Writing habits differ and writers define success in a variety of ways. But a universal truth is that distractions online, at home, or at the office are abundant. They can easily sneak into your everyday routines.
As writers, how do we go deep and get work done? It’s so easy to get lost online and realize an hour has passed since you stopped to research a fact for your book. Authors like Dan Brown have set hours in the morning for work and they make sure apps are not open during that time. It is focused writing time. Other authors prefer more flexibility, but be careful.
If you need to research a name or a story detail, will it send you down many interesting rabbit holes online? If that’s the case, you need to set a time for that kind of exploration and just leave a blank in your story or document until you can get to your research.
Since covid, many more writers work from home. That comes with so many distractions. I need some water, maybe a snack. I should use the bathroom. I can throw those things into the washer and get that done while I’m working… It’s as bad as the internet.
Writing classes, workshops, and writing groups can also be distractions. Joining writer groups in person or online can be helpful in making connections, but at some point, you need to decide which groups serve you. Does the group allow you to contribute and grow as a professional? Is the group just taking up your limited writing time? The same can be said of classes, and even writing opportunities for anthologies, magazines, and blogs.
Contests, magazine submission calls, and deadlines for anthologies can serve as opportunities, but also as distractions. The first question is why are you writing for this deadline. It’s good to be published and it can add to your credibility, but make sure what you’re writing furthers your career and moves you forward in your genre. Chasing contests can keep you from finishing your novel.
In the end, what’s important is learning your craft and knowing/finding your audience.
The four best things you can do for your writing career?
Read recent works in your genre
Pamela Evans is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.
After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.
That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.
We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.
At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.
Changes over Time
Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.
Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.
A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.
Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution
I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.
Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.
The US Constitution is written down.
So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).
In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.
Amendments Take Time
Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.
We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.
This guest post is courtesy of Belinda Miller, children’s book author.
No one, except a fellow writer, understands the laments or the excitement a writer experiences when you are writing. There is a commonality, a bind, a coming together of an art form that is almost spiritual.
After a twenty year plus career is the finance industry, and a medically forced retirement in 1998, I found myself, in 2013, at age 63, writing and publishing the Middle Grade series Phillip’s Quest and Children’s series The Ragwort Chronicles. At first, I was a little freaked out. Like any fledgling author, I wondered, besides whether I was good enough, what the heck do I do now? I had written technical manuals, which were always for “in-house” use, but these books were going to be published — I hoped. Well, it is now 2015, and my fifth book is ready to be released. Amazing — huh? Surreal to me. It took hours and hours of work, and hours and hours of help, and hours and hours of my husband’s patience. One thing that helped me immensely, was a local writing group whose members shared and compared their skills and experiences. A handful of us formed a strong, like-minded bond, some with more and some with less experience, but all with the same goal — to perfect their art. To learn and share things like technique, websites, books and contacts that are not found in a text or course on writing. And, as one becomes more confident and successful with their writing, through the group, one has the opportunity to expand and market oneself — brand oneself as an author. As I was able to do.
With much sadness I resigned in August from this local writing group that I had helped to gain a strong community presence. This handful of hard-working and now successful writers took part in various library and arts’ council events; held signings on First Fridays [in Manassas, VA]; donated books to First Book and various veterans’ organizations; conducted workshops for young writers, and most recently, joined with Manassas City officials and the Public Library Foundation to build and dedicate little free libraries throughout the City and [Prince William] County. We did it through persistence and perseverance. It was a tough decision to leave because of these three reasons: 1) I loved the people that were at the core of the group, 2) I learned a tremendous amount from these people, things that would take months or years, if I would have had to learn on my own, 3) the camaraderie of like-minds is invaluable.
I resigned because like many groups that are formed, they explode in size — this one started in 2011 with four people, and last week, it boasted some 250+ members. How did that happen, you ask — the explosion? It happens easily when there are no clear-cut guidelines for allowing people join. People were welcome from all over, (instead of a geographic area for which the group was designated), and who knew who they were or if they’ve ever written more than a sentence. So: know your members.
But most of all, as it grew the mission became blurred. Yes, there are bylaws, but they were not enforced. If you’re joining a group, and you can’t get answers about mission or financials, don’t join. If there are no scheduled meetings, or meetings that are put off, and off, and off — don’t join.
