Being part of an on-line writing group for several years has provided many benefits. But with the positives come a few negatives.
Over a period of time, one learns to recognize each reader’s style of critiquing and approach to writing fiction/non-fiction. I’ve discovered that, usually, all of our critiques collectively add up to one excellent response. Each person brings a different angle, a new take on the material. Some focus on character development more than story arc. Others seek deeper meanings in the piece and how they are revealed by imagery, metaphor, etc. And there’s usually someone who is good with punctuation or grammar or style. Rarely are comments duplicated, and, if they are, then they add weight to whatever is being discussed. So while responses can be predictable at times, they also are dependable.
I’m always astonished by the ways in which these multiple readings push me into deepening my revision process. I don’t submit anything that hasn’t gone through multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) revisions. By the time the piece reaches my readers, it has been examined from every angle, and I can’t find anything more to change. It’s a surprise, then, when the comments start dribbling in, and I learn all of the things I’ve missed or overlooked in my own editing process. Without those extra eyes and minds, my work would remain incomplete rather than being enriched by the perspectives these readers bring.
Okay, the Negatives:
Some readers are not sophisticated in their literary knowledge. Therefore, they often don’t get it if the writer is experimenting, trying out new approaches to the genre. I’ve learned to recognize who these individuals are in my group and to read their comments discriminately, recognizing their limitations.
In a similar vein, most of the critiquers have been through a writing program and bring some of the problematic, standardized workshop advice that can limit rather than liberate a story. Show and don’t tell is one approach. In certain instances, it’s valid and helpful counsel. But at its worst, it becomes a blanket response to all writing, the reader not taking into account when the narrative is more attuned to the character’s inner state than what is happening externally. Creating “scenes” also can fall into this trap. Sometimes a scene can vitalize a fading passage and dramatize what’s happening, bringing conflict and tension into the piece. Other times, it’s not appropriate.
The greatest negative for me is when a writer in the group sends off a really early draft that he/she hasn’t taken the time to hone him/herself. It’s essentially a freewrite containing all of the original grammar and punctuation errors, the assumption being that the messier the better—the more “emotional” or “authentic.” It’s not. It’s simply a very early draft that is difficult to read because of all the surface errors. Then I feel the writer is putting the responsibility on me to rescue this effort and do the actual writing.
I don’t want to deal with early drafts because they are usually in the exploratory stage and haven’t really congealed yet. The writer hasn’t discovered the heart of the story and is relying on his/her readers to do this hard work for him/her. I resent being used in this way. But I also feel that responding too soon to an exploratory draft inhibits the writing itself, shutting down rather than opening up possibilities.
The positives clearly outweigh the negatives. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remained with this group for so long. Not only do I learn from the responses to my own submissions, but I also get insight by reading comments on other members’ work.
Lily Iona MacKenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 145 American and Canadian venues. Fling!, one of her novels, was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband.