Kirstyn McDermott hosts Words Out Loud at the Printers Room monthly, teaches at Federation University, has been writing for upwards of 15 years and attends a Melbourne critique group meeting once a month. She’s a regular presence at our members’ nights, and was kind enough to share her experience and expertise this May.

She opened by saying that writers are not sole geniuses and they do not work alone. She shared a quote from Terry Tempest Williams — “I write in a solitude born out of community.”

Then she discussed the advantages of finding a good critique group. The most obvious one is that you get to improve your work, but it definitely doesn’t end there. A critique group allows you to see how other people work and reflect on different writing processes. It gives you access to perspectives from an audience with different tastes and backgrounds to you. Editing other works improves your own awareness of your writing and your skills, as does thinking about other people’s craft. It develops your communication skills, specifically in regards to writing and literature. Seeing unpolished works can also boost your confidence: sometimes it’s easy to forget that every masterpiece has a first draft.

Kirstyn recommends that when you’re starting a critique group, you should create a workshop contract or memorandum of understanding. It’s important to begin on the same page, and while it doesn’t need to be formal, she has some helpful starting points to consider.

Everyone should agree to read every piece carefully and thoroughly, all the way through. They should be generous readers and take the work as it stands, without bias against genre or style. They should acknowledge their biases as readers. All feedback must be respectful and constructive. Above all, they should value the work.

One approach that has worked for Kirstyn is the agency or agent’s approach, in which all members read as if they are agents who have decided to represent the work they’re looking at. They read and critique to elevate the work, not dismiss it, starting with what’s working. This ensures that the author is receptive to feedback. They ask, “Where does the manuscript sit in the market?” It’s important to remember that no one is in competition, even if multiple members are writing for the same genre or audience. When giving feedback, members should prepare it carefully, as if presenting it professionally.

Kirstyn handed around a workshop template, which is available on the Ballarat Writers website. It’s a good starting point to guide discussion and get people thinking about the different elements of stories.

Regarding discussion, Kirstyn had some helpful guidelines. You should always discuss the writing, not the writer. Talk about things you noticed, rather than value labeling them with ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. Give both praise and construction. Avoid phrases like “it was just bad” or “it was just good”. Be gentle. Help tease out the perceptions of other members. Don’t insert yourself or your experiences unless they’re very relevant (e.g. “I’m a nurse, and you’d be dead if you did that.”).

Kirstyn closed by saying, “We cannot, as writers, see our work clearly.” Her clear and thoughtful presentation generated a fantastic discussion through the whole room. Thank you so much for presenting to us, Kirstyn!

Laura Wilson is the talented human being who wrote up Kirstyn’s presentation for us.