A Useful Critique
Group Guidelines and Critique Criteria Options
By Sharyl Heber
We eat, sleep and breathe our own stories. We dream about them, they live in our minds with vivid clarity. We feel the emotions, see the imagery, and sense the tension. We laugh and cry in all the right places. In our minds, our own stories are perfect.
How could anyone else not get it??!!
Even the greatest of writers need a reality check from a reader who comes to the work fresh, with no previous exposure. Even the six-figure, New-York-Times-Best-Selling authors have editors.
Critique groups can offer some of this feedback, and generally, free of charge. While they may not be professional literary editors, group members can provide a first level review and give invaluable feedback on points of confusion, and a multitude of things that may or may not work in the writing.
The best outcomes emerge when members feel completely free to give their honest reactions, and writers feel completely free to flush the feedback down the toilet if it doesn’t work for them.
The below guideline recommendations may sound strict but groups have gone awry without vigilance and it’s not a pretty thing. At its best, folks adore their critique group members and wonder how they could survive their writing journeys without them!
Critique Group Guidelines:
Agree on Guidelines:
Agree on these below, or some other set of group guidelines so that all members have the same understanding of the expectations and follow the same etiquette during the process.
Agree on Logistics:
Agree on optimal meetings times, frequency, and location. Agree on a process format, e.g., will you exchange chapters electronically only, for a line-item edit? Will you meet face-to-face and read to each other aloud – for an oral critique? Will you bring paper copies for each member? Will you dine together first or share snacks? What is a reasonable amount of time to devote? It may be helpful to agree up front on a page limit. It can be very frustrating when a member consistently sucks up time and attention with more than their share of pages. These decisions should work for the majority of members.
Groups, especially new groups, may benefit from a facilitator to keep the process on track. Avoid the concept of ‘Leadership’ if possible. Remember to leave your egos at the door. Generally, critique groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal footing and comparable expertise. The best functioning groups may be those who have grown to trust each other and who can proceed on task, without need of a facilitator. Even if there is a member with more experience, as long as sound group process and etiquette are followed, a facilitator may not be required. If the facilitator concept is one that is necessary or works well, it is best that all group members agree on the assigned facilitator to minimize tension or conflict.
If you don’t want public comment on a piece of work, do not bring it to critique group:
The critique process assumes the work will be read by others and will need to be as powerful and clear as possible. Some writing we do only for ourselves and we don’t care what others think; diaries, journaling, deep personal work, etc. If you don’t want honest comment, do not bring it to group.
Do not bring the work to critique expecting only praise:
The group is not assembling for the purpose of telling you how magnificent you are. Be open to all feedback, positive and negative. If the feedback is consistently of no value to you, consider joining another group, perhaps more genre-specific or with more experienced writers. You are here to learn what works and what doesn’t work from differing perspectives. A viewpoint other than yours can be a gift. A room full of differing perspectives can be a windfall. You’ve no obligation to incorporate them. Just listen and say thank you.
Provide your feedback in constructive terms:
Offer comments that explain your perceptions. Comments like ‘this sucks’ or ‘this is great’ are not particularly helpful. Say specifically, what does work, what does not work, and why. Try to comment on both the positives and the negatives. The goal is to improve the work and help members learn to increase theirs skills.
Respect for differing opinions is mandatory:
Critique group is no place for insults or disrespect. Be vigilant about behaving in a respectful manner even if you abhor the work, despise the author, or are offended by the feedback. Be considerate and professional at all times. Don’t confuse respect with traditional ‘politeness.’ In Critique Group Etiquette, giving positive feedback just to be ‘polite,’ does not serve the work or the author. Be genuine with sensitivity.
If you disagree, do not argue:
Avoid the temptation to defend or explain your work. Unless that conversation can take place with a concise goal toward helping to better the product, best to leave it alone. Critique process can easily get derailed by explaining and defending, which can lead to arguing. There is no mandate to agree with, or use, the feedback. Simply say, “I got it, thank you.”
Do not insist that others adopt your style, morals, or values:
Avoid the temptation to impose your writing style, morals or values onto others. The goal of the critique is to help the author be the best that he/she can be using their own unique style, drawing from their own very personal ethics and life experience.
Group members have the right to opt out of a critique:
Any member has the right opt out of a particular critique with no explanations required. If you are critiquing a piece on a subject that is too controversial, inflammatory or difficult for you, you may simply say, “I prefer not to offer comment on this piece.” NO QUESTIONS ASKED.
Do unto others… reciprocate the work:
a. Avoid the cavalier brush off-
While members aren’t ‘forced’ to comment, do avoid the attitude, “Oh, that’s not my genre.”