I will miss the group as it was. The beauty of a well-run, organized, cohesive group of like minds, is that you share ideas and experiences that you cannot share with anyone who does not write! It doesn’t matter whether it is prose or poetry, or what the genre is, there is a commonality, a bind, a coming together of an art form that is almost spiritual. No one, except a fellow writer, understands the laments or the excitement a writer experiences when you are writing — a poem, a short-story, a novella, a novel! No one understands the angst you go through to have your story published. No one, except another writer! Will I join another group? Already have. Many are the same people who were part of the group before, but this time, we are more knowledgable, older, and much, much wiser.
Belinda Miller is a former language arts teacher who applies her love of literature and the arts when writing Middle Grade series Phillip’s Quest and Children’s series The Ragwort Chronicles. After living in Colorado and Wyoming, this ex- New Yorker makes her home in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, Gary, and her cats, Sambucca and Skye.
“Who would like to show their process on the board?”
This is a question I ask many times a week. I teach Algebra and Precalculus at Renaissance School. I love it.
One of the challenges I have teaching at a school like Renaissance, which is for high aptitude students in Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, is that some of my students have almost a spooky natural facility with math – but many of the artists, actors, humanitarians, photographers, and musicians have developed something close to a phobia of it by the time they’ve gotten to high school. Since math is a required subject for graduation no matter the track of their studies, one way or another, we’ve got to make it to the end of the year.
My main goal is for every student to finish the class with confidence. They don’t need to be a wiz; I just want them to be able to tell themselves, “I can do this.”
So I focus on process, not outcomes. Getting the right answer the fastest doesn’t accrue any brownie points in my class. Instead, I encourage students to come up to the board and show their thought process. Like I often say, “There’s more than one path from here to the MudHouse.” And I often add, while they’re nervously approaching the board for the first time, “We’re all on the same team. We’ve got your back. Let’s get through this problem together.”
So, it was a HUGE thrill about two months into the school year when one of my most math-phobic students said, “Ms. Carlson, can I show my process on the board for problem 37? I’m getting stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” Yes. Yes you can.
Now that the school year is coming to a close, I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. The students work together in groups. The quick ones race ahead, learn the new formulas, and teach them to their peers. Everyone is going to be wrapping up the year with confidence. With a process for solving problems.
Which, finally, brings me back to what teaching math has taught me about writing. I’m not sure I appreciated it fully in the beginning, but one of the things that has made BACCA a great writing group for the last four years is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. We’re not competing with one another; we have different skills and aptitudes; we work together to give candid feedback and solve problems. We, too, focus on process, not outcomes. Naturally, we all harbor dreams of seeing this or that work published. But our esteem in the eyes of each other is based in the work we do in the small ways each month, not the grand finale.
Writing may be a solitary exercise, but improving as a writer is a team effort. Just like math.
Yes, we’re presenting again in 2015, and on PubDay – the best day of the entire festival. Uh-huh. (We’re a bit biased.)
Come spend Saturday morning with us in the James Monroe Room at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. We start at 10am on Saturday, 21 March 2015. As I write this, there’s snow on the ground, but odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a charming spring day when you visit with us at the Virginia Festival of the Book.
What will we be doing this year?
Glad you asked. We’re coming to talk about writer groups – how to be in one, and how to find or create one.
When we did our session last time, we chatted with the Festival guests before and after our remarks about writer groups. It was a lot of fun, and good ideas came up. But there was something missing: More interaction with the Festival guests.
So, this time, we’re creating opportunities for Festival guests to meet one another and chat briefly, right in the middle of our session. Visitors to our session may possibly meet the future members of their new writer groups. And everyone will definitely have opportunities to learn more about writer groups, and what they can do to hone writerly and analytical skills. And cat-herding skills. Okay, maybe not that last one.
Where is The James Monroe Room at the Omni?
It’s easy to get to. From the hotel’s central atrium, turn toward the ballrooms. Catty-corner to the last ballroom entrance is our room, The James Monroe.
Shy, Introverted, Both?
Arrgh. So are some of us.
