Critique Group Sagas

Note: This is an opinion piece generalized in nature and does not refer to any specific author or writer. If you see yourself in this piece, though, my work here is done.

I’m currently in two writing critique groups. I consider them essential as a writer; otherwise, I end up in a continuous loop of thinking how wonderful my writing is. All that seems obvious and clear to me in my work may not to a reader, and that’s one aspect of a critique group: looking at someone’s work through the eyes of a reader.

Because we’re also writers, we bring that to the critique table, too. In one of my groups, which has been meeting for some time, we have discussions about foreshadowing, conflict resolution, and denouement. Fascinating stuff, all that writing knowledge/trivia.

However, I also bring an editor’s skills to the table. I was a reporter for and editor of a magazine for more than fifteen years, and I edited hundreds of government documents from correspondence to blue ribbon reports. When I read something for a critique group, the MS gets a reader, writer, and editor’s eye. Some are not so appreciative of the latter. My standard reaction is, “Get accustomed to it. It’s better to catch the typos, style errors, and punctuation and grammatical flubs now rather than have an agent or publisher reject your MS for them later.”

For someone who is about to undergo his or her first experience with a critique group, that triple-threat may be intimidating. I don’t intend for it to be. In my warped little mind, I’m being helpful. When I look back on some of my earlier writing, published without the benefit of a critique group, I wish I’d had someone like me to find those embarrassing slip-ups and to point out the things which would make an agent toss an MS into a slush pile.

Critique groups aren’t mutual admiration societies, even though I can’t wait until I receive the next installment of every member’s work. Yes, I come to admire and look forward to their writing, but there is also mutual trust and honesty. We trust each other to be honest. You can’t simply say, “It doesn’t work for me.” You have to explain yourself, and the excuse can’t be you just don’t like something. For example, I’m not a fan of most YA, fantasy, or romance writing (or the various iterations thereof), but if it’s a good story and the writing shines, I’ll read it and probably enjoy it.

Some people seem to approach a critique group with an attitude of not wanting the details, just the big picture. Yes, the details are annoying and nitpick-ish, but they’re there for a reason. A comment about correct placement of commas or use of a semi-colon, etc., are not mortal blows to your writing. Rather, when I read an MS where the grammar’s good, the punctuation spot-on, and the style elements appropriate, I think to myself, “Here is someone who took the time to learn all the aspects of being a writer.”

Having an idea for a story is excellent. Putting it down on paper (or in the computer) is also excellent; you can now call yourself a writer. Staying a writer depends on your willingness to learn–whether through the feedback from a critique group, a writer’s workshop, or writing conferences. (I’m amazed by people who call themselves writers who don’t go to writers conferences or workshops.) You don’t just write and say, “That’s it. Let someone else worry about the silly punctuation details.” Breaking news: Publishers don’t employ copy editors anymore, and the only writers who get to dump a mistake-riddled MS on a publisher is someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald; and he’s dead.

Pointing out punctuation, style, and grammar errors isn’t a reflection on your ability to be a story-teller. You might say it is a comment on your writing ability. Well, yes, because that’s part of the package of being a writer. Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t constantly refresh your writing knowledge and skills? You could, but I’ll still point out the problems, and, believe me, I don’t pull these things out of my arse.

The devil is in the details; learn from them. I know I do. If you don’t want to hear the details from me, at least invest in some time-honored resources: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage are just some of them, but those three on your writing resources shelf will take you a long way.

Two For One!

Aren’t you lucky? Today, you not only get a 100-word flash fiction, but, at no extra charge, you get a little writing lore as well.

Yeah, I wouldn’t do well writing for infomercials, would I?

Here’s today’s Friday Fictioneers inspirational photo:

And here’s a piece I call, “Winter Wonderland.”

I wasn’t sure if it were safe to go out yet, but the dog, cooped up for so many days, was insistent. I tried to keep him close, but dogs wander. Still, I understood. Cabin fever had grasped me, too.
The blanket of snow seemed muted beneath the still-gray sky but was so beautiful compared to the four walls where we’d hunkered down. There were no tracks except ours.
The dog bounded toward the road. I slogged after him, my cries loud in the still air, echoing off the trees.
You don’t go far from home in a nuclear winter.
Yes, I’d gone a few days without any apocalyptic writing. 😉 Now, here’s your bonus–a brief discussion about a writing tool I can’t be without.
Even after teaching English, being a journalist and an editor, and writing since I was ten, there are certain aspects of English grammar where I still falter. Lie versus Lay. Which versus That. Those are my particular downfalls. I’ll write them one way, decide they’re wrong, write them the other way, then discover I was right the first time.
Who wants to go pull the dusty, old English Grammar Reference off the shelf? Not I. I use a small tome that has been on or near my myriad writing desks for the past forty years–The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, or as it’s colloquially called “Strunk and White.”
“Make every word tell,” was Cornell English professor William Strunk, Jr.’s advice to his students, one of whom was E. B. White, ofCharlotte’s Web fame. Strunk wrote the first The Elements of Style in 1918 and made it obligatory for his students. It wasn’t until after Strunk’s death that E.B. White, writing in The New Yorker, told the world about the “forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” White was asked to edit a re-issuance of the volume to bring it into modern usage. That was about sixty years ago, and this “little book,” as White called it, is still an indispensable aid to writers from high schoolers toiling over term papers to the rest of us who hope to be considered accomplished.
My well-thumbed copy, which helped me write features and editorials as a reporter and countless government reports, is still packed away with my work “stuff,” so I had to replace it with this fairly fresh copy (below). Strunk and White pares down the sometimes vague structures of English grammar to the basics of language usage and composition.
It has almost doubled in size from the forty-three page volume White extolled in The New Yorker and now has a glossary and an index. It’s original outline remains much the same as Strunk’s version from the early part of the previous century: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused (my personal favorite), and An Approach to Style. (I love the perfection of those section titles.)
Strunk and White is great for writers who hate grammar–notice they don’t use the word–because it has condensed the whole, arcane grammatical schema into a pocket-sized reference. You could call it “Style Basics” and be accurate, but “The Elements of Style” is just, well, stylish.
My new copy cost me ten dollars in a book store, but consider it an investment. Big box and independent book stores will order you a copy upon request. You can get a used copy from Amazon for as little as seven dollars or from free to $2.99 in the Kindle Store–though the Kindle version is the original Strunk work. Go for the Strunk and White version. If you’re a Nook person, the price and the version is the same. A used copy from Barnes and Noble can be as low as three dollars.
Considering the state of some of the indie published books I’ve been reading to review, every person who calls him- or herself a writer should own one of these and use it. Then, you won’t be disingenuous when you call yourself an author.
I have no financial interest in The Elements of Style or with its publishers. It’s just a darned good writing book.