I’ve briefly mentioned writing groups and feedback a few times in this blog. I think they are invaluable when editing and polishing work, but I’ve also been very fortunate in the critique groups I’ve belonged to.
Without feedback it can be difficult to see things such as, stilted dialogue, where your plot stalls, or characters that are less than the well-rounded individuals you believe them to be.
It’s great to hear someone say they loved your writing, or think you are the best thing since Stephen King or Jodie Picoult (depending on your genre), but it’s not helpful when you need constructive comments on what is not working.
The important word here is constructive. It shouldn't be a personal tirade from someone wanting to make themself feel better by putting everyone else down.
Constructive criticism is a person’s view on what isn’t working for them. For example: voice slippage, head hopping (inadvertent change of POV), pace slowing, too many adjectives and adverbs, telling rather than showing, too much backstory, dialogue or characters that aren’t working. These are just some of the many areas that people might comment on. Some of this may depend on how long the group has been together and the experience of the writers.
Shortly after I decided to take my writing seriously I attended a weekend writing course. Towards the end of the course the tutor talked about the benefits of being part of a critique group. The first group I belonged to came from that course.
There are various ways of conducting the feedback sessions. As a group we decided to meet once a month, and to email our submissions to each other at least a week before we met. That gave us time to thoroughly read all the work at least once, think about it, and write comments on what we thought worked and what didn’t. When we met each person gave their feedback on a piece of work, until all the submissions had been covered. It’s important to note that we commented on the things that worked, as well as areas that weren’t working so well.
I know some groups work by reading out the submissions and then have people commenting on them. If it works for you then continue with it. Personally I prefer to have time to read the submission myself as I take in more that way, it is also the way most people are going to read your work. Reading out the submissions takes time, and means you can’t submit as much. This may not be a problem for poetry or short stories, but if you are writing a novel it could cause difficulties.
The group I’m part of at the moment works in much the same way as the original critique group. We are all writing novels, but the genre’s we are working in are varied, and give a good variety of reading material.
The way you receive feedback is also important. I was given some good advice years ago, which is to listen carefully to all comments (I also make notes), as far as possible you should be quiet during the feedback i.e. don’t argue a point or try to explain what you meant. Think about the feedback for a day or so, read your notes, and when you’ve had time to carefully consider the feedback decide on the changes you need to make. If the majority of the group are saying they don’t understand something, or the pace is too slow, dialogue is flat etc. Then I know I need to do something about it. If only one person points out something I will still think about the point, because they could well be onto something, but ultimately the story is mine, and so is the decision on what to do.
If you have to explain something you have written so the group understands, it needs to be changed. You won't be there is explain it to all your readers.
Be wary if you start thinking everyone in the group is wrong and you are right!