Question of the Month: What are the benefits of a critique group?

A young lady recently asked, “Why do you belong to a writers’ group? What value do you get from it?” I did not have to think long for an answer. The two primary values that immediately jumped to mind were: I find the obligation (I owe a certain number of words to the group by a certain date) keeps me writing when I might otherwise goof off or find excuses to not write. Without that obligation, if I am feeling intimidated by the blank page, other distractions get in the way. The refrigerator that has needed cleaning for a week suddenly becomes a health hazard, the lawn needs mowing, the floors need mopping, the rug needs vacuuming, the walls need scrubbing, and the list goes on and on.
The second value of a writing group is the constructive criticism, the feedback I get from other members of the group. “This phrase doesn’t work.” “Why did you use that word?” “When your character says ‘this phrase’ I don’t like him/her. You need to change ‘this phrase’ if you want me to like your main character.” or “That’s a cliché.” It is amazing how we, as writers, read right over our own mistakes and do not see them. But our critique buddies do.
There are myriad benefits I’ve gotten from The Other Bunch, in addition to keeping me producing and providing constructive criticism. I have gotten encouragement, pep talks and an occasional kick in the pants when I’m feeling blue, untalented or ready to give up and flush my manuscripts down the nearest commode.
I have gotten ideas from the other writers in the group, inspiration, story nuggets, and mental roadmaps to help solve this or that writing problem. Just by reading another’s writing and seeing how she solved a particular difficulty often helps me see what I’m doing wrong, how I can wade through a problem, get around it, fix it.
We have brainstormed, given one another inspiration and project ideas. Bonnie suggested to Pat years ago, when we first formed The Other Bunch, that she should write a collection of Hispanic fairy tales and Pat got busy and eventually published Red Riding in the Hood with Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Because of its name, people often mistake my collection of short stories Squirrel Pie and Other Morsels for a cookbook. At Thousand Springs Festival in September 2008 a woman commented on the recipe for squirrel pie that she assumed was in the book. When Bonnie saw my frustration over the woman’s misunderstanding she said, “If people want a cookbook give them a cookbook. Then next time somebody thinks it’s a cookbook you can say, that one is not but here is a cookbook.” I have been toying with that idea ever since. I have a huge collection of other people’s cookbooks. If I buy cookbooks maybe if I write a cookbook someone will buy mine.
Jennifer recently suggested that one of my child characters was very strong and she would like to see a whole series of kids stories using her as the main character. Her suggestion reminded me — I have countless fragments of vivid but brief childhood memories that I’ve been wondering what to do with. These memories are really just images and impressions much too limited to support full adult short stories but would make dandy children’s stories. Jennifer’s suggestion flipped on a switch in my head. I’ve recruited my siblings to help me recollect elusive events and now I’m gathering those memory fragments into an idea file for potential children’s stories.
That is just a sampling of what The Other Bunch has done for me. A critique group can help and inspire you, too. So join one ASAP (as soon as possible)! If you can’t find one to join, form your own. You will be glad you did. You might check with the Idaho Writers League (a link to their web site is included on this page) for directions to a group.

Dixie Thomas Reale

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