writing / excited about / things in our lives influencing us / books we like or are reading / etc.).
    Our work, up to 30 pages or so each, has been submitted via email one week beforehand, and we meet every two weeks for ~2.5 hrs (over dinner in a diner, so no one cooks! Woot!).

    We handle up to four (usually 3) reviews per meeting, each of us rendering our opinion for about 5 minutes or less. To save time, we try not to duplicate the previous reviewer’s comments if they are on the same points. Sometimes we fall into a group discussion on one aspect we see and think can be improved, with everybody chiming in with suggestions for the writer.

    We tried the don’t-say-anything-during-discussion thing, but several of us found we felt gagged. More importantly, at times the writer had questions for clarification on a point their critiquer was giving, so we have modified that rule to allow for such. (We stringently avoid combative situations, ’cause it does nobody any good!)

    When we’re done, the contributor of the work gets to ask about anything else related they’ve got questions on. We, too, carry piles of input on our work home to review.

    I think the most useful critiques also include actual suggestions for correcting the problem, not just notice of its presence. The best is when the members of the group yell at you for leaving them angry there wasn’t a next page! *does a dance*

    Seems to work pretty well. O knowledgeable author-types (& other writer group people), any additional ideas? I always like to learn more. =)

    ~ Melanie

  • “Seems to work pretty well. O knowledgeable author-types (& other writer group people), any additional ideas? I always like to learn more. =)”

    Always best to leave them hungry. *haha*

  • Melanie said, “We tried the don’t-say-anything-during-discussion thing, but several of us found we felt gagged.”

    That’s exactly why we instituted the rule. *grin* We found that people were arguing with the critique, instead of listening to what was being suggested. It turned the critique time into a defense of the manuscript, and often ended with hurt feelings. We were of the opinion that the writer should have said what he meant on the page instead of arguing about it later, hence the rule. But that was our way…if yours works for your group, that’s great.

    “I think the most useful critiques also include actual suggestions for correcting the problem, not just notice of its presence.”

    Exactly. We were often rewriting sentences that we thought were clumsy or offering alternative word choices. My favorite nights were the ones in which I took home pages covered in colored ink. 😀