Who reads your work-in-progress?
I recently read some advice – rules of life – from a famous writer. Sorry, I forgot who it was!
This great writer said he never let anyone read his works-in-progress, and he advised other writers to follow his example. He said most people don’t know enough about writing to recognize whether your work is any good, and you’re apt to get one of two reactions: 1) the reader will criticize your writing and damage your confidence or 2) the reader will believe the writing is superior just because you, someone that person loves, wrote it.
While this advice has merit, I think writers can benefit from having someone else read our work to give us perspective. We can’t judge our own work objectively. However, it makes sense to be selective in who you let see your masterpiece-in-the-making. Sometimes people will find fault with what you write because they’re jealous of you; sometimes they’ll criticize because they think it makes them look smart. And your loved ones are probably too biased to give you a fair reading.
So who should you trust to read your work-in-progress? When I first started writing, I got excellent advice from other writers who were self-confident enough to be objective. My friend Grace Anne Schaefer read my novel Stroke of Luck when I was about halfway through the first draft. She said some words of encouragement, then suggested I add some dialogue. I’d written half a novel and no one had ever spoken! She pointed out a few more – less serious – problems, and I put her advice into practice right away.
Contrary to my advice that family members aren’t necessarily good choices to read your manuscript, my mother read my story when I finished the first draft. She said, “I don’t know what it was, but the second half of the book was a lot better than the first.” Grace Anne’s guidance had made that much difference.
A little later in my writing career, three other writers and I formed a critique group. The two years or so that the group met was the most productive time in my fiction-writing experience. We met once a week; each of us brought three copies of a chapter in our current work-in-progress. We read the chapters during the week, and the next week we discussed and critiqued each other’s work. We each told what we liked, what problems we saw, and what suggestions we had.
Our philosophy was that if one person mentioned a problem, the writer should consider it and decide whether or not she wanted to revise. If two others mentioned the same problem, the writer should seriously consider making a change. And if all three of the others saw the same problem, the writer definitely needed to make revisions.
This group worked because of the mix of members. Each of us had specific strengths – imagination, mechanics (grammar, etc.), historical knowledge and life experience, attention to details…. Although we all wrote romantic fiction, we wrote in several subgenres. We were all about the same level of writing experience, so we learned and grew together. Groups that aren’t fairly well matched in experience usually find that the more experienced members are mentoring those with less experience – a commendable thing to do, but not the purpose of a critique group designed to benefit all the members. Most importantly, we liked and trusted each other; we were supportive, encouraging, and rooting for each other’s success.
Participating in the critique group proved to be a positive experience for me. I enjoyed the camaraderie with other writers who became good friends. I learned so much about writing – evaluating someone else’s work can teach a lot to improve your own writing. I finished a novel in record time because I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t bring a chapter to the weekly meeting. And it was after becoming part of the critique group that my novel was published.
I’ve heard horror stories about bad critique groups, and I’ll make suggestions on how to avoid a bad experience. But I was blessed to be part of a wonderful group.
[tags]writing, critique groups[/tags]