By Alissa Johnson
Writers often ask me how to find readers—not the final audience, per se, but people to read an early draft and give feedback. They often ask about critique groups in particular, and one of the first things I suggest is to choose carefully.
Critique groups are not all created equal.
When I signed up for my first critique group, I didn't even realize that's what I was doing. I was a freshman in college and had simply signed up for what I saw as my first "real" writing class. I'd taken classes in high school, but this felt like a step up.
And it was different. Unlike those high school classes where the teacher alone read my writing, in this class we read and discussed each other's work as a group. There was a catch, however—we weren't allowed to say anything good.
When my turn came, I submitted a poem about paddling a canoe. I'd grown up canoeing and the summer before I'd taken a six-week canoe trip above the Arctic Circle, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Canoeing and writing had both shaped my life from a young age, and I thought it was the perfect piece to share.
As soon as class began, a fellow student raised his hand. He wore a leather vest and chains, and was the drummer in a well-known band.
"I know we're not supposed to say anything good, but I loved this poem," he said. "I mean, is it me, or is this the perfect metaphor for sex?"
Before the TA could respond, the drummer asked if that had been my intention. A dozen people turned to look at me, and I shrunk in my seat as I said no. Then spend a half hour or forty-five minutes listening to them pick apart my writing.
In less than an hour, I learned that my writing could be wildly misinterpreted and that perhaps I wasn't, as I'd always been told, any good. And after the semester was over? I stopped writing. Started to believe that I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I know I'm not alone in this. So many writers have told me similar stories, even my mom. She wrote a story in high school that one teacher found "too good"—she was convinced my mom hadn't written it, and as a result, my mom also stopped writing.
And yet, now retired, she still loves to write. And I make my living as a writer.
Clearly, that poorly-delivered feedback was no indication of our merit.
At the same time, a great critique group can be a boon for your writing. A good critique group will:
- Start with an understanding of what you're trying to do.
- Give you feedback you can act on.
- Energize you to keep going.
Bad experiences do happen. Many writers I know have a story to share, maybe you're one of them. Let me know—have you had a bad experience with feedback or a critique group, and what's one thing you wish you'd known beforehand? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on the Facebook page.