“So… What Did You Think?” or, Writers’ Critique Groups 101
I am often asked by students and editing clients what I think about critique partners or writers’ groups. I vastly prefer the latter. And not just because I’m not wild about the word ‘critique’ (I prefer ‘feedback.’)
Working one-on-one with someone can be tricky. It’s all too easy to get competitive, or take a comment that may have been made out of context or on an off day the wrong way. To me, a critique partner is a recipe for hurt feelings at some point, no matter how much you know or love the person. Better to work with a professional editor, if your preference is to work one-on-one.
A group, by its very nature, offers greater protection. Chances are there will always be someone who has a different opinion – and while it may be challenging to sort through all the opinions, it’s much more valuable in the long run. It’s also more like life. You won’t always get consistently good – or bad – reviews, and learning to sort the wheat from the chaff will strengthen your own insights and editing muscles as well as your resilience.
Whether you work with a partner or a group, your success will depend on one element: trust. It’s essential that you trust each other implicitly and respect one another’s opinion. Before you enter into any feedback relationship, it’s important to ensure a level of trust, and then, to establish some ground rules.
First, ask yourself the following questions (and this is as true for a freelance editor or publisher as it is for a volunteer critique partner or group):
- What is their level of experience in the field? What have they written, edited or published?
- What do I know, or what does my answer to the above question tell me, about their taste, opinions and/or values?
- What, if any, agenda might they have besides total support for my success?
- Do I feel safe?
Once you’ve committed to – or perhaps begun – a critique group or relationship, it’s important to establish some ground rules. For instance:
- Will you use the word critique or feedback?
- Will you require that participants offer encouragement first – saying what they like, or what they feel works well, for instance, before offering any suggestions for improvement?
- Will you require that all criticism be phrased in the form of a question?
You might also consider coming up with a list of questions to keep in mind while listening to or reading another person’s work. Here are some examples:
Does this manuscript…
- Have a strong, multi-dimensional central character that is relevant to, and resonant for, kids – and the same age or emotional spirit as your reader?
- Tell a compelling story with a satisfying arc – beginning, middle, end?
- Contain a problem to be solved?
- Does the main character learn something or change by the end, and as a result of his or her own actions or initiative?
- Do you know what each character wants?
- Do you know why each character wants what they want?
- What will happen if the characters don’t get what they want?
- Is there repetition in the text? If so, is it a deliberate choice in style or can it be cut?
- Is something told or described in narrative that could instead be SHOWN through action or dialogue?
- Do you know what the message is? What is the final thought or emotion that the writer wants to convey? Is it delivered with a light touch, or in such a way that the reader comes to that conclusion himself, or his it hammered home?
Some other questions to ask of the person whose work is being read:
- How do you feel about how that sounded?
- Did it sound the way you intended?
- What did you like about it?
- What might you make stronger?
- Where are you planning to take the story next?
Finally, try to take everything you hear as an opportunity or invitation to make your work stronger, instead of as criticism. Protect and nurture your work when it’s in development. Know that it is a process, like the proverbial Michelangelo chipping away at that excess stone to reveal the David beneath. It takes time. And it’s much easier to criticize than it is to create.