I know, I know. A Festival session with “activities.” The blurb for our session actually includes these words: “BACCA will guide Festival-goers in a fun and educational, hands-on mixer that will break the ice and start the process of building a writing community.”
It’s enough to make you run for the hills, isn’t it? Reconsider, please. Get an extroverted writerly friend to join you, and come join us. We’re gentle, promise. You might enjoy yourself. We look friendly, right?
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors get their books completed, polished, and out into the world.
The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur‘ and I sat down this spring. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show!
In this, this second part of the interview, Elizabeth shows how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and looks at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to her progress. In the first half of our interview, we learned how these critique partners began working together, discussed how they exchange work, and discovered the title of Elizabeth’s very first novel (written at age seven).
AMC You write under a pseudonym. How has that affected your relationships with the other writers in your group? Have you met face to face? Do you know one another’s real names? Do you think this has an effect on your sense of security in the group? Did you all agree to protect the confidentiality of the group – “What happens in Vegas…” sort of deal?
ESF I know two of them by their real names. And, a third by her pseudonym only. After about six months, I told them my real name. But, basically we call each other by our pseudonyms just to ensure the anonymity “sticks.”
These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with them.
In the beginning, we talked a lot about security and privacy. So, it’s been pretty well-drilled that we would never “out” anyone in this group to anyone outside the group. I feel very secure in this group. In fact, they probably understand where I’m coming from regarding anonymity more than my “real life” friends. These writers know what’s at stake, and have to deal with it in their own lives. So I feel 100% safe with these fellow writers.
I’ll meet two of the cps [critique partners] for the first time face-to-face this summer at a romance writer’s conference. I can hardly wait, as I am quite invested in their work and success, and count them as friends.
AMC What are the ground rules? Do you have guidelines about how to critique, how you structure your comments, how critical to be, etc.? Or have you collectively found your way with these matters? Do you write up formal critiques, or is it more conversational?
ESF We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better? As I mentioned, we’re self-policed. Generally, we ask each other where we want input – developmentally, line-edits, just another set of eyes, etc. Each person has a unique perspective. For instance, one of our members is a professional editor and published author of sci-fi/fantasy erotic romance. Another writes regency erotic romance as well as contemporary erotica. All three of them are actually published (or it’s imminent). So, I count myself lucky to be working with them.
We have no ground rules, except perhaps this: What will make the work better?
AMC Is someone the leader, or is it more collaborative? Do you change leadership/administrative roles from time to time?
ESF There’s no leader, per se. It’s collaborative, where each person contributes where they can. Each one of us has unique contributions to make, not just in the writing craft and critiquing, but in publishing, marketing, social media and all the other things that go along with trying to write books that someone will actually buy. We share the “knowledge wealth” whenever we can.
AMC Does the group want or have a public identity, collectively?
ESF Other than calling us the “writerly posse” there’s no name or identity.
We’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other.
AMC Has anyone ever missed a meeting? Not submitted work when it was due? How does that work?
ESF Since we don’t have meetings, no one’s missed any. LOL Again, we’re completely informal. It doesn’t work like a normal writer’s group, but rather more like four people who thank the stars we found each other. Given what we write (steamy romance), it’s important for writers who see our work, first, not blush from head to toe and, second, understand what we’re trying to do. Not everyone “appreciates” our genre.
AMC If you could change anything about your writer group as it is now, what would you change?
ESF If there is anything I could change about my writing life – or this group — is that I’d be engaged full-time. I hope to get there next year. But, in the meantime, I wish I had more time – time to write, time to critique, time to just chat with these authors more.
I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller!
AMC Has being in the writer group affected your writing life? Have things happened with your writing career that might not have, otherwise?
ESF After reading a new opening chapter of one of my books, one of my cps ended her email critique with this line: Now finish the book! There is a strong emphasis in our group to complete the novel. That’s one of the greatest gifts this writing group has given me. I’d still be futzing with the first 50 pages of Lovely – three years later – if this little band of writers hadn’t told me to STOP FUTZING!
AMC What are the next steps for you in your writing career?
