Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups III

Okay, so in the last post about critique groups, I mentioned ground rules and that I would do a post about the afore-mentioned ground rules in critique groups. There’s plenty out there on this topic, but I’m going to talk specifically about those that I felt helped everyone get the best out of critique, and gave everyone a fair shot at both receiving and giving critique.

Before I get into ground rules, I just want to mention the obvious, which is that critique groups work best when they meet regularly and face to face (whether online or in a coffee shop.) It adds a level of accountability and helps everyone maintain a level of momentum. I recommend once a week or once a month at a set time. How much time you spend can vary, but generally, the groups I’ve been in settled on an hour of focused work. In those groups, we exchanged work a week prior to the meeting, to give everyone a chance to read thoughtfully and make notes and comments. (If the author has specific questions they’d like the group to consider, it’s good to include that with the work when it is shared. ) This seems like a small thing, but it leads to a better, more thorough critique, though I’ve known of groups that read the day of the meeting. Here I’d just like to leave a reminder that I’m talking about what has worked for me.

Some folks prefer to handle the process of critique organically. But the best experiences I’ve had is when ground rules have been established. Ground rules can be as extensive or as general as the group needs, but I think the more basic the better.

The first ground rule about critique is that work shared within the group is not meant to be shared with anyone outside of the group. Obviously, this is to help establish trust. No one wants their word-baby exposed to the world before it’s ready.

The second ground rule, generally, has to do with structure. At the beginning of the meeting, the group will choose which piece to go over first, and then go in a circle, allowing everyone to offer critique. It’s best during this time for the author not to interrupt the feedback, to just take it in and then ask for clarification at the end. This helps to eliminate cross-talk, which is the biggest criminal in terms of sucking up time. Cross-talk is going to happen no matter what. In CLAW, with Rune Skelley, we came up with a safe-word to get everyone back on topic when this happened. It is possible we had way too much fun with that…

Anyway, at the end of that first round robin, it’s usually time to pick the next vict… er… piece and start over.

The third ground rule that we developed was to leave grammar and spelling out of the discussion to focus on the content of any given piece. Largely this was because the author generally received a rough or digital copy with those things already pointed out, so for purposes of the meeting it was redundant.

Last was not so much a hard and fast rule as it was a suggestion, and that was to remember the management technique of “the compliment sandwich.” You know what I’m talking about, when the person says, “Well, I think you do a really good job with x, but y needs some work. This z, however was really great.”

Obviously, due to the nature of what a critique group does, that y section takes up a lot more words. But it is as important to note what is working about another author’s work. Sometimes that can point out a solid direction for rewrites as much as the rest of it.

It would sometimes happen that in a particular week we didn’t have work to look at. When that happened, we’d choose a topic regarding writing to discuss and sometimes we’d pull out writing prompts to do, just to get the idea engines moving.


Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups II

So, you found a critique group and you have work ready for scrutiny. Now what?

Be prepared to hear things about your work that you won’t like. Do your best not to react to the feedback as if it is an attack on you, or the work. Because it isn’t. The people offering feedback have taken time out of their own week to read your work with the goal of helping you to make the work better. It helps if you remember that going in.

I’m not going to lie, the first round of this can be a bit of a shock. My advice here is to take it in and try not to react unless it is to ask for clarification. You’ve got to give yourself time to digest the input before you can make decisions based on it. What I like to do is wait until all the feedback is in and look at it as a whole before I integrate what’s there.

Some of it will be useful. Some of it won’t. That *might make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. You haven’t. I say this because if even one comment helps to make a better story, that is a win. If only one sentence is made more perfect than it was in your draft, that is a win. Nobody is there to make life harder for you, they are there to make your story better. (If they are there to make life harder for you, you are in the wrong place and should run away.)

Some things to expect that might be confusing…

1) Contradicting feedback: You might hear from different people that they want less or more of something on the same piece of prose. You might also hear contradicting rules for grammar. Not all of them are correct.

