“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966
There is a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” I believe this, and I practice it with every word I write (as does Nabokov, according to the above quote). But there is more to improving a piece than just “rewriting.” Rewriting alone, in an echo chamber, does nothing for you except reinforce your flaws as a writer (and every writer has flaws). You need more than an echo, you need listeners. You need a critique group.
A critique group allows you to get outside your opinion and point of view on your work. A writer’s work is like their baby, and no one will admit that they have an ugly baby. A critique group gives you “guided rewriting,” far superior to doing it yourself. I’m not saying that the group should tell you that you baby is ugly, but maybe point out whether it needs a haircut or different clothes 😉
Note: I can’t stress how important it is to rewrite. Too many amateurs think that their work is perfect from the first, or even second draft. This is pure arrogance. All first drafts are terrible, and if you think otherwise, you shouldn’t be writing at all.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard, Newsweek, 1985
So what exactly is a critique group? It’s a collection of writers that read each others’ work and provide constructive criticism. That’s all. Some are more complex than others, but at the heart of it, that’s all it is, and all it needs to be.
I co-run a bimonthy critique group in my area. Some of us are professionals, some amateurs. You probably think that the amateurs get more out of it than the pros, and you’d be right (congrats on your rightness). However, I know that the critiques I’ve received have helped me make my stories much better, whether from a pro or an amateur. Everyone is a reader, and everyone knows what they do and don’t like. As for the amateurs, I’ve seen some go from barely writing on a college level to producing magnificent pieces of art. I’m proud–even arrogant (like I am about everything, because I’m an asshole)–to have been part of their journey.
“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985
So how do you start a critique group, and how does it work? First, although I have always had an in-person group. the internet has made it so that a group can work no matter where anyone is. As long as you follow the same format and rules, it will be just as productive, if not more so.
Here are the rules for my critique group. When you look for a group, look for similar rules. If you are starting a group…make similar rules:
- We meet twice a month. Make every effort to be there. A group is give and take. If you want to receive a critique, you must give critiques to the other members. No freeloading.
- Email your submission at least five days before the group meeting. This gives every member a chance to properly read and critique the piece. Sending in a piece on short notice forces the members to scramble, and is unfair to them.
- We have a soft limit of 3500 words (but you can use whatever limit you want). This is so one writer doesn’t monopolize everyone’s time and energy by sending in epics. Example: a couple weeks ago someone sent in 25 pages. I sent out an email to read no more than the first 10 pages. The writer was upset, but I reminded him that he broke our guidelines as was taking advantage of the group.
- We are here to support each other, not destroy them. Constructive criticism only, and no personal attacks.
- The writer may not speak while others are critiquing their work, unless they are asked a specific question. They take notes, and at the end they may explain their position if they absolutely need to. The writer is there to have the flaws in their work pointed out so that the revision will be better. They call it a submission for a reason. Be humble.
- While line item edits are fine, the critiquers should look specifically for the “big picture” issues: plot, setting, characterization, voice.
- The writer should consider all advice, but does not have to take any or part of it. It’s still their piece, and they have control. However, if you don’t take any advice, why are you there?
- Keep off topic stuff to a minimum…we break this rule a lot.
As you can see, these rules convert easily to the web. As long as you have a group chat where everyone can make it, it’ll work out fine.
If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — Kurt Vonnegut, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word
So how many times should I revise my work and how many times should I send it to my critique group? The number of revisions is up to you, and the number of times submitted is up to your group. Personally, I do about 5 drafts of a short story, and 10 drafts of a novel. The Watchmage of Old New York had 10 drafts. Song of Simon had 12. Rewriting is more important than writing. The first draft is a lump of clay, and every draft shapes the clay until you have a finished piece of art.
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler
I do not consider myself a good writer. However, I’m a great rewriter. I can take what I threw up (as Chandler said) onto the page and can turn it into something half decent. I wouldn’t be able to do any of that without my critique group. It doesn’t matter what level you are at, you need a group of people around you that will give honest opinions instead of patting you on the back and saying “wow, this is great. You’re such a great writer, blah blah blah.” Even worse is if you’re the one saying it. No ass kissing, especially when it’s your own ass.
Now for the shameless plugs for my novels, The Watchmage of Old New York, and Song of Simon. You can click on the images below for the link. You can also check my links page for a whole bunch of short stories and articles from my journalism days.