Thursday, 3 April 2014

Writing Groups and Criticism - Heather Dyer

Perhaps you have been following the debate on the merit of creative writing courses in the Guardian recently ( It’s a long-running debate and there are valid arguments on both sides. But what interests me at the moment is the value of criticism in creative writing classes – and this goes for criticism in informal writing groups, too.
Personally, I love criticism. I’m greedy for it. I know how hard it is to find someone who can give honest, constructive criticism – criticism that makes you suddenly see the wood from the trees, makes you realize that what you were never quite happy with is just not good enough, and can ask questions in ways that leads you to answers you didn’t know you were looking for.
As writers, we’re standing inside our stories, so it’s difficult to know how they look from the outside. As Kathy Lowinger says, ‘Get your work read because you can’t see yourself dance’. An outside perspective can be invaluable – and offers insights that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

But - having been a member of many writing groups, and a teacher of many creative writing courses, I also know how damaging criticism can be. I come across students who are afraid to read their work in case they receive a negative comment that makes them want to give up (and in this case, I tell them, ‘don’t read’). I come across people who were criticised as children for their creative efforts and were told they were ‘making a mess’ or weren’t ‘doing it properly’ . Needless to say, they haven't tried it since. And I come across writers who want to offer up their work for criticism, but only want positive feedback and defend their work against the slightest criticism.
So I suppose I have concluded the following:

  1. A writer shouldn’t share their work until they’re ready for criticism and can take it or leave it without being mortally wounded. This is usually possible only after some time has elapsed after writing it.   
  2. A writer should say ‘thanks’ for the feedback they receive, and nothing more. Then they can go home and decide what to do with it. If a writer tries to defend their work, the people giving feedback will quickly stop bothering. 
  3. When giving criticism, try and restrict it to the one or two main issues – don’t go on and on. 
  4. Try and give other writers the feedback that they are ready for. We can’t judge everyone by the same yardstick – and when I think back to what my writing was like when I first started, I cringe. By working to our strengths and strengthening the positives, the negatives often fall away all by themselves
  5. But even when giving feedback to experienced writers, don’t forget the positives. We all like being reminded of what we do well. It makes us want to carry on.
What's your experience of writers' groups? Have I forgotten anything?

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Bursztynski said...

I haven't been in a writing group for many years now - just no time, and once we started selling, we had even less time. I remember one member who accused my characters of being two dimensional - I wrote her into my next story as a ghost that shrieked,"You're two dimensional!" as it floated past, much to my heroes' bemusement. Another group member was much more helpful - he got me to join the SCA so I could learn about mediaeval fighting and taught me himself.

More recently, though, I've been editing for Andromeda Spaceways, a science fiction magazine, and slush reading as well. We try to make some comment on each story that comes in. We get a lot of responses from appreciation of the feedback to those prima donnas who whine about it on their blogs or their writer lists. Thing is, if you're a writer you need a thick skin! Think about all the rude comments you're going to get AFTER you're published! ;-) A few crits shouldn't hurt too much if they help you.

Penny Dolan said...

Good points there!

I'd also forbid, in the Writer's Circle/Group scenario though maybe elsewhere (?), the crit response that begins "Oh that's so good and it reminds me about when I . . ." followed by 10 unstoppable minutes of amusing anecdote that takes all the attention from the original writer and their writing.

JO said...

In my writing group we used to run a system of 'a tick and a wish' - something we liked about a piece and then something we'd like to change. Now we are all a but more robust we've dropped it, but it was great for people who were new to having their work critiqued.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think, as you say, Heather, that it all depends on the group. Writers who want to be published need to be thick-skinned, but for people who are writing in a different context, overly robust criticism may be exactly the thing they don't need.

Nick Green said...

All criticism has to be filtered based on who is actually delivering it. If it's a respected and multiple-published writer, or an agent or a publisher, then you have be either super-confident and brilliant not to listen, or conceited to the point of madness.

If it's just a reader, it's often worth listening too of course. But it's also possible that your writing just isn't to their taste. Readers may scathingly criticise Booker prize winners at reading groups. And be even more wary if the critic is a fellow writing group member who is possibly motivated a teensy bit by jealousy. And yet, still listen before you dismiss.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

It helps if you respect the opinion of the person who is your critic and this ties in very much with what Nick had to say. Some really casual blogger who perhaps thought she was on to a good social media presence, is not someone you want to be bothered with. Don't get me wrong, there are some fine bloggers out there.

But someone who might not even be a fellow writer, but knows the bones of a good story might be just the person to trust. (which I suppose is redundant here because you are talking writers groups)

Stroppy Author said...

The writing course I run in Cambridge each summer doesn't include any peer criticism. The feedback is one-to-one and in the style an agent/editor would give because we reckon that's what a professional writer will be working with - professonal opinions and feedback. That means it's a slightly different situation, but I'd say just thanking someone and nothing more is throwing away a chance to explore what is not working. The point is not to defend, but if you explain what you are trying to do the person who has made the criticism might be able to say why that didn't come across to them, and then you have some clue about how to fix it. But I guess that will only work in some types of writing group. There is quite a difference between those who hope to be published and those who are writing purely for their own enjoyment.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks for the comments - good points all. I agree that it really does depend on what a person wants, and is ready for. In fact, in my teaching for beginners I only give positive comments for quite a while, since the hardest thing to do is free yourself up to be creative, initially, and we need encouragement to do that. Then, who knows where our writing will go.