Critiquing, usually defined as the "art of useful criticism" is far too often poorly understood. From the Greek word, kritikos, which means "able to make judgments," the word critique has developed negative overtones. This is unfortunate because every writer's work needs good criticism - and "good criticism" is not meant to be an oxymoron. The very best feedback that writers can receive about their writing is criticism that informs and illuminates in such a way that the writer can expand and improve the vision of the work.|
Because the Internet is a place where you can find a little bit of everything, many writers these days are using Beta Readers, solo critiquers who read work online, furnish commentary by email or by tracked changes in the document, and who may never actually meet the writer in person.
In the "olden days," this was impossible because the Internet didn't exist. People gathered in homes or at schools or in cafés. The Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers and artists that included Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster met early in twentieth-century London to discuss and critique one another's work. During the 1960s and 1970s, countless groups of feminists met for "consciousness raising," to examine texts and speeches, and to talk about issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia. The Violet Quill Club, a group of seven American gay male writers, met in the early 1980s.
Some of the most controversial and famous fiction and nonfiction was developed by writers reading their work, thinking out loud, and writing together with fellow colleagues, up close and in person. For many authors and aspiring writers, these sorts of gatherings were the difference between output that satisfies and may be published and flailing ineffectively or, worse, experiencing writer's block.
Since 1990, I've been a member of half a dozen critique groups. A couple lasted around a year. Two long-standing groups went on after I departed. The rest of the groups lasted between two and three years before they ran out of gas. Most of the groups nourished me, encouraging and motivating me to write. I did attend one group that quickly became negative and too stuffed full of drama. I tried to stay with it, but it didn't improve, instead imploding traumatically. So I believe I've experienced both the best and the worst of what critique groups have to offer.
Advice and information follows next about ways to initiate a group, run it effectively, provide feedback that helps instead of harms, and deal with the kinds of problems that may result when a variety of creative personalities crowd into one room to talk about manuscripts.
How to Establish a Group
One of the most popular ways to assemble a critique group is to take a class or workshop and get acquainted with fellow writers there. You might find participants in a workshop, but classes that meet over a period of time are especially useful in bringing like-minded writers together. After the class is over, many students continue to meet.
Conferences and online courses sometimes also introduce individuals from the same area who decide to form a group. It's surprising how often you can travel halfway across the country only to meet someone from your own backyard.
However, a writer who craves feedback often has to advertise. Colleges and universities have bulletin boards to post notices, and most writing organizations, guilds, and colonies have some sort of newsletter where it's free to place a brief call:
Science fiction writer and a mystery novelist seek other genre writers to form a critique group on the West side. Call Darla at 555-1256.
You may also discover that finding only one or two willing participants will help you find others if you just ask that "Each One Reach One."
A novelist, short story writer, and literary memoirist are looking for 3 or 4 members to fill out a writer's critique group in downtown. Call Sam at 555-9807.
I've been in groups as small as four and as large as 28. The advantage of a small group is that the critiques can be much more in-depth, there is time to read passages or whole sections aloud, and you can usually bite off large chunks to chew on - even whole novels. I know of a group of five novelists (including Ellen Hart, Mary Logue, and William Kent Krueger) who meet monthly and work in a very comprehensive fashion on only one complete novel manuscript per meeting. I know of another small group that meets every other week and works systematically on one chapter of each of the four participants' novels in every meeting.
The disadvantage of a small group is that three or four people do not offer very many perspectives. If that's what's needed, a writer might desire a larger group.
The advantage of a large group is that a writer can receive many kinds of feedback and lots of encouragement. The giant group I once attended allowed each writer to read aloud up to three pages of her manuscript, and each listener was allowed ninety seconds to respond. Those who felt like it also offered written comments.
The disadvantage of a larger group is that the more people, the less time each writer gets. The 28-member group I participated in usually went on for four hours - or more - which was wearying and at times boring. I attended a handful of times, then decided it didn't meet my needs at all. The verbal comments I received were sketchy and not well thought out; some of the written items on the manuscript pages were indecipherable or obtuse.
Over the last twenty years, I've come to believe that more than ten members is too many, and six to eight reliable participants is ideal.
Invitations and Formation
Starting a group is, frankly, a bit of a crap-shoot. The first time you attempt it, don't be surprised if there are hidden issues that pop up for which you may not be prepared. I'll talk about some of them below, but the important thing is that you and your fellow writers be willing to experiment to find out what works best.