ESF Later this year I have a short story coming out in a Christmas anthology through Troll River Publications. My first novel, Lovely, is being reviewed by a publisher. Then I have four more books started and plotted in the series. If everything goes as planned, Lovely will be out in January 2015, with the other four novels published thereafter, spaced six weeks apart. After that? Well, I have an idea for a dystopian “vanilla” romance. There is no shortage of ideas! Just time…
AMC Anything else before we close?
ESF Thank you for the interview. It was fun to share the immense contributions my writers posse has made to me and my writing. I only hope I’ve adequately returned the favor to them.
Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!
The erotic romance writer ‘Elizabeth SaFleur’ and I sat down recently. Although we have been acquainted for years, we discovered something new in common – we each are active in a writer group. Elizabeth agreed to answer my questions, which I emailed to her, about how the “cp’s” (critique partners) in her writer’s posse operate. The group differs in many ways from what I’m used to as a writer in BACCA. And yet, both Elizabeth and I benefit greatly from our groups. Just goes to show! In the first half of our interview, Elizabeth tells us how these critique partners began working together, explains how they exchange work, and reveals the title of her very first novel (written at age seven). The second part of the interview discusses how crucial the message ‘stop futzing’ can be, explains what to do when all the members of your group use pseudonyms, and takes a look at the valuable contributions the other writers have made to Elizabeth’s progress.
AMC First of all, thanks a lot for doing this, Elizabeth. It’s so interesting to compare notes about how various writer groups do what they do.
ESF It is my pleasure!
AMC What do you write? How long have you been doing it, and how did you begin?
ESF I write contemporary erotic romance with a very high heat level. Many of my stories include BDSM elements (emphasis on D/s over S/M) that feature alpha heroes and sassy heroines. For years, my characters “talked” to me, asking me to write their stories. After a while they got hard to ignore (especially the Doms. ;-)). When my professional life reached a “satisfaction plateau” (read: I got bored), I started to write down conversations and scenes that came to me. Next thing I knew, I was writing a novel. Now I have a whole series mapped out – The Elite Doms of Washington.
AMC How did you meet your writer group members?
ESF My first critique partner (cp) was found through the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which has a fantastic, free online writer’s forum. Writers post stories, and other writers will critique them. I had a few flashers (under 200 word) stories published in their gallery. After about six months of posting work and critiquing the work of others, a writer posted she sought someone to critique her novels off-line. Since she writes very similar stories to me, we teamed up. Then, she introduced me to other writers in our genre. Voila! A writer’s posse was born.
AMC How many of you are in the group? Has the membership stayed the same, or do people come and go? How long have you been together? Does every member send out work for each meeting, or do you rotate on a schedule?
ESF There are four of us in this “writer’s posse,” which is the only name I’ve ever heard us call our little band of authors. No one has left yet. But, there’s no formal agreement, either. We just help each other out. And honestly I can’t imagine writing without these folks. We’ve been together for about a year. We have no formal schedule, but rather just share work when it’s ready to be critiqued. But, we also know what each person is working on and “nudge” each other when we start falling behind our self-imposed deadlines. We share everything from snippets to whole chapters, from rewrites to the entire novel at once.
AMC How frequently do you send new material around for critique? Do you limit the word count for material?
ESF There’s no limit, though each one of us primarily works on about 80K to 100K word novels. An occasional short story is thrown in now and again. I’d say about every other week I’m sent something to read and crit, and they have something of mine. It really keeps things moving!
Our contributions are self-policed. Each person is responsible for ensuring their own writing time isn’t supplanted by critiquing others’ work. But, when we need help, we ask for it. We’re all pretty honest about what we can do. Sometimes, we even help protect the others’ writing time. For instance, one of my cps is on deadline. So, I won’t ask her to do anything new for me right now. Instead, I keep telling her to send me her writing as soon as she can so I can help! When we need time to work on our own material, everyone honors it. So far, it’s been quite balanced.
AMC Do you meet in real time: on the phone/Skype, or messaging, or online meeting? Or are your interactions time-shifted, using email or other means?
ESF We do a lot over email, sending documents back and forth. But, we also have phone chats through conference bridges or Google hangout. When one of us suggests numerous edits or developmental shifts, it’s just easier to talk it out. We also help each other brainstorm when we hit plot roadblocks or feel like we’re losing our “writerly mojo.” I’ve often been talked “off the ledge” by these wonderful cps.
