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Critique or Feedback: What Do Writers Really Need?

Fountain pen on open journal with handwriting on it
Pen to paper

Every two weeks, I head to my local branch of the Whitby Public Library to meet with 9 other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical Ms (CMs)– the Ms stands for Manuscripts. It’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMs (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission gets the whole two hour meeting.  Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. But the true gold of CMs is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMs colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

Braveheart "greeting" to British troops
Braveheart “greeting” to British troops

I can’t thank them enough.

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution…  CMs members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus for me. Analyzing another writer’s work lets me add to my own understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMs and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos. And I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for great intensity.

Ruth at laptop computer writing
Ruth at Muskoka Novel Writing Marathon, July 2014

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toe in as a new writer or are you ready to ramp up the level of critique you receive? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

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One thought on “Critique or Feedback: What Do Writers Really Need?

  1. I tried a WIP group once, and they spent so much time defending against whatever each had to say about their work, it just went on for days. Too time-consuming. You may guess that I’m not the most patient editor in the world — I just tell writers I’m working with that if I didn’t mention it, it’s good. Saves days. Weeks. Probably years by now. I’m good for a “wow, that was a great” too, but it’s the problems that need attention. Anything else is just for basking — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everything in moderation. If someone tells you something is wrong and you strenuously disagree, get some more opinions, or have the courage of your own convictions. None of it is personal, but it is hard not to feel that way, after you bleed all over the page. But the only people who say writing is easy are the ones who’ve never tried it. Well done, Mrs. Walker.

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