Even if you don’t usually read YA vampires, use your general expertise to find the fundamental story elements to comment upon. Is it clear, well paced, adequate tension, character development etc. Others will work hard to comment on your piece. Repay the favor with good-faith attention to their details and to basic principles of writing.
b. Bring your best work possible-
Unless otherwise agreed upon by group members, bring the work in the best shape possible. Avoid placing undue burden on your members to correct obvious problems. We all climb the hills of our own learning curves - mistakes and genuine limitations of skill are acceptable; sloppy and lazy are not. This includes incorporating lessons learned from previous sessions. It is exasperating listening to yet another chapter where Suzy mixes her present and past tenses when she herself has agreed that it doesn’t work, but can’t be bothered to fix them. Avoid, ‘Oh, my critique group will find those for me.’ Do the work required.
If there are irreconcilable differences or factions in the group that make the experience untenable or detract from the group’s ability to provide helpful feedback, it may be advisable to split into separate groups to maximize harmony and effectiveness.
Leave your egos at the door:
You are not present to show how brilliant you are or how stupid others are. It is not about you. It is all about the work, and making it the best it can be, for ALL members. It is also about supporting ALL members to enhance their skills. You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others. No need to ‘defend’ your work. If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group.
Critique Group Etiquette Reminder
Most of us are not rude or inconsiderate in our social interactions, Critique Group Etiquette is much like the manners and consideration we would afford in any other social relationship. It is so very important to honor those standards.
· Honor your attendance agreements:
Your host and your members have essentially, blocked out at least an entire ½ day to the meeting. They can’t meet any of their own obligations because they have committed to this group. If you are cavalier in your attendance it affects the lives of all members. Everyone has cleared their calendars and your host has likely cleaned house and prepared snacks and drinks. If you cannot attend, call the host as far in advance as possible. If the meeting has to be cancelled due to non-attendance, with enough notice, perhaps the host has a chance to plan a normal day.
· Be on time to the meeting:
Your members rely on your feedback. If you are late to the meeting, you deprive the reader of important input to their work. They may not get a 2nd chance for that input. And, if you are late, you interrupt a meeting already in progress. You get the benefit of all others critiquing your work, but you did not repay the favor.
If you telephone during the meeting to say you are not attending, it interrupts a meeting already in progress.
· Submit your work in a timely fashion:
If you send your work in electronically ahead of time, and are late in doing so, it forces other members to scramble to review your writing before the meeting.
· Honor you page limit agreements:
Page limits are generally a good idea if you need to guarantee time for each of your group members. It’s beyond annoying for someone to read through multiple chapters when you’ve agreed to a shorter limit. And, extremely awkward to interrupt them and say… enough please.
WHAT MAKES A HELPFUL CRITIQUE?
· ANY thoughts or impressions you have as you review the material could be valuable to the author!
· Try not to second-guess your instincts and first impressions. Say what comes to mind.
If you’re new to the critique process and are unsure what to comment upon, here is a small list of criteria you might use to assess for quality:
- Any points of confusion, rephrasing if needed to clarify a section
- More description if needed to visualize the scene, or perhaps less description
- More human interaction if needed
- Tension may be sagging or too prolonged (many misdiagnosed story problems are really sagging tension problems)
- More or less action may be needed
- Pacing Problems: The story may drag or race too quickly at particular points
- You may feel bored overall, or at certain points
- Character problems: You may not care about a character or their situation. You may not feel a character’s personality, motivation may be lacking for their actions, characters may not have goal/mission/purpose in the story, they may not be learning or changing. Characters may not be distinguishable from each other
- Things may seem implausible, e.g., this would never happen in this unique story world, or a character, as developed, would never do such a thing
- Plotting problems: Events of the story may not flow logically, they may not be compelling enough
- Say what emotions you feel as you read. The author may not have intended to evoke those emotions
- The author may ‘describe’ the emotions of the character but you, as the reader, can’t feel them
- Dialogue problems: Stilted, too obvious or ‘on-the-nose’, not fresh or unique enough, all characters sound the same, distracting use of dialect, slang, or cursing
- The command of the language / skill or quality of the writing or phrasing, etc. is poor
- Ineffective word choices or repeated words
- Spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors
- Unintended changes or inconsistencies in Point of View or in past/present tense
Also mention things that you love about the piece or that seem to work very well.
- Portions that are phrased beautifully
- Characters you love to love, or love to hate
- Sections that held your attention or had you spell bound
Add your own criteria for comment as you read through the piece.
Say what works for you and what does not.