How to get critical feedback on your writing

I don’t know about you, but I kind of like writing in a bubble.

Not literally! I mean, a bubble where my writing is beautiful and perfect and only my opinion matters.

Writers must, I think, start out in a bubble. But, at some point, you’re going to want to get some feedback.

Calling on friends and family

When I wrote the very first draft of my very first book (Island Embrace), I quickly showed the result to my two sisters and my mother, and soon after that, to my friend Charlene.

They were impressed — I think mostly impressed that I’d actually finished a book. I hadn’t really mentioned I was working on one until it was nearly done, so it probably came as a bit of a surprise.

I started another book, and fairly quickly finished a draft (Love Me Later) and shared that — to much acclaim! No, not really. But they said they liked it, and thought it was better than my first effort.

At this point, I was feeling a bit cocky. Look at me! I’ve written TWO WHOLE BOOKS! Most of you losers haven’t even written one whole book!

(Okay, I hope my thoughts weren’t quite so unkind. But, bottom line, I was feeling pretty good about myself.)

Joining a writing group

So I figured the next step in revealing my brilliance to the world was to join a writers group.

There are two romance writing organizations in my city (that I know of) — a chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and an independent group called the Alberta Romance Writers Association (ARWA).

Now, I was a little intimidated by the RWA. It sounded more ‘professional’ (i.e. it would be more obvious to them that I was an imposter).  Plus, they met over dinner. In a restaurant. And this seemed a bit too social (for my socially anxious self), and a bit too pricey (for my cheap-ass self). But mostly I noticed that they met in the NW, which is farther from my house than the ARWA meeting location.

So, I joined ARWA.

I had to submit 50 pages of my writing, and $50 annually, to qualify for membership. And I was feeling pretty good, thinking, Wait until they see what I’ve created!! (Imagine me like Tom Hanks, dancing around the fire in Castaway.)

(I know arrogance is not attractive, but please don’t judge me too harshly – I was still on a high from actually finishing something.)

ARWA is kind of a neat group. At most meetings, one or more members, and the occasional guest, run a seminar on a writing topic. And I was impressed by the presentations I saw.

One weird thing about ARWA is the number of people who seem to be writing not-romance. I guess there aren’t many mystery and memoir writing groups out there, so they have to make do.

I’d write a full post about ARWA, but I only attended about two actual meetings — because I was busy with other stuff like having babies. Plus, while it was closer than RWA, it was still a bit of a drive to get to meetings. Their presentation topics, while useful, often didn’t seem quite useful enough at that moment to justify the long drive and the time away from my family. But, maybe I’ll rejoin one day.

Joining a critique group

Apart from the meetings, ARWA organized critique groups. I decided this was the place where I’d really get a chance to wow people with my talent.

They offered a few different options — write and share either 5 or 25 pages of a new book each week, another option I can’t remember, or share 25 pages of an already-written book each week.

I chose the last one, since I had two books drafted. Plus, I’m not really a sequential type of writer — I start with the things that interest me, then work outward.

There were five of us in my group. We met every week, over Skype — which was kind of nice, since I didn’t have to go anywhere, and it kept things a bit anonymous (we never turned our cameras on).

The problem with this group was… it was a lot. I wanted/needed to revise each chapter before sharing it — especially after getting feedback, since I needed to correct all the mistakes they’d pointed out to me that I’d made throughout. But we also had to read (and critique!) 100 pages of other peoples’ work each week. Plus, there was the weekly meeting itself which generally lasted at least two hours.

It was definitely a lot.

But, one person dropped out after a couple of weeks, and another decided to abandon the book she was sharing with us (though she stayed on to critique). So, the reading volume lessened over time.

Critique group takeaways

So what did I learn from my critique group experience?

Going into the group, I hadn’t read many ‘how to write’ books. I was working on instinct, not really aware of what I should be thinking about and how I could be improving.

But, if you’re in a critique group – particularly one with writers who know more about writing than you do – feedback from that group is superior to anything you’ll get from a book (IMHO).

Why? Because when four women blast your work each week, you listen. You pay attention. Things you might have read about in ‘how to write’ books become, suddenly, very real. And they start to make more sense.

For me, I think the big lesson (apart from “don’t use so many ‘ly’ words!!!”) was ‘show don’t tell’.

I will likely write an article about show vs tell at some point, since I think it’s important, and also difficult and confusing (which, as a technical writer, is my favourite combination).

But, when I joined the critique group, it wasn’t a concept I’d spent much time thinking about.

After joining, it was basically all I thought about.

The next book I drafted (His Brother’s Mistress) was just as painful as my first, but this time it was because I was thinking ‘show don’t tell’, ‘show don’t tell’, ‘show don’t tell’ with each new sentence and paragraph. (Or, ‘keep it on the stage’, as one of my fellow group members would say.)

That was the biggest leap I’ve made thus far in improving my writing.

The kindness of strangers

In short, don’t rely on family and friends. I have gotten feedback from my family/friends, but mostly about story details — which is useful, and I always listen to it. But, I’m not sure that it’s made me a better writer.

I tried to make them harsher. Once I even set up an ‘anonymous’ Google feedback form for family/friends, thinking they’d be more willing to be critical if they weren’t saying it to my face. But, alas, no one used it.

But, I’ve realized, it’s not your friends and family’s job to critique. It’s their job to enjoy your book. If you want to improve your writing, you need people who don’t really care too much about your feelings, people who don’t need to worry about an on-going relationship.

Not that my critique group was mean — they were just critical. And you need critical to learn.

So thank you Diana, Sherile, Jillian, and Shannon. I’d be a worser writer without you.

I’m a bit shame-faced to confess that since that critique group, I’ve pretty much climbed back into my writing bubble. You can’t be in critique mode all the time, after all — it would take all the fun out of writing. Plus, I figure I have a lot of knowledge now that I’m still working on applying to my writing, so I don’t really need more to work on just yet.

Besides, there are limits to feedback. If you try to follow all the advice, you’ll dilute your work and it will become faded and gray and not yours anymore.

So listen to feedback, think about it, and then decide if and how you want to apply it. You are the author. You decide what you want your book to be.

(And you can just forget all that stuff I said about being arrogant. I’m really very humble.)

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