In my experience, there are three key qualities that all members must possess in order to make the group effective:
• Reliability - the writers write and provide their work whenever they have committed to do so, and they read others' work and comment appropriately when they say they will;
At first, you may find yourself accepting anyone into the group that has a pulse, but it will help if you, as the establisher of the group, can determine what you need.
• Diplomacy - the writers can own their individual feelings and opinions, they use "I" statements, and they're able to observe and comment politely but firmly;
• Respect for Boundaries - the writers follow the group-instituted rules, and though they may at times question or ask to revamp those rules, for the most part, they observe the agreed-upon boundaries.
Here are some ideas that may assist you in selecting participants who get along with each other and are able to make good writing progress:
• Don't invite anyone into the group until you've seen a writing sample. You can avoid a great deal of conflict if the variance in writing skill is not clustered too far apart along a continuum. Having rank amateurs in a group is fine, so long as everyone is attempting to progress together. Beginners coupled with master writers is a recipe for disaster. The advanced writers will be frustrated with the slow pace; the novice writers are often cowed or discouraged by those who are so far ahead of them.
Rules to Enrich Your Group and Help Everyone Make Progress
• Work up a brief questionnaire where the applicants have the opportunity to explain: writing goals, their expectations of the group, past experiences (both good and bad), what kind of works they read, and a little bit about the projects they're working on.
• Oranges vs. Orangutans: Do not underestimate the divisiveness of including writers focused on various genres/types of writing in the same group. Despite the common basis for the words, oranges are nothing like orangutans. An essay writer is penning an entirely different sort of work than a novelist. A romance novel is quite a different creation from a highly literary nonfiction piece. A poet and a mystery writer may not understand one another's processes at all. It's nice to have some variety in a group, but if the manuscripts are too different, or if the writers don't understand one another's creative realms, nobody will get the feedback they need.
• Ask what the applicant likes to read. If a writer doesn't read a particular type of writing (and at the very least respect it), and your group focuses on that genre/style, it's a fairly sure bet they won't be familiar with the conventions of that type of creation and will be unable to contribute much.
• Don't make any attendee permanent until X number of meetings have gone by. Set a standard probation period for all those lobbying for inclusion and give everyone time to adjust. If it doesn't work out and the new person doesn't fit, politely inform him or her and move on. If you had several people trying to get into your group and a limited number of openings, you can explain that you could only take so many, and some didn't make the cut.
At the outset, establish key criteria and milestones including:
• How long each meeting will be;
Along the way, as the needs of the group change, many of the decisions you originally made about the issues above may need to be revisited. Don't be afraid to challenge a practice if it's no longer working for your group.
• Who will be the timekeeper and how time will be enforced when it runs out;
• How many members will present/read per meeting and how often;
• Whether manuscripts will be submitted in advance (via email or hard copy);
• Whether some or all of the manuscript will be read at the meeting;
• Whether critiques will be verbal, written, or some combination of both;
• Maximum number of words/pages allowed for each meeting;
• How writers will ask for what they think they need;
• That critiquers are expected to find positive aspects to comment upon, but also to comment on what needs improvement or clarification.
• No talking, explaining, or debating during critiques;
• What happens to members who stop submitting;
In order to develop a common language regarding writing terminology, craft, and technique, your group may wish to periodically select a good writing book for all to read and discuss (such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Pat Schneider's Writing Alone and With Others).
The Actual Critiquing Process
Most writers at every level of experience work very hard to create the worlds and characters about which they write. Unfortunately, it's hard to get distance from a piece, and we see and hear and sense details in our heads that are not included on the page. Often it's hard for the writer to realize that key information is missing, and that the reader is unable to feel or understand the scenes and actions of the work the way the writer so easily can.
This is where the critique process can be particularly fruitful. Unbiased fellow writers get the chance to describe what's working and what isn't.
But it's difficult to hear criticism, especially when we haven't had sufficient time away from a project, which is often not an option. In order to create an atmosphere of acceptance, helpfulness, and clear communication, it's important to create a process to which everyone can adhere. Knowing what to expect in a critique - even ASKING for what one wants - can take a lot of the stress out of the process.
I have written at length about one way the process can work: http://www.lorillake.com/loft/critique.html
In addition, many groups find it helpful to follow the Amherst Method, which you can find here: http://www.lorillake.com/loft/awa.html
Above all, criticism needs to be balanced between the positive aspects and the deficiencies so the reader can "hear" and apply new ideas and tactics.
