July 18, 2013
Affirmation vs. Critique Groups: Speaking To the Whole - Dayna E. Mazzuca
When I started a Women’s Writing Circle through my church last year there was only one rule: affirm, affirm, affirm. I told the women who came, some closet writers and some published professionals, this was not a Critique Group — it was an Affirmation Group. As a result, they began to take more risks in their writing.
To be honest, it was an experiment! But, God is good! Here’s what I discovered: an Affirmation Group is about valuing the whole person, whereas a Critique Group focuses on the work at hand and taking it to the next level. An Affirmation Group tries to encourage the writer to go deeper within themselves, with others and with God; whereas a Critique Group is about collegial support and suggestions. An Affirmation Group goes deep. A Critique Group aims high.
In our Women’s Writing Circle we opened with a writer’s devotional. Then, using a prepared prompt on The Seasons of Life (Ecclesiastes 3), we wrote for 20 minutes—and read out loud what we had written, with the option of saying, “Pass.” Few chose to pass.
As each person read their work aloud, others said what they liked about the piece—and commented on the heartbeat behind the work. If it was funny, we affirmed the person’s humour. If sad, we affirmed the writer’s willingness to face sorrow. If personal, we affirmed the writer’s open heart. If it was a rant, we affirmed the writer’s keen eye.
In every reading, we tried to affirm the season of life the writer was expressing.
I said to these lovely women, who ranged in age from teens to grandmas, “Your words are your voice. They are what God is stirring up within you. They want to get out, to be known. You and your words are a blessing to us, and we see nothing that can be ‘improved upon,’ because this is not the time and place to ‘improve upon,’ but only to enjoy and appreciate.”
Basically, an Affirmation Group celebrates the moment, rather than aiming for the finish line.
A Critique Group, by contrast, has huge value for writers wanting to hone their craft; and who are confident in their profession. Constructive critique is absolutely necessary to take writing to the next level. I’ve been in lots of fabulous critique groups! A Critique Group allows confident writers to grow within a collegial setting.
The difference is simply how people are heard: each group offers its own kind of feedback.
In an Affirmation Group members say what they liked, and why. While Critique Group members do this as well, often the writer is simply waiting for them to get to the “meat of the matter,” which is usually the criticism, or suggestion of how to improve. So all that feedback about what the listeners liked can be glossed over within the meeting and in the mind and heart of the writer, while the writer prepares to receive with an attitude of gratitude a pointed criticism.
It’s not that criticism is bad or superfluous; it’s simply something writers tend to take with steeled nerves. Whereas in an Affirmation Group, everyone knows the feedback will ALL be good. So the writer relaxes, and leans in to the task of writing well, and sharing honestly. They feel safe. The writing comes from a wonderful place of being able to trust the group with the tender, unpolished bits of life that are so close to a writer’s heart. The flotsam and jetsam of life that might otherwise never see the light of day!
For new writers and published pros, this can be a refreshing change of pace—and a great place to build upon. After all, feeling affirmed in who we are as writers is the bread and butter of being able to enter into the next level of receiving constructive criticism. If we feel affirmed in our creative personhood, we will not become defensive when a colleague offers to improve our writing. In fact, we will embrace them and what they have to say—and we will mean it.
Each kind of group has something to add to a writer’s life—it is a part of the whole. Thankfully, there is a time and place for both.