Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Different Kind of Reader

What I'm writing about today is not your typical writers' group, nor is it a slam against those groups. I think being in a critique group and having your work read (as well as being motivated to get work ready to present) can be quite beneficial to a writer, especially a beginning writer.

But it's been my own experience, and that of others I've spoken with, that at some point for a lot of writers, you reach a level where you need something more. Or maybe the term should be something less.

Meeting weekly with four or five other writers who read and comment on each other's work can be educational. You can learn a lot about writing that way. You can also lose yourself and your voice that way.

Sometimes your group wants you to have a character do something else or believe something else. Or they re-write passages so that they sound "better."

You have to decide whether they're right, whether you'll take their advice or leave it as is. If you're struggling with sticking with your instincts, which may or may not be right, or going with the group, who may more closely represent the reading public, but who may also have become a closed circle of ideas, then maybe it's time to look for other readers or a different kind of reader.

If so, then consider what kind of readers you're looking for. There's a whole range -- those who write in your genre, those who don't, those who don't write at all but are avid readers, those who are great at line editing, those who see the overall picture and can spot inconsistencies, those who've read for you before, those who have no history with you at all....

If you go this route, then don't burn everyone on the first read. Have two or four read it the first go-round. Get their comments (a group meeting is a good idea), then decide what changes you feel comfortable making. If you've made some big changes, then have a second tier of different readers ready to read. If you need a third tier, then send it out to them after you've made other changes.

Each tier should be composed of new readers -- those who haven't already read a previous version of the manuscript.

Remember, though, the people who read for you have the reasonable expectation that you will read for them in this way. As you get, so shall you give.


  1. This is a good point. I think it would be limiting to just have one type of reader reading your work. Question is, how do you find all of those readers? One of my favorite places to get critiques is I was a little leery about the place at first, being an online critique group and all, but the critiques are actually pretty good and the community there is excetllent.

  2. That's why it's great to belong to a group like our chapter, Chicago-North RWA. We have new members, but most of the members are experienced at critiques. Also, a good many of our members are published. With one read of 20 pages, I can get 20-30 opinions on what's right and what's not. If a majority say something, they're usually right. Still, I read every critique, because even the most experienced, widely published member can overlook something that a newbie spots right away.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. I've not heard of scribophile before. Thanks Emma.

    Morgan -- that sounds like a great group. I really like groups where the critiques are written, not just spoken. It's not always easy to absorb everything that's said in an oral critique, so having the pages to take home and review is best, I think.

  4. Interesting take on the review and critique thing. I agree that as you gain confidence in your writing instincts you should be wary of being dissuaded by just any group of well-meaning other writers. Thanks to Emma for leaving that link to that online critique group - think I'll check them out. I have 4 or 5 people whose opinions I trust (for honest and informed answers) to get feedback, all of which have different reading genre preferences so that helps. Also a couple friends who are excellent editors that I can usually barter with for help in that area.

  5. I hesitate joining critique groups. I've heard enough nightmare stories about people tearing plots apart, even reasonable ones that were headed in perfectly interesting directions, just not the way the group anticipated or wanted. This is not what a critique group is for. The author still needs to be able to exercise free will over the story; the critics don't develop the characters or plot. They only point out when some aspect becomes unbelievable. Are there critique group how-tos available anywhere? It's not like groups are born with the knowledge of how to be a good critic.


  6. The only person I bounce ideas off of before I write a story is my husband. I do have a few beta readers who I'll send chunks of the story to while it's in process. But they're not people I meet with in person, so I am not compelled to take their advice if I disagree with it. My beta readers often completely disagree with each other, so I'm not even sure how much value they provide. I'm inclined to think "too many cooks spoil the broth."

  7. I get a sense, LJ, that the more experienced the writer, the less they depend on readers -- or they have a very tight circle of readers. Some just have a trusted editor they turn to.

  8. I think you're very right, Helen. I was involved in a writers' workshop for quite a long time and some of the advice was just completely wrong, in my own humble opinion ;-)

    The other thing that can happen in critique group is the "mob mentality," when some small detail or issue gets picked to death. You really have to sift through your critique feedback and choose what makes your story better.


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