Giving Feedback When a Piece is Written Badly
It's easy to give useful feedback to highly skilled writers, but the fact is, most people in critique groups are working on skills, learning writing technique, and trying very hard to present coherent manuscripts. Even highly skilled writers often get lost in their own narratives and need help.
Generally speaking, the group should be encouraging and less critical of first drafts, but at the same time, even first drafts require feedback that will help the writer go on to a second draft, so you will want to give clear and helpful feedback pitched at the level of the other person's understanding. You never want to be cruel, and yet, without some constructive criticism, most writers can't move forward.
First deliver positive feedback, and if it can't be about the writing, then talk about either the theme (if it can be discerned) or the energy of the piece. Sometimes the latter is all you can go with, and when you do, focus on the writer's sincerity or eagerness or just the general earnest energy of the writing. Even if the writer has completely hacked up all possibilities for writing a narrative that makes any sense, try to express what it SEEMS that the story is about. If you're not sure, then you might have to say, "I started out reading the piece thinking it was a mystery because of [describe it], but then the tone changed, and I thought you were heading into horror territory, but then Mitzi came on the scene, and suddenly this seemed to be a domestic drama. What direction did you want to take us? I'm eager to understand that."
Then go on and be frank about shortcomings. Specifically note that you had a difficult time wading through the narrative because [describe it]. What made it hard? Is it misspellings? Was the grammar unintelligible? Is the point of view all over the place? Has the writer failed to provide a logical narrative that allows for some level of cause and effect that makes sense? (It's not unusual for people to write a piece and when pressed, admit they had NO IDEA what they were trying to say!)
The next thing you can do is pick one of the less egregious issues you see and focus on that. Make suggestions. For example:
"When you're trying to explain how upset John was in the first scene, you started to show it all from his perspective, but then you got inside Mitzi's head, and you went off into her feelings, which was confusing for me. I liked John, and I was intrigued by the quandary he was in, so I wanted to know how John felt, not Mitzi's spin on things. Then I was back in John's head, and Mitzi was in left field until the neighbor knocked on the door, at which point we had a bunch of people talking, and I didn't know who was who. I see that in a lot of places you are trying to tell everyone's feelings all at once, and I'm wondering if you might consider telling this story - or at least this scene - from just John's point of view? He's a compelling enough character that your reader will want to know more. Or pick Mitzi - or even the neighbor - but is it possible that you could give the reader a more consistent way of understanding what's going on by utilizing only one of the characters' perspectives at a time?"
"You have jumped into this story situation, all about Mitzi's affair and how upset John is, with such energy and vigor, but as a reader I am having a difficult time taking it all in and understanding where you're guiding me because your sentence structure is difficult to follow. Instead of me being able to read clear, declarative sentences and dialogue that moves the story forward, I'm too often confused. Sometimes your punctuation and sentence structure is difficult to follow. Example:
Worries About Hurting Feelings with Feedback
Mitzi thrilled and amazed by her new love with the man of her dreams but oblivious she was to John's consternation at being replaced and how he agonized even if things hadn't been so good between them for a long frighteningly sex-free while.
I'm not sure if I should be focused on Mitzi or John here, and I know you want me to be able to read this clearly so that I understand exactly what you're trying to get across. In addition to lacking some relevant punctuation, you have some issues with your nouns and verbs."
I've never met any writers who didn't work very hard on their manuscripts, so any kind of criticism, no matter how mild, may be hard to take. All you can do is be clear and kind. While the group needs to be gentle, it's also important that they share authentic responses that actually help, not just provide lip service. You have to treat your fellow group members as if they really want to hear what you think, what you had trouble with, and what you suggest could be done to make improvements.
If the writer is an earnest amateur who truly does want to build up skills, then you can gently nudge him or her toward that by gently pointing out how hard you tried to make sense of the piece and that you believe in them so much that you read it all - the good, the bad, the ugly - and you want to help. With clear, honest feedback, I have seen many writers - some who couldn't write effectively at all at first - gradually improve, but it only happens in an environment where the person feels accepted and supported.
If you think a piece is an utter mess, you can only imagine how other members feel, and it's up to the group to work together to help the writer understand what has gone wrong. It's hard to give feedback when there is so much wrong with a manuscript that you can hardly make sense of it. Still, it is your obligation to do what you can to gently impart a few of the issues without bombarding the person too badly.
I do believe strongly that SOMEONE has to tell writers when they have work to do in order to get their writing up to an acceptable level. I hate it when the first critiquers start out by saying, "I really loved this piece. It was just the greatest!" or "This was the most interesting read, and I thought it was very cool..." Horsepuckey. Those people are liars and insincere cowards, and they make the subsequent critiquers' situation more difficult because now the writer is buoyed up with a false sense of hope.
