My Critique Group is Awesome (or, “Why Critique Groups are Crucial for Success”)

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I’ve been meeting with a critique group for a little over a year.

At first, I was petrified by the idea of making myself so vulnerable. What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t like my work? I knew I had to break out of my shell, that I had to start meeting other writers if I was ever going to improve my craft and get to a point where I could publish my work. But I was terrified of rejection, and a few months passed before I finally found the courage to join a group and put myself out there.

It was the best decision I ever made.

I met some amazing writers and I learned a lot, not just about my fiction but also about the industry. One of my projects, a middle grade fantasy whose first draft is now in the hands of an editor, suffered from serious flaws that would have rendered it unpublishable. In just a few months, my group identified most of these problems and was there for me when I needed help figuring out how to fix them.

We gather around a table once a week and share up to ten pages of our work.

A volunteer reads each story out loud so that the writer has an opportunity to experience his or her words in a different way. When the reading is done, we go around the circle to discuss what we thought the writer did well and what we thought the writer could improve.

They help me identify and eliminate inconsistencies and contradictions. They help me resolve difficult plot and character problems that I’m either too inexperienced or too frustrated to solve. They recognize what I do well, but are also blunt and honest, and are never afraid to (charitably) point out the numerous ways in which I fail.

Sometimes I agree with their assessments and sometimes I don’t; art is inherently subjective.

But I always take what they have to say seriously and value their feedback. Knowing how my group receives my work gives me a better idea of how my audience will receive my work when it’s published. If the majority have issues with what I’ve written, I know I need to go back and take a closer look.

They rein me in when I get carried away. They encourage me to be bold. We support each other, inspire each other, teach each other, help each other to grow.

As an author, I’ve learned more in the year I’ve been with them than in all the other years I’ve been writing on my own.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, I implore you to get together with others in your field. You’ll find support. You’ll find insight. Most importantly, you’ll make fantastic friends and you’ll become better, not just as an artist but as a human being.

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Why An Artist Should Share His Work

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Many artists believe they have to strike out on their own, that art is an inherently personal endeavor and that the opinions of others should never matter. This is a perfectly acceptable outlook if one’s work is private. But if an artist ever hopes to publish his creations and share them with the rest of the world, at some point he’s going to have to accept that the opinions of others do matter, that he can’t go it alone and expect to build a significant following.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of what we artists do is by nature solitary work. We have to turn off the world outside so that we can tune in to the world inside our heads. But in-between these interior excursions, if we are to be understood by others, we must at some point submit our discoveries to the scrutiny of others. We must be prepared to be misunderstood and rejected. We must accept that our work is imperfect and that critical feedback can help us improve it.

The art-making process is like dreaming. Though the initial result might make sense to the dreamer, those outside won’t understand its many inconsistencies and contradictions. Reliable outside witnesses are therefore a necessity. They will be able to see what we as artists cannot so that, armed with knowledge we couldn’t have gathered on our own, we can make our work more relatable.

Sounds simple, right? Gather feedback, then improve. Why then is it so hard for us accept feedback from others?

The problem is that we artists are by nature sensitive people. Often, this sensitivity is an asset. It allows us to perceive the ordinarily latent subtleties inherent to the human experience, to amplify them and to reflect them back into the world from a different angle so that others can share in our discoveries. But the same sensitivity that allows us to penetrate emotional undertones and to make good art also hinders us in our ability to perfect it, because to do so requires us to admit that our work isn’t perfect, that the children of our minds which we’ve fallen so deeply in love with are flawed, that we failed in our attempt to create something beautiful. Because of our heightened sensitivity, we feel an almost agonizing despair.

To be successful, we must first learn to identify true beauty. Art is never perfect, especially not good art. It is and always will be imperfect, because the humans who make it are also imperfect. We must love our art not for what we wish it to be, but for what it is. We must accept it with our whole hearts, on its own terms, with all of its many flaws. In wanting the best for our work, we must desire that it be better even than ourselves. By encouraging healthy outside criticism, we are able to refine our work in ways we could never have dreamed of on our own, allowing us to accomplish precisely that.

Once our understanding of true beauty has been rooted in a more practical perspective, once we’ve removed our work from the pedestal that would have set it forever out of our audience’s reach, then we can learn to appreciate and even enjoy critical feedback. We might not always agree, as great minds will seldom see eye to eye. But we’ll no longer cower in fear of rejection.

Of course, in cultivating an open mind, we must be careful to filter out those voices which are better left ignored. Not all feedback is good. Unfortunately, there are those who, for reasons of their own, delight in tearing others down. They’ll sit atop their pristine white horse, proclaim with feral brutality every last way in which an artist’s work falls short and sneer snootily while declaring that his work isn’t even suitable for the garbage. This type of criticism can be corrosive and toxic to the soul, because it often contains just enough truth that we begin to question and even doubt in our abilities as artists. We must learn the difference between constructive criticism and insults so that we can filter out harmful comments and focus on making our art better instead of throwing up our hands and giving into despair.

Lastly, we must understand that good art doesn’t please everybody. The human population is diverse. Everyone has a different type of mind that operates in a different way, so that everyone resonates with a different type of work. Don’t believe me? Check out the Goodreads page for any classic novel (David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, is a good example) and filter for one star reviews. Making your work accessible to all would require you to boil it down to something so basic and simple that it loses all its flavor, ensuring that your art will please no one. Spend your time courting those who can appreciate you for who you are and what you do, because art should never be a popularity contest.

Art will always a personal journey, of course. Its manufacture requires us to reach deep inside the cavernous depth of subjective experience. But to be appreciated by an outside audience, it must first be transformed into something the audience can understand. We must never be afraid to solicit opinions. Rather, we should accept criticism with enthusiasm, because it’s through honest feedback that we can finally make our creations shine with the radiance we knew them to be capable of from the get-go.

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