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The Worst Critique

Back in the 1990s I belonged to a writing group which was open to the public. This was not a closed group or tight-knit click of friends. These were strangers, sometimes numbering 30 other times 12, ready and eager to share their writing and critique yours.

We met monthly in the upstairs area of quaint little bookstore in the center of down town. There was clearly no organization to this group. Everyone gathered around a large table and took turns reading and offering feedback. Sometimes there would be discussions of books, famous authors, and some how-to methods to write better or faster.

One evening, I mustered up the courage to share a short story I had written. It was titled “The Indian Story.” In brief, it was about an Indian Brave who met an Indian Squaw from a rival tribe. They fell in love, which was forbidden by the Chief Indians. In the end, the Brave was sentenced to death and to be burnt at the stake. When the fire reached its peak, the Squaw jumped into her lover’s arms and died with him.

The Chiefs did their best to search through the ashes and separate them once and for all, but it was to no avail, and they were buried together. Also, carved into a scared tree were their initials, which became a symbol to both tribes.

I recall getting some modest feedback. I have a tendency to jump from past tense to present, confuse “that” with “who,” and some other minor grammatical errors. Overall feedback was to develop the story more, to include some background as to why the tribes were rival, and to bring the reader into the Brave and Squaw’s relationship.

I thanked everyone for their input and the meeting resumed. Over the next few weeks I worked on it a bit and made some tweaks and did a little rewriting. One month passed, and it was time again for our writing meeting.

This time around I shared something new, something I now don’t recall. But what I do remember is when I finished reading my piece, a woman in the group said, “At least it’s better than that God awful Indian story.”

I wasn’t sure how to react, and neither did anyone else in the group. The room fell silent and I let it go without saying a word. The moderator for the group eventually spoke up and refocused us to next reader.

This brings me about to share a few rules when critiquing in a group setting. There are 5:

1) Always be respectful of those sharing their work. This includes silencing your phone, no side talking or whispering to the person next to you, don’t interrupt, and take notes for any advice or questions you have.

2) Be encouraging. We, as writers, are putting ourselves out there for judgement, so keep that in mind when giving constructive feedback.

3) Don’t hog the meeting. While the critique group is about improving your writing, it’s not all about you. Be mindful of the number of writers in the room and share the time equally. You can always meet up with a few members afterward for more feedback or shop talk.

4) Don’t be a one-timer. Don’t show up once, handout multiple chapters to your novel in progress, collect feedback and never show up again. Just as you made a commitment to writer your novel, make the commitment to be a part of the group.

5) Be thankful. Politely thank everyone for their feedback, thank the moderator of the group for a job well done, and tell everyone how you’re looking forward to the next meeting.

Anyhow, I hope to hear some awesome stories in all the critique groups I attend, and I promise not to share with you that God awful Indian story of mine.

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