This week at DIY MFA we are working on something new and exciting: we’re creating a DIY MFA writing community. The plan is to use the DIY MFA Facebook page to create a forum where writers (that’s you!) can give and receive feedback to each other. We’re still working out the details so stay tuned for more information throughout the week. In the meantime, I thought I’d use this idea of a critique community as a springboard for this week’s topic: Building a Writing Community. Today, I’m especially interested in hearing what you look for in a critique community and I’ll share some thoughts of my own.
I’ve participated in many writing communities, both online and off. Online I’ve logged into discussion forums (like the Absolute Write Water Cooler or the Verla Kay Chat Board) and communities like SheWrites.com. In person, I’ve participated in workshops and courses (both through my MFA program and outside of it) and I founded a writing group that has been going for over 5 years. I also have a group of writer friends that gets together weekly for Write Nite. We get together in a cafe and write, using the peer pressure of seeing each other at work to motivate ourselves.
Each of these communities provides different benefits and advantages. Over the years I’ve discovered what kinds of communities work best for me and here are three important things I look for when joining a critique community.
3 Things To Look For in a Critique Community
1) More Give than Take.
A critique community works best when everyone in it gives more than they take. Generosity lifts up the community as a whole and if everyone gives more than they take, then everyone in the community ends up getting more out of it all the way around and everyone ends up benefiting. In terms of a writing community, this means focusing on giving feedback and supporting your fellow writers. On the other hand, I’ve been in workshops where one or more writers took more than they gave back, and ultimately it put a strain on the entire group.
The truth is, even when you’re not getting feedback on your own work, you’re still learning techniques that you can apply to your writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given another writer feedback only to discover that I needed to be following that very same advice. Giving critique to other writers often gives me insight and helps me solve problems I’m struggling with in my own writing.
2) Constructive, Not Competitive.
When I consider joining a workshop or writing community, I look for ones that have a constructive tone and not a competitive attitude. I want a community that helps me improve my work, not a group of people that’s bent on tearing it down. I’ve never been a fan of the philosophy: “bringing writers down to build them up again,” a mindset that’s prevalent in so many workshops, particularly in MFA programs. While it’s good to know what isn’t working in my writing (so I can fix the problems), it’s also important to understand what does work so I can do it again.
Ultimately, the only writer I want to compare myself to or compete with is… myself. Some workshops and communities consist of writers who bring other writers down in order to pump themselves up. These situations are toxic. They suck the life and creativity out of my work, and the minute I identify a community as such, I make for the door. Fast.
3) Honesty and “Tough Love.”
Although I always look for communities where the attitude is constructive rather than competitive, it doesn’t mean that all I want to hear is glowing praise about my writing. Some of the best feedback I’ve ever gotten on my work has been the hardest to hear. Even so, because I knew this feedback was coming from a place of honesty and that my colleagues wanted to help me improve my work, I knew I could trust what they had to say.
For instance, some time ago I got feedback from trusted colleagues that I needed to overhaul the central concept of an entire work-in-progress (WIP). Was it terrifying to hear that? Of course. Did I enjoy getting that feedback? Um, no. In fact, it took some time to digest the comments and figure out what to do next. Once I made a few key changes though, the project in question became much stronger than before. It was clear that this feedback was exactly what I needed to hear. If my colleagues had sugar-coated their input, I would have never made those changes that ultimately improved my project one thousand percent.