Your First Critique Group: It Can Make or Break You

By Beth Burgmeyer

As the Des Moines Writers’ Workshop continues to steadily grow, our number one priority is to maintain the integrity of our groups. What do I mean by that? I mean we want our critique groups to be a safe place for writers to share their work, especially newer writers. At the same time, we want writers to get constructive, honest, helpful feedback so that even the most seasoned writers can continue to grow. Because we’ve been able to consistently do these two things, the writers who commit to the application process and join our groups, rarely leave those groups.

The other day I thought about my very first workshop experience. It was the summer of 2012 and I’d just finished my first manuscript. I loved writing that manuscript. It had been in my head for over twenty years. Once I finally finished it and did a round of edits, I knew I needed to have other writers, people who knew the craft, to look at it and give me feedback.

I set off the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival for a weeklong workshop called Advanced Novel Writing. We would read and critique each other’s first twenty-five pages of our novels. As I sat around the table that first night, looking at nine other writers and our teacher, I was excited and terrified. Mainly terrified. Would they like my writing? Would they connect with my characters? Would they think my writing was worthy of publication someday?

I bit the bullet and volunteered to go on the first day. My first experience being critiqued was an hour of keeping my mouth shut while I listened to a half hour of things everyone liked about my pages and another half hour spent on critiques/suggestions. The first half hour was wonderful, a writer’s heaven. Everyone liked my main character, connected with her, and rooted for her. There were things that tugged at their emotions. The scenes were vivid, there was some beautiful wording.

Then came the half hour of critique. Looking back at that early draft of my first novel, everyone in that room could have ripped it apart. Ripped me apart as a writer. I had made so many first time writer mistakes, someone could have used those opening pages as a manual for “don’ts” when it comes to writing a novel. Instead of hearing how “wrong” I was or how many rookie mistakes I’d made, I heard things like:

  • Sometimes less is more.
  • Trust your readers.
  • Be careful about too much exposition, especially in the beginning.
  • Did you ever think about…?
  • What if…?
  • I wonder if the first flashback is too early—it might slow down the forward momentum of the story.
  • Do you think readers will feel frustrated if too much is purposefully withheld from them?
  • I wonder what it would be like if you started the novel here instead of there?

Every critique was thoughtful and honest. The people in that room weren’t just rooting for my characters, they were rooting for me. They wanted to help me become a better writer, they wanted me and my manuscript to succeed.

I think about how different it would have been if I had felt attacked, if I felt like everyone in that room thought I sucked and that my writing was awful. I’ll be honest—even those thoughtful critiques were a bit overwhelming. But within an hour of leaving the group that day, little light bulbs fired in my brain as I began to see ways I could make my opening pages so much better. Ways I could make my whole novel so much better.

Fortunately, my first critique experience was overwhelmingly helpful and positive. Unfortunately I’ve met people who’ve had the opposite experience. I’ve met people who refuse to go to critique groups because they’ve had an awful experience with a group—with members who needed to stroke their egos by tearing other writers down. I want to tell these people to try again because a good critique group makes even great writers stronger. Being part of a close-knit writing community has helped to keep me sane on this crazy journey of being a writer.

Every time a new member submits something, I remember the first time my writing was critiqued. I remember how scary and overwhelming the experience was and how thankful I was that the feedback I got was given in an honest and respectful manner.

If you’re reading this and you’re on the fence about joining one of our critique groups, I can say with confidence that we create a safe space in which you can share your writing. The first step in the application is to just audit/observe a group so you can see how we give each other feedback. You risk nothing by auditing a group. If you think our groups are a good fit for you, you can move forward with the application process. If our groups aren’t for you, we respect that. You’re still welcome to come to any of our write-ins and to be a part of our community in that way.

Beth Burgmeyer

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