Critique Groups and Beta Readers: Writing as a Not-So-Solitary Pursuit

November 24, 2017 Musings

When I first began writing, I would never read my work aloud in class. I lacked confidence in my abilities, but I also lacked confidence in the process of having one’s work critiqued. My overarching fear was that I would receive unflattering feedback and it would be the catalyst that would cause me to stop writing.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own

The need to write was overwhelming and so I cultivated the discipline; I read books on writing and attended classes, and I took time to sit on a daily basis and write. I had a full-time job, a husband, and an adolescent. And I didn’t have a room of my own; the computer was set-up in a small kitchen that flowed into the room where the television was playing. Still, I sat and wrote.

Attending classes was helpful because I was surrounded by like-minded people. And yet, my self-censoring mechanism was so strong, I felt I needed to protect my work from myself, from the possibility of tearing it up, throwing it away, or worse, quitting. Whenever writers were invited to read I quietly tucked my work away and grew mute.

I can track my willingness to read my work aloud to when I began considering representation. If I was going to pursue publishing, I would need the confidence that comes with a thicker skin.

Shortly after moving to Savannah I began attending the Peacock Guild Writers Salon held at Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home.

The group meets once a month and members pass around our double-spaced pages and read. Then we sit and listen as our work is critiqued. There’s value in the uncontrolled variables in the group; fiction writers, non-fiction writers, age, gender, race. Published writers, writers who are considering publishing, writers who have no intention of publishing. A wide-ranging mix of interests are represented and in that mix I hope to receive the kind of critique information that will help me further revise my work.

By reading, we receive an immediate reaction. Are our words landing the way we intended? Does a sentence run-on too long? Are there cliched phrases? Do the readers understand what the protagonist wants? Are they confused? Intrigued? Along with passing out my pages, sometimes I include a handout listing any questions I have.

After reading, we thank the group, collect our pages, and walk out into Flannery’s neighborhood. Conversation shifts from our writing to what’s happening that week in Savannah.

I like to go home and make any quick revisions to my work-in-progress that night, or the following morning, while reader’s comments are fresh in my mind.

I also work with two beta readers.

One is a talented young writer who writes memoir-style essays. We send each other our pages a couple days in advance and then we meet once a week to critique. She’s very good at asking me questions and with those questions comes clarity. I also learn what aspects of that week’s chapter intrigue her the most. After we meet I work on revisions while her comments are fresh. By meeting once a week we are forced to stick to an aggressive writing schedule.

My other beta reader is a published author with a strong background in Hollywood screenplay writing. In the past, he has sent his work for my critique. He lives in California so all communication occurs electronically and by phone. I recently sent him the first draft one-hundred pages of my novel.

What did I learn that I hadn’t learned from the other critiques? Because he read roughly one-third of the novel he was able to comment effectively on the pacing of my story. His remarks are not as easily incorporated and I have found myself studying and revising my outline because the changes are on a structural level and surgery is required.

After all the comments, all the notes, all the discussion, it does come back to that solitary experience of sitting quietly, tapping the keyboard, and watching sentences, paragraphs, and chapters accumulate on the screen. The act of writing is a solitary pursuit…until the process of gaining insight from others reactions begins again.