Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, 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.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) 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. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. 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.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure 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. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

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 more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

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 toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

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8 thoughts on “Ready for Intense Critique

  1. This is thought-provoking! I belong to an informal and supportive writers’ circle which has provided me with encouragement and feedback. I’m not sure if I’m courageous enough to take the next step!

    1. Thanks Vicky. It’s all a journey. When I first started writing back in the mid-1990s, I belonged to terrific writer’s group, Durham Write On. It offered me gentle feedback and the chance to know encouraging and supportive writers. Eventually, I needed deeper critique. It was a tough transition but I grew immeasurably as a result of joining Critical MS. Frankly, I’m still growing and learning at every session. It’s all part of making me a stronger writer.

  2. An extraordinary writers’ group like Critical MS is all about discovery on several thrilling levels. Fresh insight into your own work from the clear-eyed feedback. Instruction in writer’s craft from observing the often surprising things that other writers pick up on. Real-time tips on how to combine respect and honesty in delivering feedback. And the priceless deep learning that comes with analyzing another writer’s work. I am grateful for all this, and the (often hilarious) camaraderie besides.

    1. Well Heidi, I guess the (often hilarious) camaraderie is a bonus of CMS. That doesn’t mean all intense critique groups need to enjoy good member friendships to be successful but it does sweeten the pot for us. Write on!

  3. Well said, Ruth. Ditto to all of the above. I’ve grown so much from not just receiving intense critique, but giving it as well.

  4. A timely post, thank you. Several members within the Muskoka Authors Association have formed small critique groups, and they are similarly run to yours. The group I am in was reduced by one truly valuable member, due to illness, but we three still carry on with zeal. Down to the dark and dirty short strokes, we mince no words and pull no punches though always polite and caring. It’s essential to be open and receptive, don’t duck when a hit is coming. We have just passed our first 12 months together, other groups have existed for longer. The bonds are irrefutable, POV scintillating and discussions lively. I got thumped heartily last time, but no whimpering – back to the proverbial drawing board to rewrite. A wonderful experience.

    1. Hi Sherry. Thanks for confirming how valuable an intensive critique can be. I especially like your reference to pulling no punches but doing so in a polite and caring way. When writers care about another writer’s work, the feedback focuses on the words and not the writer. Always the most effective place from which to comment.

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