In fact, one rule I'm fond of for any critiquing process is that everyone giving feedback refrain from judgments such as "I liked this" or "I didn't like this" or "I loved it." That doesn't help. Stick with the facts, with the strengths and weaknesses.
So don't be afraid to say clearly what was confusing to you - or at least two or three things that need work. Remember that you don't have to critique everything. Pick a couple of issues, describe them, then move on. You also don't have to talk for more than a few minutes depending upon your group's rules. In a ten-page work, most of the salient points can be covered in five minutes or less. If the piece is so atrocious that it would take you longer to critique, don't try to cover every point. Trust the rest of the group and allow them to touch on the rest of the problems.
Don't be afraid to fill in the bulk of your written comments with questions. For example:
• You seem to want the reader to feel sympathetic toward John, right? This spot in the manuscripts works against that by...
When in doubt, ask questions and describe what you're seeing! When I get jumbled-up manuscripts to critique, that's sometimes all I can do.
• Does Mitzi have any redeeming qualities or do you want her to be the total villain? Here are some places in the manuscript where you could make her more complex if you wanted to...
• This story comes across as the painful anguish a person can feel when his life is interrupted by an affair - is that the theme you want to explore? Because you also have the neighbor's Girl Scout cookie disaster happening which dilutes that theme...
• The piece ends abruptly - is that what you intended?
• Have you considered having someone else read this aloud to you so you can take notes about what needs tweaking? I read some parts aloud that called for smoothing out. Here, let me give you an example...
While it may be useful for subsequent critiquers to echo previous comments ("I agree with Lori that I was confused about plot, and sometimes the sentence structure also jarred me out of your story…"), it is NOT useful for each group member to go over all the same stuff again. Avoid that kind of repetition. In addition, do not allow anyone to page through and describe their every tedious comment and typo correction. What a gigantic waste of time! General copyediting can be noted on the manuscript and given to the writer for perusal later. Stick with the bigger points.
Never forget that writers don't always learn from the mistakes in their own manuscripts, but actually may end up absorbing relevant issues by hearing the critiques of someone else's manuscript.
Reading and evaluating our peers' work forces us to watch for issues and then figure out ways to articulate what seems "wrong" or confusing. That process alone may teach many writers more than any amount of feedback of their own work does.
And people learn over time punctuated by periodic leaps forward. Patience and understanding will go a long way in making a group gel and then excel with critiques.
There is no doubt that it's hard to hear criticism about your own work. But how can you improve your writing if you don't let that feedback in and evaluate it?
To make matters more difficult, in a single thirty-minute critique session, you can get so many comments and suggestions (some of them contradictory) that you're entirely overwhelmed. Still, you simply must listen so you can sort through all that you hear and decide what to implement and what to ignore.
Ways to take in more information from a session:
• Take notes!
Above all, remember to breathe. Take nice, slow deep breaths, and keep calm. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to understand all of the comments and observations you're being offered.
• If your group is okay with it, use a tape recorder so you can replay the critique session later.
• At the end, ask questions about what you heard (and that's where the notes come in handy). Get additional information and detailed suggestions from anyone who has them to share.
• Some problems can benefit from a few minutes of brainstorming for solutions if you have the time and your group is willing. A writer in one of my groups once was having extreme difficulties with how the plot should move forward in her mystery. In less than five minutes, the group brainstormed over two dozen ideas, one of which gave her that lovely "A-ha!" moment, and she was able to move forward to the finish.
• Be prepared to talk one on one outside of the group with anyone who told you something that you either didn't understand or that you wanted to get further clarification about. This not only gives you more information to work with, but also helps you understand the critiquer's strengths, weaknesses, and focus, which always comes in handy later.
• Save your own notes and any written notes your peers give you so you can look at them again sometime in the future. It's amazing how you may not have understood various comments at that critique stage of the manuscript, but in a later review, things that didn't make sense suddenly come together.
Tactics for Dealing with Members Who Don't Follow Rules
It's possible that some Problematic Group Members (PGMs) weed themselves out, but in my experience those people are usually not the ones who leave the group. They chase others out and make everyone else miserable in the process until the group dies from failure-to-thrive syndrome.
More groups disband prematurely due to one or two judgmental, cranky blockheads than any other reason.
