I’ve written before on the subject of critiquing, and how invaluable a tool it is for any writer, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of success. Recently, I’ve joined the Key West Writers Guild, an organization that has been around for at least 15 years that I know of, but failed to drift into my sights until a couple of months ago. It’s my association with this group that forms the basis for this post, revisiting an important tool of critiquing.

When I attended my first meeting, everyone was very cordial and good-natured. Then the readings began. I remained silent during the first reading or two in order to assess the tone of the critiques. Right away, I noticed very little of substance was being offered. They just moved on to the next reader. I made a comment or two on the next couple of readers, and my comments were considerably more pointed than the ones that preceded them.

I looked around the room. These were intelligent people, artistically-oriented, and yet they couldn’t seem to find anything to say in the way of critique. I compared this to my experiences with the Henderson Writers Group in Las Vegas, where I was a member for three years before I moved back to Key West. The criticisms were far more worthwhile there, more insightful, and covered a wider variety of writing problems.

Then it hit me. The Henderson Writers Group used handouts. Each reader passed out copies of what he/she would be reading to the other members. Everyone read along, marked up the handed-out copies, then offered oral critique at the end of the read.

It became obvious to me that handouts were simply never on the radar of the Key West Writers Guild. Maybe people didn’t want to use the ink or the paper or whatever, but for some reason, handouts just weren’t considered. Their importance, however, cannot be overstated.

Spotting typos, paragraph errors, grammatical mistakes, and all the rest of it is a substantive part of the critiquing process. It’s not all listening for dialogue tags and POV shifts. Sometimes a word choice won’t look right on the page, but might slide right by you if you’re only listening. When a member can read along with the reader, then he/she is much closer to the material. Even larger things like story structure are more noticeable on the printed page. After all, a book is meant to be read, not read aloud.

You can hear people saying now, “But I always have a lot of typos in my writing. I can clean them up later,” or, “I’m not very good at spelling.” Well, you know what? They’ll have to address these problems if they want to become writers. The problems won’t go away by themselves, but they can be fixed by sharp-eyed critique groups, and then perhaps the writer won’t make those same mistakes over and over.

At that first KWWG meeting, I suggested everyone bring handouts next time. No one wanted to do it. Someone said the way to go was emailing the chapters in advance of the meeting. This would supposedly allow the members to look at the piece several days in advance and pore over it, giving it due attention. This is not the answer. You don’t know whom to send it to, you don’t know who’s going to show up at the next meeting, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read it, and worst of all, they’ll probably show up with no printed material of your chapter. Handouts on the spot are the way to go. They cover the members in attendance and force them to look at the writing.

Ink and paper may be an issue for some people, but they’ll have to get over it. The objective here is to become a better writer and they have to ask themselves if they really want it. If they do, then they’ll have to suck it up and use the ink and paper. It’s not easy, it really isn’t, and it might cost a little money. But it has to be done. I learned how to print on both sides of the page, cutting my paper use in half.

If people are serious about becoming better writers, they should overcome this resistance to printing up handouts for their writers groups. They’ll be surprised how much better of a writer they’ll become simply by knowing other people are going to be reading it along with them. Now, I’m aware that some groups might have as many as 30 or 40 people in attendance at each meeting. Printing up that many copies might be counterproductive, but you can spot who the real editors are in your group. Print up 10 or 15 copies and pass them out to those who are really going to offer good critique.

I’ve seen over the last three years as a member of the Henderson Writers Group exactly how much better a writer I have become. My novel The Take, which is published by a royalty publisher, was critiqued by this group, chapter by chapter. And I can easily say that the novel was transformed into a publishable state largely through the efforts of the other members of this group. In return, I gave them a big nod on the acknowledgement page. I can also say that the three novels I’ve written subsequent to The Take are better novels because of critiques.

One final thing. Critiquing via handouts sharpens your critiquing skills. I became a better writer not just because my novel was critiqued, but also because I critiqued other people’s work via their handouts. I could see in front of me the mistakes they were making and how, in many cases, I was making those same mistakes.

Writers groups are an invitation to become a better writer, no matter who you are. I strongly recommend them. Like the rest of writing, it’s really just a question of applying discipline.

And discipline is doing what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.

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  1. Wow. I can’t imagine a critique group without handouts, for all of the reasons you give, plus one more. I sometimes mark up the handout quite a bit, and leave notes for the author I might not want to bring out in the group, either because time was tight, or because I was concerned how someone might take such a comment if offered publicly. (Not necessarily the writer. Some critiquers can get prickly when disagreed with.)

    I like to save paper as much as anyone, but sometimes you need it. Print on both sides if you like, but give peope something concrete to comment on.

  2. Dana–good point about handouts offering a chance for discreet, non-public criticism.

  3. Michael, I met you standing next to Jonathon Woods at Paul’s Xmas party last Sat. I’ve noticed one thing about the so-called ‘literary intelligentsia’ in Key West. Most of them do not take kindly to being criticized out loud within a group. You could say that about any social group in KW. I have learned over the years as a schoolteacher and as a salesman that one has to approach people down her very obliquely when offering ‘suggestions’ for change.
    This even applies to my co-workers at Historic Tours of America where I drive a trolley for Old Town Trolley Tours. Even there you can ‘tell people apart but you can’t tell them much.’ Most folks down here are relatively thin-skinned. When pressed for an explanation, they will mention something along the lines that they have lived their ‘corporate’ lives up north and don’t want anyone to tell them what to do anymore. All this above may sound pretty long-winded but I hope it’s been insightful. And, of course you can’t tell me what to do, but I am open to ‘suggestions’. Best regards, let’s meet sometime for a drink. tw

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