The Art of the Critique
Updated: May 8, 2018
Even if you write in a cave on the side of a mountain, eventually (if your plan is to be published) your work is going to be critiqued. That critique may come from a contest, a critique group or partner, an editor, and agent or a review. That's probably why it's good to develop that rhino hide early with a critique group. So let's chat about critique groups today.
I won't lie to you. You've got to kiss a lot of frogs to find the right group, that special chemistry that works for you. And...you may never find it. Or like Mr./Ms. Right you may click at first and then you drift apart. You have different goals or you've grown and changed but they haven't. Or you may simply fall out of love. It happens.
Let's talk about the types of critique groups first:
1. Social: Since most critiquing is now done via email this group is disappearing. But for future reference let me define as I have often participated in this group. You gather and drink beverages and eat delicious treats, chat and gossip and oops you ran out of time to critique.
2. Pat you on the back: This type of group doesn't really critique. They don't know how. Often they are all new writers, so what happens is your pages have lots of smiley faces. That's all.
3. Yank your heart out:This group is all about the red pen. Complete focus on the negative and you end up with both your self-esteem and your pages in shreds.
4. Constructive Criticism: The balanced group. Give and take with the ability to point our your strengths and areas that need improvement.
And in every group you will occasionally stumble upon one of these very dangerous critiquers:
The Rules Monitor-he/she knows everything and loves to tell you "the rules", often and loudly.
The Voice Thief-he/she is so generous she rewrites your entire book for you.
The Hater-hates everything but offers no reason or constructive ideas for improvement.
Don't let the pitfalls discourage you. A good critique match is a truly a blessing. Hand and hand you help each other grow and move toward HEA (publication).
How A Good Critique Group Should Work:
Accountability and critique are the goals, so as you start your group, also set some ground rules.
Decisions, decisions. Will you meet online or in person? How often will you meet/exchange pages? What is the turnaround time? Will you cap your group membership? How many pages will you sub? Is line editing expected? Must you bring fresh pages each time?
I have found that keeping the group genre specific or even sub genre specific will increase group productivity.
Some groups have rules that indicate that a member may only receive critique if they sub pages. Others drop members who do not sub pages according to the groups productivity quotas.
How To Critique:
The Sandwich Technique is the general guideline used for critique groups and for judging contests. Surround your constructive criticism meat with slices of positive reinforcement.
Additionally, avoid these phrases, YOU MUST, YOU SHOULD, YOU SHOULD NEVER. Because really, unless you are the GOD OF CRITIQUING there is no such thing as must, should, never.
Instead offer phrases such as, 'Please consider,' Think about this,' or 'Look at it this way.'
Newer writers need more positive reinforcement but you'll find as you mature you actually gloss over the compliments looking for the meaty critique comments, because you long to really dig deeper and improve your story.
Keep these elements in mind as you critique. Address them only if they confuse you or pull you out of the story. Don't critique just to critique. What you'll find is that you will most often address those topics that are or have been your own problem areas. Frankly, I've never understood this phenomena but it's true every time.
Characters and Characterization
Grammar and Spelling
The beauty of a seasoned group is eventually you will discover everyone has a different eye. One member may be very good at line editing. Another member is helpful at plot storming. One might be a talented grammarian. Or maybe you have a POV goddess in your midst.
Here's some insider tips for when you first start critiquing (also applicable on the contest judging circuit):
1. Comment unto others as you would like to be commented.
2. Always provide feedback with examples.
3. When dealing with a new writer, don't devastate them. Pick one or two areas and focus on that. POV and characterization for example. You didn't learn it all in one critique and neither will they. Don't leave them hopeless.
And a final note: It's really a good idea not to allow critique partners to bring the same pages back to be critiqued for two reasons:
a. It forces them to keep writing and not just rewriting the same pages.
b. If the group never sees the pages again, it allows the writer not feel compelled to change something the group mentioned that they don't agree with AND prevents any member from being offended that their critique wasn't applied. It also prevents critique group dependency.
Which segues nicely to our next topic~
Don't Become One of These Critique Partners:
The Fearful Writer -The writer who doesn't trust her voice. Everything she sends out must be critiqued and re-critiqued on and on. So at her tearful plea you are up until midnight reading pages for her and ignoring your own work.
The First Pages Writer-The writer who keeps bringing the same pages back to group. You do that writer a disservice if you allow this.
The Defend the Work Writer-BUT! Always a but! Always a long explanation of why. Don't allow it, because the reader won't either.
Why many authors drift away from critique groups after publication:
1. Editorial critique comes first-Your editor really is your bottom line critique partner. Often it becomes frustrating after you sell to present things to your critique group and have them not understand what your editor wants. It can be more productive to eliminate the middle man.
2. Time constraints-Often the turnaround is so tight on projects or portions of projects there simply is no time for more than a quick read by a trusted Beta reader.
Many successful writers do not participate in critique groups. It's your choice.