2) How *insert name here* would write the story: Someone wants to take your story and run with it in a totally different direction/genre/outcome.

How to handle #1: Do not panic. Wait until the results are in and see if multiple people say the same thing. If they do, they might be right. If it is all very different, you might not have to address the issue, although you should, as the author consider all of it. Consensus, when it comes to feedback, is not always correct over the course of a long piece. Always remember that you are the decision maker and that all of these things are just suggestions. When it comes to the grammar stuff I suggest consulting a grammar guide that you trust. When in doubt, always defer to Strunk and White.

How to handle #2: Try to remember that the reason the other person is suggesting you rewrite the entire thing to their personal taste is because they are engaged with the text, which means that you did something right. Then ignore it in favor of what you set out to do. A good critique should serve to strengthen the story you are writing, not the story someone else would write if they were in your shoes. The funny thing is that sometimes the same person who is guilty of this is also the same person who says the most helpful things in other areas of the work. Also consider if the departure point on the page versus what the person has in mind is a particularly weak/ineffective moment. Sometimes I find when people do this that is what’s happening.

Remember that everyone at the table is human, including yourself, and that you are all there for a shared goal. Keeping that in mind will keep the process a bit easier and make the group more productive.

Also important? Setting up ground rules, which I’ll address in another post.

Random Thoughts: Writer’s Toolbox: Critique Groups

So, I thought it might be good to take a break from the writers and self-sabotage theme for a bit and talk about things that can be useful to writers. Or at least things that have proven to be useful to me, as a writer.

One thing that I have found beneficial is critique groups. I’ve heard horror stories about different critique groups and some writers I know have sworn off this method of receiving feedback because they haven’t found it useful, preferring one on one work exchanges. (The lesson there is that no matter how an author does this, it is always beneficial to have eyes other than your own on the work.) I think I’ve been lucky in terms of finding a good critique group to work with.

One of the first criteria in joining or forming a critique group that will yield productive results is discerning whether the group is geared for writers whose goal is publication or for writers who are hobbyists. If your goals and the rest of the groups’ goals don’t match this can lead to a lot of problems immediately. The good news here is that this is easy to identify. If your goal is publication and you are expecting the group to be focused on giving and receiving critique, but the group is more interested in simply heaping praise on each other’s work or conversely offering snark for the sake of snark, or even worse, for the goal-oriented writer, just kvetching for an hour and a half about things having very little to do with writing, then that group is probably a bad match.

Writer’s groups that are there for the sake of being social are good but for different reasons. (Which I’ll maybe do a post on some other time.) Sometimes these social groups masquerade as critique groups so before you make a commitment to one, check that your goals and the group’s goals are aligned. For this reason, I don’t advise joining groups that are open to the public that don’t have criteria for joining. Sometimes local libraries will have information about writing groups, also bookstores and coffee shops are good places to look.

If you are new to critique, one of the things I suggest is that before presenting work to a group (or even one person whose opinion you trust) is that you wait until the first draft is complete, regardless of length. I say this because it is easy to allow the story you set out to tell to get sidetracked or turned in a different direction due to feedback. This is not a hard and fast rule for everyone but make sure the piece is ready for feedback before you subject yourself to it.

Making sure the piece is ready is pretty straight-forward. Any problems you can identify and fix before someone else is required to spend time with it should be done, and that includes everything from spelling errors to story problems. Sometimes you can identify a problem on your own, but can’t get a handle on how to fix it, sometimes you know something in the story isn’t working but can’t put a finger on why. This is where critique is useful  It can help to have a list of specific question that you want feedback on when this is the case. That list of questions can help you to get more out of critique.

One of the biggest benefits of critique is that identifying problems in the work of others helps you to identify issues in your own work more easily. This all serves to strengthen your own skills. In a well-aligned group that means everyone gets to elevate their own craft together, which is the ideal outcome.