Critique Groups are Empowering


You work alone developing something that has never before existed in the world. You see it from a unique perspective, but what about the rest of the world? Is this newly created entity ready for exposure? Is it balanced and complete? Does it say what you think it says?

What you need is a good critique group of peers experienced in the genre you are working in. They should be people who understand how to be encouraging as well as clairvoyant about what needs improving. We all need to be challenged to reach for the next highest level of what we do. A good critique empowers as well as offering suggestions for change.

In the past year I’ve joined two groups: one for sculptors and one for children’s book writers and illustrators. Both have been useful in ways above and beyond what I expected.

The sculptor’s group consists of four women working in various media from steel and bronze to fabrics and mixed media. All of us do some installation art as well as fabricating 3D objects. We’ve exchanged studio visits and gallery shows and given useful feedback to one another. In addition, I collaborated with Carolyn Wirth, who started the group, on a sculpture commission. Carolyn also curated a show at the Somerville Museum, which she, I and Karen Menino, another critique group member, all have pieces in. Mine is titled “Sustainability” and is pictured above. “Small Obsession: Artists’ Dollhouses and Other Obsessively Small Works of Art” runs from May 21-June 25, 2011, with an opening reception on Sunday May 22 from 4-6:00 pm at the Somerville Museum in Somerville, MA. Another photo. This sculpture was originally made for Ourchitecture, an exhibit at the Newport Art Museum in Providence,RI, which was the brainchild of and curated by Elizabeth Keithline.

The other is a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators sponsored group in Andover with a dozen or so members, working on books for different age groups. We talk about story samples from four members each month. Excerpts from my historical fiction YA novel “What Else is There?” have been submitted for review twice since I joined. It is amazing to have input from several people at once, all of whom point out what they think works well about the story, along with the editing suggestions. It is incredibly useful. Here’s one example. This Wednesday, A.J. Jerrett asked about a detail – a  sea turtle my main character sees. He thought they were exclusively tropical. OMG. We do have them off the coast here in New England, but I hadn’t thought to look up their range. Sure enough, they go no further north than the temperate range, so, Gudrid could not have seen one. It is true that the climate was much warmer in Greenland at the time the story was set, but I don’t want this detail to stop the reader. It’s not worth it. So, that’s points for A.J.  Another benefit to being part of the group: our fearless leader, Marianne Knowles, applied for an SCBW&I grant to have Cheryl Klein, a Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, come to give us feedback and insights. That opened the door for a conversation that lead to my submitting the beginning of my YA to her. We’ll see how that works out. Also, when I attend the SCBW&I NE Regional conference this weekend (starting tomorrow) in Fitchburg, I will see some of my critique group people there.

Getting useful input on your art or writing can be a challenge. Friends and family members are not only biased, they are also familiar with the development and context of the work in question, making it difficult to be objective. Their willingness to look at your work is reassuring and reinforcing, however they may not know enough about your genre to offer the kind of in-depth feedback you want most. We need to be asked hard questions while the work is being developed. Facing those issues can be truly empowering.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 8, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Hi Joyce
    I got to this site from your email link. This post is very useful to me!
    Thanks.
    Diana Zipeto

    • JAZ
      Posted August 8, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Hi Diana. Thanks for stopping in. I checked out your website and see that you graduated from Mass. Art. I started there, but in the end, got mine from the SMFA. Since you like colored pencil, I wondered whether you have tried watercolor pencils (Caran D’Ache), where you can wet them to spread the color. It’s fun to try new media sometimes.
      Where is you graphic design business based?
      JAZarins

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