Critique Group Guidelines & Criteria
Critique Group Guidelines and Critique Criteria Options
We eat, sleep and breathe our 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 stories are perfect.
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. At its best, people adore their critique group members and wonder how they could survive their writing journeys without them!
The best way to be published is to be critiqued, but we don't have to be published to join a critique group. Our objectives are to encourage writers of all skill levels.
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 takes 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. Speaking 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 a task, without the need of a facilitator
Even if there is a member with more experience, as long as sound group process and etiquette is 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, deeply personal work, etc. If you don’t want an honest comment, do not bring it to the group.
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.
A critique group is no place for insults or disrespect. Be vigilant about behaving in a respectful manner even if you abhor the work, dislike 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.
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 their skills.
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 quickly 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 try 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 unique style, drawing from their personal ethics and life experience.
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 just say, “I prefer not to offer comment on this piece.”
Unless otherwise agreed upon by group members, bring the work in the best shape possible. Avoid placing an undue burden on your members to correct obvious problems. We all climb the hills of our learning curves - mistakes, and genuine limitations of skill are acceptable. 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 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.
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 on 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.
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 crucial to team harmony to honor those standards.
Your host and your members have mostly, blocked out, at least, an entire ½ day to the meeting. They can’t meet any of their 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.
Your members rely on your feedback. If you are late to the meeting, you deprive the reader of significant input to their work. They may not get a 2nd chance for that contribution. 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 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.
Page limits are 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, incredibly awkward to interrupt them and say… enough, please.
Any thoughts or impressions you have as you review the material could be valuable to the author.
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 required 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 sagging tension problems)
More or less action may be required
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 past/present tense.
Also, be sure 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 spellbound
Some people may prefer to write their comments on the work.