How I Facilitate Group Critique at a Writing Retreat

Uniqueness Adds Spice

I love to bring together a diverse group of people. Experienced writers and nonwriters. Poets and thriller writers. People from different countries and backgrounds.

Diversity adds something special when everyone shares a common aim. Everyone at a writing immersion retreat has at least some interest in self-reflection, holism, creative expression, and moving towards becoming more of who they truly are.

If you come on a retreat with me, it is possible that you will find that the group consists of a lot of people who are just like you. And that can work out great. A unified group can go to really deep spaces together.

Something interesting happens, though, when the group dynamic is a bit spicier. A group where everyone agrees about the same things in much the same way is not really as interesting to me as a group where even disagreement is seen as a valuable contribution. Everyone should be able to be themselves and meet in the middle with shared values and common interests.

Group Critique

Giving and Receiving

Group critique is about sharing and about receiving. The writer reads a piece and everyone else receives it. Then, if the writer invites it, the group shares reflection and the writer receives that.

The Experience of Sharing

Subtle forms of critique can be far more effective than longwinded and erudite intellectually-qualified criticism. I’m all for boiling things down and keeping them simple when possible.

It’s important to understand that the group is basically a reflective space. Even if no one says something, the writer can probably still get a sense for the crowd’s visceral or energetic response when they read it.

We are a circle of individuals, living breathing people, receiving and experiencing one person’s writing. A well placed laugh or a change of how everyone is sitting can be informative and convey what the writer in many cases really wants to know — not “is it good” but “how do you feel about it?”

Of course, not all works speak equally to all audiences. Each person listening to the story merely contributes their experience of it. The author understands that no one speaks for the absolute.

Despite anyone’s experience or credentials, what really matters is what happens in the moment. Not “will this be a big impressive success someday” but “how does it feel to share this now?”

It’s less about getting something (fame and riches) someday and more about sharing who you are right now. Of course, you are much more than this piece that you share, but it’s also true that when you write something you want to share, it is something of yourself that you want to offer to others.

Offering Critique

Make no mistake, I don’t believe that the only right approach to sharing creative writing is to read and respond based on how a person feels or what they sense in the work. It is also tremendously valuable to offer suggestions that seek to improve the writing sample based on what was working best and where the life of the piece is believed to be.

It’s all about honoring where the life is. Where the piece felt alive, what was unique, what drew you in. What you would like to see more of.

The author is working on something, and the understanding is that the piece is not finished, not polished. It is a living piece, so where would you like to see it grow?

Too often the presupposition is how to make a piece like something that is already out in the market. Unless that is exactly what the author is looking for (how to emulate something specific), it’s generally a disservice to hold up a work in progress and assess it against something that really at this stage is in a different category. For one thing, that work is finished, and this one isn’t. So it is very important for everyone to know what the author is really driving at and how open the author is to receiving input.

I don’t believe in remaining rigid with rules about not being negative or holding ourselves to artificial means of communicating what we have to add. Sandwiching your suggestion for improvement in the middle of two things you want to praise can definitely make negative criticism easier to hear, though the main thing is that everything you contribute, whether positive or negative, is authentic.

Empathy and Realness

Critique is not only something that the author receives. It can benefit everyone in the circle.

When someone offers a suggestion, it is a chance for everyone to try on how that feels. And for the person sharing, it is a chance to feel into the piece, put themselves somewhat in the author’s shoes, and see whether they can add something based on their own vantage point.

It’s not about anyone being better. It’s about everyone having a unique perspective and being willing to feel into the space behind the writing.

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