Critique Groups: Guard Dogs, the Passive Voice and Grammar Girl

Written by Jayne Bowers

Seven years ago, I made one of the smartest and most beneficial decisions of my life. I joined the Camden Chapter critique group of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, known then as the South Carolina Writers Workshop. Until attending the Association’s annual conference in Myrtle Beach, I didn’t know such a network of critique groups existed, and learning there was a group in my hometown was almost worth the total cost of the conference.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll share how our group operates, some advantages of being part of such an assemblage, and things I’ve learned. But first, let’s go back to a balmy April evening in 2011 when I attended my first meeting.

Anxious and excited, I rang the doorbell and heard the barking of what sounded like a ferocious dog. Maybe joining a critique group wasn’t such a good idea after all, I thought. But then, Kathryn Lovatt opened the door with a welcoming smile and an enthusiastic, “Hi Jayne,” and I knew things were going to be fine.

That was seven years ago, and since then every meeting of the Camden Chapter critique group has been a good one. Even when I didn’t like what I heard about my writing, it was a good meeting. In fact, sometimes those are the best kinds of meetings, the kind when people teach you something, the kind when people tell you what isn’t working, when they catch the overuse of passive voice or notice that you used the same word four times on one page.

That first night, people asked what kind of writing I did. “Mostly nonfiction,” I blurted out. When someone asked if I’d ever been published, I wondered if that was a requirement for membership and responded that I’d published a textbook a couple of decades earlier. “Uh-huh,” someone mumbled. Twenty years ago? Eight sets of eyes seemed to be asking, “Is that it? Haven’t you done anything since then?”

“Oh, and I just had a story published in Guideposts,” I said, eager to seem like a bona fide and up-to-date writer. That evening I didn’t know anything about the other people in the group and assumed they were all professionals whose skills and experience were advanced far beyond mine. I soon learned that this group, like others, has a variety of writers. While it’s true that some have published novels, articles, and short stories, many have never published, some have self-published, and still others write with no intention of publication. They write because they must.

I told them the name of the article, “Is It I, Lord?”, and mentioned that someone on Facebook had asked if the pronoun should be me instead of I. Can you guess what someone in the critique group did? She looked it up, and a lively discussion of objective and nominative pronouns followed. That’s the evening I first became acquainted with Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada who’s written several informative, yet fun, books on writing. My favorite is Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Fogarty has a podcast by the same name that I subscribe to. The twenty or so minutes I spend listening and learning always leaves me enlightened and entertained. Always.

After Fogarty’s website assured us/me that the title’s pronoun was correct, the meeting proceeded with a couple of critiques and some chapter business. Never having been in a critique group before, I felt a bit overwhelmed that night, but since I was determined to be a better writer, I made a commitment to the group and have never looked back. If a person wants to improve, she soon recognizes the importance of listening, revising, editing, and putting newfound knowledge into practice.

One of the hundreds of things I’ve learned since becoming a member of the critique group is to be specific. Remember that ferocious-sounding dog I mentioned in the third paragraph? She was a Lhasa Apso, a dog originally bred in Tibet as a guard dog. Playful, perky, and affectionate, the little pooch was the cutest little yipper I’ve ever seen. Isabel was a devoted member of our group and spent many meetings with us fiercely guarding her owner.

Check in next week for more information about SCWA Critique Groups. Until then, try to get some writing done!

 

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