How to Give and Receive a Critique

There are lots of ways to get feedback on your writing.  On one end of the spectrum, you can form a group of writers who pours over every word that each group member writes and offers detailed feedback.  The advantage of this type of critique group is that you’ll get the most detailed feedback from readers who are most familiar with your work; the disadvantage is the time involved when you commit to do the same with every other member of the group.  On the other end, you can ask your mom what she thinks.  The advantage of this form of feedback is that you’ll always go away feeling great about your writing skills and confident that you’re the reincarnation of Ernest Hemmingway.  The downside is, most of our mothers won’t tell us if what we’ve written is crap.

One of the most common ways, halfway between these extremes, is the critique group.  Critique groups range from the large, open group – meetings are public, and everybody present is invited to read and/or to offer feedback – to the private, closed group where you meet with the same writers for a long period of time.

If you are a serious writer and not a part of a critique group, I suggest you find one and try it.  If it doesn’t work for you, try a different group.  If it still doesn’t work, ask Stella for her advice on how to find one that’s right for you.

Here are some guidelines for how to get the most out of your critique group.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE READER

1.  Tell the group what it is that you want from the session.  Be as specific as you can.  You will get the least useful critique if you say, “Just give me everything,” particularly if what you want to know is if the personality of John’s girlfriend is too slutty.

2.  Accept all criticism graciously.  Do not be argumentative!  Remember: you are the ultimate authority.  You can go back to your computer (or pad and pencil, if you’re one of THOSE) and ignore everything you’ve heard.  You don’t have to do it at the critique session.

3.  If you have a reason why you believe a particular criticism not to be valid, and you want FEEDBACK on your thinking or in view of your thinking, you can politely discuss the reason.  For example, if a critique is that your sentences are awkward and your intent is to imply that they come from an awkward narrator, explain that, and then ask if in light of your intent, if you’ve been effective in what you are trying to do.  Then accept the answer graciously.

4.  The standard for bringing something to a critique group should be that it has been at least lightly polished.  “I just threw this on the paper and wanted to see what you think” wastes everybody’s time.

 RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE GROUP

1.  Every critique should start with something positive.  The only exception is if you are amplifying a comment from another critiquer.  *** Encouragement is as important as anything you can say about the writing.

2.  Always use I words, not you words.  “My reaction to this paragraph . . . “ rather than “You didn’t do a good job in the description in this paragraph.”  Yes, they’re only words, but we live and breathe words, and as we all know, they do make a difference.  You words automatically tend to put the author on the defensive, and detract from the critique.

3.  The most useful comments are neither overly general (eg: “Your writing is great!”) nor too specific (“I question the use of the word, “vastly” in line 73).  Remember: you are helping to shape the style, approach, character creation and presentation, flow, etc. of the writer, NOT helping to write the piece (unless, of course, that’s what the writer asks for).

4.  The most useful comments also point out specific examples of the point that you’re making.

5.  Assume that what you are reading is a later draft with some degree of polish but not a finished work unless the author states otherwise.  In light of that:

–  Do not comment on individual grammatical gaffs, word choice, etc.  MARK them on the copy that you are reading and hand them back to the writer.

–  HOWEVER, if you see a trend in poor grammar or style, you should absolutely point it out, with examples.  If there are multiple occurrences, the most likely reason is that the writer is unaware of the problem.

6.  Often we give as part of our critique an alternate way of writing something.  This is a very valid and important part of criticism.  To do this effectively,

–  Note the problem or deficiency that you see in the section being discussed.  “My reaction by the end of the first page is that I’ve lost interest (note the effective use of I words).”

–  Then offer an alternate approach.  “If I were to rewrite this, I would remove the first 3 paragraphs, saving whatever material is critical to sprinkle later in the book.  Then I would start with paragraph 4, giving it a power beginning such as: XXXX.”

 Most of all, have fun.  Both as writer and critiquer.  It’s a hell of a ride.

L0014220 Mentally ill patients in the garden of an asylum, a warden l

Snapshot of my Critique Group (can you tell which one is me?)

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “How to Give and Receive a Critique

  1. You’re the one with the tophat being hugged/strangled? 😉 Totally kidding. Very valid post, Rusty. I think people forget what critiquing is about sometimes. People forget how to give them and how to get them. Do you find you prefer online or in person critiquing? Shall we start looking to put some groups together? I have the yahoo loops if we want to.

    🙂

  2. When asked to read someone else’s work, I make it clear any comments, criticisms, or critiques are solely and strictly my OPINION, and not to be taken as gospel. Everyone is different, everyone has different tastes. In a recently published short story, the last line is deliberately naughty, with a heavy heavy dose of sexual innuendo. Two editors worked on it with me, and both of them insisted that particular line get cut. My argument was no, it was appropriate given the relationship between the two leads and the circumstances of their day.

    The punchline? Readers have told me repeatedly they laughed out loud over that line, it released the tension, and without exception found it funny.

    SO…. an opinion is just that. An opinion. Some are valid, some are not.

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