AMC When you and I first met, years ago, we were both focused on writing songs – lyrics and music. How have you come to write novels?
ESF I have wanted to be a fiction writer my whole life. I wrote my first novel when I was seven: The Mystery of the Bunny. Oh, yeah, a real bestseller! But, my well-meaning parents and friends told me I should find a “real job.” Back then I was very good at doing what I was told; I had a very successful 30 year public relations career. But as my business grew more successful, I grew less satisfied. So, after turning 50, I decided to go back to my first love – writing.
Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too.
The songwriting was fun. I also tried my hand at screenwriting about ten years ago. But, in the end, my stories demanded to be “born” via full-length novel. Once I started writing in that format, I couldn’t stop. That’s a pretty big clue in my book (no pun intended).
AMC Have you developed friendships with members of your group, or is it important to you to maintain a separation from the rest of your life?
ESF I count them as friends. But, we also honor the privacy of each other’s private life. We don’t go into great detail, but we do talk about our pets, our weekend plans and other little things that crop up. I don’t hide things from them, but I also don’t want to burden them with a lot of personal stuff. Our books’ characters’ lives keep us quite busy in that way!
AMC How has being in your writer group changed your writing? Your attitude about writing? Your identity as a writer and your plans for the future as a writer? For me, being in a writer group – and having a writing deadline to meet – helped me make the time to keep writing, even when the rest of life got hectic. Have you noticed that happening for you?
I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them.
ESF I’d say this group has changed my writing tremendously in two ways. First, my writing is better. Without them, I wouldn’t have grown the way I have. You can listen to podcasts, take online courses, reach craft books and more to help your writing. In the end, the only way to get better at writing it by doing it a lot – and having it critiqued in such a way that shows you what you can do better the next time. That’s what these other authors have done for me.
Secondly, I don’t think I could have finished my first novel, Lovely, without them. I might have given up. I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t see it. They could see plot holes, character shifts and other things that can sink a novel. Their generosity in sharing their time and talents helped me not only write better, but finish.
AMC Do you have any recommendations for other writers out there?
ESF I do have a few other people outside this group who have reviewed my work. I’d tell other authors to do the same. Find your own writers group or writer’s posse. But, don’t be afraid to share your work outside it, too. For instance, a gentleman in the UK read one of my earliest drafts of Lovely. It was great to get a man’s perspective – and from someone completely outside my usual set of crit partners.
Feel free to drop me a line anytime, too. I can be reached through my site or on Twitter @ElizaLoveStory. Happy writing and reading everyone!
“May 25, 2019. Bethany Carlson has won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.”
So begins an exercise I did on 2/8/14 at this year’s BACCA writing retreat: write a press release, five years in the future, about achieving a major writing dream.
I don’t have an agent. I have only taken two screenwriting classes, one at WriterHouse, one at UVa. But not for credit. I didn’t even need to apply to get in. Just write the tuition check. I’m not famous, I don’t live in LA, I don’t have connections. So go right ahead and laugh.
This is the thing about having a great writing group: it’s a fortress. It’s not just me against the world. I know BACCA has my back. My writing group is a safe space to dream big.
The follow-up exercise was to list practical steps towards achieving that dream. I scribbled down: “Write three feature-length screenplays. The first two will probably suck but the third one might be pretty good.”
Who knows if that Palme d’Or press release will ever get written; it’s almost totally outside of my control. Except for the part about writing. I definitely can’t win if I don’t write. And one thing that has actually happened in the last two months: after years toiling on YA novels and short stories, I finally finished a draft of my first feature-length screenplay. And I’ve submitted it to BACCA for critique.
I’ll get honest feedback to make screenplay numero uno better. And the encouragement – and accountability – to move on to screenplay number two. And then #3. And they do say the third time’s the charm.
This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.
I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”
I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.
In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:
When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!
It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:
Critiques are part of the learning process.
Critiques are not personal.
The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.
Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:
My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.
Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:
In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:
“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).
Overheard during a discussion:
“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).
In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:
“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”
Now three final questions:
Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.
Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.
I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.