Writing is terrifically solitary. It’s so incredibly solitary that staring into space is a regular and essential exercise of any poet worth her salt. When you craft a poem, you craft it character by character, inch by inch, line by line: alone.
You take walks on sunny days and think gusty thoughts. You wrinkle your nose at those aforementioned lines. You switch out a single word eight times before returning to your original choice. You read it aloud. You read it to someone who loves you enough to endure your regular poetry readings. No one makes you do it, you do it because you love it.
If you want to get better at it, you’re going to have to put in the hours, you’re going to have to learn to revise. You’re going to have to learn to read like a writer. It’s almost like a land of gritty cowboys rustling up some nouns, chewing and spitting out verbs, shootin’ down vagaries.
You do all of these things and yet you find yourself in one of a couple places [check all that apply]:
- You’re getting more rejections than you can tolerate, many of them are “near misses.”
- You’re circling those same three poems but can’t bring yourself to submit (maybe you’re afraid of another “near miss.”
- You’re not producing the volume of quality poems that you’d like.
You need a critique partner/group. Preferably a group. Preferably a Fellowship with a Wizard, a Klingon, and Cthulhu. (If you’re a speculative poet, it would be super handy to have people who read and love the genre in that group. Especially if you plan to publish in any of the genre spaces.)
Here’s a few ways that critique groups help you grow.
1.) Increase your output by reducing revision time.
Revision means re-vision. It’s common knowledge that all writers need distance from their work in order to see it in new ways. We all use tricks to help force along the re-vision process. We change fonts, change reading locations, read it out loud, and these will do in a pinch but there is no replacement for time.
Oh, wait. Except a literal new set of writerly eyes on your poem. This is where critique groups can help in areas that beta readers cannot: we’re all writers. When a writer sets their eyes on your draft, they are giving you a fresh look without you having to bury your poem in peat for seven months.
2.) Critiquing others makes you write better drafts.
It’s said that nothing will make you a better writer than reading a slush pile. There’s a lot of questionable material in a slush pile, but there are also a lot of good starts that didn’t quite make it. When you critique other’s work, you have to find ways to help someone else’s poem across the finish line. That act of troubleshooting and diagnostics levels up the skill you bring to your own work.
3.) Critique partners teach you new ways to get inside your own work.
Sometimes, the most amazing things you learn are how another writer thinks about word choice or where to end. It’s why there are so many articles on the interwebs where one writer gives their advice on How Not To Write Crap. Those articles are great, but when it comes to improving this poem that’s in your hand right now, this poem that you may have only written a week ago and can’t quite see straight, they are at best anecdotal and theoretical. When you find a critique partner that speaks to a specific aspect of your poem, the insights are actual.
We’re talking about a lady who’s Actual Size.
4.) Critique groups prompt new and sudden revisions before you hit post.
You’re just about to send that poem to real writers who really love speculative poetry and can really help and you are really excited. You give a quick skim and…wait. What’s that? How many times did you write “really” in this poem.
How in THEE HECK did you miss that?
Wait. And do you need “just”?
Let’s try this again: You’re about to send that poem to real writers who love speculative poetry and can help you…
6.) Critique groups are calisthenics for your blind spot(s).
No one comes down as hard as you on your own poetry. Except that this isn’t quite true. We all have blind spots, we all have areas that we believe some editor or reader will just deal with once they see how brilliant we are. We all have poetic areas where our skirts have been caught up in our underwear and we are due to go on stage in thirty seconds.
While there is no such thing as a perfect poem, our blind spots are the places holding us back. Blind spots differ from re-visioning in that learning your blind spots happens over time, after several someones comment on a few of your works-in-progress and you notice a trend. The great thing about blind spots is that, once you become aware of them, you know exactly how to fix them.
7.) Critique groups can reduce self-rejection.
If you’ve ever been enrolled in a formal writing program, you may be familiar with the process of defending your work following a critique. Defending your work is not about telling your critique partner just where they can stick it and why you think they’re wrong, in fact, let’s just make this clear, the only correct reply to someone’s critique is “thank you.”
Defending your work is when you can explain to yourself why you feel that someone’s feedback—positive or negative—applies to your work-in-progress. It is one of the best processes there is for becoming an expert in that poem because it forces you to interact with your own work both closely and objectively.
Taking it home.
You write poems you’re excited about, you want to grow, you want to publish more, you’re willing to swallow that knot in your throat. Having a critique group hasn’t come together for you in the past or you’re not sure where to start looking.
Thanks to an initiative from poet and SFPA member, Brian Garrison, and with help from Joshua Gage and a few others, a critique group focused on speculative poetry is within your reach.
If you are an SFPA member and would like to grow in your craft and publish your best poetry, there is now a way to share your work with a carefully matched set of critique partners. Members can fill out a Magic Sorting Algorithm answering questions about their participation frequency, style, preferred group size and meeting style (Zoom, email only, blended.) They’ll be paired with other poets based on those responses and crafty sorting fingers.
If you’re not a member, but would like to access to a group custom fit for your needs, it costs as little as $15 a year to join the SFPA and this option opens up to you, too along with a subscription to Star*Line, the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Anthologies.
Either way, both you and your unique voice are wanted. We’re all in this together. We all grow together.
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The SFPA is a global poetry organization supported and sustained by its members. It is celebrating its 42nd anniversary. Becoming a member of the SFPA not only helps us continue to connect speculative poetry to the world, but is also comes with some pretty cool benefits.
Joining is easy! Visit: http://sfpoetry.com/join.html