by Becky Alexander
I joined the Cambridge Writers Collective in 1993, about a year and a half after it had been founded. I credit this group for inspiring me to write, and for continually helping me to improve my writing skills, through the helpful critiquing offered at our meetings.
Writers join writers’ groups for several reasons: e.g.: to be with like-minded artistic individuals, to feel connected to a greater whole, to be inspired to write, and to learn and improve.
In order to improve and grow, a writer must open her/himself up to criticism. Before this happens, the writer needs to ask a few honest questions: do I want to improve, or do I want to feed my ego? Am I ready to feel the swings and clouts of criticism? We have all met writers who simply want to show off, who want only kudos as to how wonderful their writing appears. These are people who will probably never improve (as they already believe they know everything) but move merrily along ‘doing it their way’, leaving a trail of cliches, and adjectives and adverbs behind them. Yet every writer has the potential to write something wonderful, if they allow themselves to be open to sincere suggestions for improvement.
When work is presented for critiquing, suggestions are offered in a group setting, and this can lead to productive discussion and input, which can be most helpful to the writer whose work is being analyzed. Yet unfortunately, there are writers whose egos are so fragile, and whose heads are so big, that they choose only to pick away and dismiss the work of others. (These are often the people who will loudly announce, to the whole critiquing group, any spelling or grammar errors they spot in your work, instead of graciously and privately recording those on your hard copy for your personal perusal and correction later on.) I have even witnessed writers in other writing groups actually sneering and making rude faces while some poor soul is presenting work. This is most unseemly, and offers nothing constructive to the writer. And such negative actions can result in a writer giving up writing altogether.
Conversely, I have also witnessed other group members, who immediately ‘jump in’, before a pause has been held after the writer has presented, with gushing comments about how wonderful the piece is. Fodder for the ego, or what? And this makes for a tenuous situation for any other writer who may feel that a suggestion or two for improvement is in order!
Many writers’ groups have rules such as ‘no comment on content’ which is fair enough. If I don’t like the genre, language, topic, or tone of a piece, I am not obliged to make a critique: I can merely take a quiet pass. There are writers who write simply to shock others: another egotistical way of saying, “Look at me!” But there should be no criticism on the content of a piece. Some writers feel this includes comments on why or what inspired the writer to produce such a piece in the first place. I have no personal problem explaining why or what prompted me to write something, but others carry this ‘no comment on content’ rule to personal reasons for why and what they have written, so be aware of that.
It is always up to the writer to mull over suggestions and to choose and reject these as s/he sees fit. It is important not to take critiquing comments personally as much as possible, and this can be tricky, especially if you think someone in a group may have some animosity toward you. The best way to deal with this type of person, I have found, is to ignore their obvious actions at a group critique session, and then to bring it up with that person privately.
We writers must have thick skins: not everyone who reads our work will appreciate it, but it is hoped that only honest and constructive criticisms should be offered. And a good rule of thumb, when one enters a critiquing session: check your ego at the door.
Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer, born and raised in Hespeler. She has been writing for more than two decades, and her work has been published in over 200 periodicals and anthologies, and has won over 100 awards. She runs the micro-publishing company Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.