It's my experience that there are specific dynamics that come into play that often end up making the Problematic Group Member (PGM) the one who sets an unacceptable tone and eventually takes control. You can't let that happen.
The Mission and Goals of a good critique group ought to be to review, comment upon, and critique the greatest number of manuscripts in an effective and helpful manner. Support, information, and even challenges should be part of the process, but constant conflict and misery should not. The goals should be figured out somewhat in advance (or in a few initial meetings) and revisited periodically as needed so that the overall group experience is positive.
For a critique group to work properly, you must have stringent rules in place and observed by all. Any person who does not want to comply or who constantly defies the rules needs to get out, ask that the rules be adjusted, or be kicked out. Stick to The Mission.
One dynamic I have found constantly in many critique groups I've been involved in is this: Women are too damn nice.
There I've said it. No offense intended to anyone, either men or women.
I can't tell you how many groups have gone under because one person dominated, pushed up against the rules, hogged the time, got people off track from The Mission, and then the group folded under the domination. All it takes is one very strong male personality - or a very strong alpha-female personality, which is less common, but not unheard of - to completely undermine The Mission, rules, and purposes of an effective critique group.
Warning Signs of a PGM:
• Never stops talking about self or his/her own writing;
While any new person hoping to join your group can surely be nervous or overly-loquacious, especially when first encountering other members, the next couple of meetings will tell the tale. Does he continue with the bossy self-involvement? Does she listen to any advice at all? Does he bother to carefully read others' work and show that he knows what the text said? Does she give useful and respectful feedback that isn't condescending, self-glorifying, and/or inaccurate? Does he take any time at all to get to know the others and show that he cares about their improvement and success as writers?
• Easily gets sidetracked and takes others along for the ride especially in terms of being overly social and/or bringing up non-writing topics;
• Doesn't seem to listen to feedback, doesn't take notes, argues with critiques received, and/or brings back the same work without having addressed the issues the group so laboriously pointed out previously;
• Is overly critical of peers' work to the point of being shaming, disrespectful, and/or brutal;
• Fails to note much of anything in feedback to others, or brings up ridiculous issues that have no chance of assisting fellow writers;
• When confronted with their "bad" behavior and challenged regarding their abridgement of the rules, will whine, cry, protest, accuse, and/or play the Pity Card.
If you answer NO to any *one* of those questions, this PGM needs to be invited out of the group. This goes for anyone, male or female, who refuses to accept and adhere to the agreed-upon group process. I can't tell you strongly enough how quickly one Bad Apple can get entrenched in a group like mold on cheese, wreck the positive aspects, and make everyone uncomfortable (while the group members fail to admit it for the longest time, because hey! Women are too damn nice!). A group like that becomes increasingly ineffective over time. The PGM will eventually blame the group for all failures and discomfort without ever taking responsibility for the role he or she played. The group falls apart, wracked with tension and strife. It's insidious.
And it's preventable. Set rules, enforce them, only change the rules if a majority agrees, and accept few (or no) excuses for abridgement of the rules. Groups I've been involved in that stuck by the rules and mustered out anyone who wouldn't comply lasted MUCH longer than groups that didn't.
Tactics for Dealing with a PGM
Honesty truly is the best policy. Tell the member why things aren't working. Use examples. Describe the behavior you want, and ask for immediate improvement. Sometimes this is all you need to do. There are some folks who are hard-headed and have a difficult time understanding and following rules, but once they "get" it, they may turn out to be helpful group members after all.
If you have to bring up the issue(s) more than once, then upon the second warning, tell the person they're out if it happens again. And if/when it does happen that third time, enforce the ruling. Not only does that get the PGM out of the group, but it also confirms to the rest of the crew that the rules matter and nobody gets to skirt them.
Sometimes you will have the misfortune of inviting in a member who lacks care and conscience no matter how hard you try to emphasize the process. These are the ones who like to flout the rules, to dominate, or to take over groups. When they don't get their way, they begin a quiet campaign to undermine and destroy. I remember very well a group that grew out of a graduate class I had taken. Things started out fine with very clear rules and practices, but soon enough, one man managed to make everyone miserable. He was extremely emphatic with his criticism, using language that was demeaning and sounded angry. I still remember this line: "I don't know what the hell you *thought* you were doing, but this is pure crap."
When he was challenged for the disrespect he'd displayed, he stood up and threw a fit, telling various people what he thought of their detestable writing and how arrogant they were to think they could ever be published. He was seconds away from the group throwing him out when he realized he'd erred, hastened to make excuses for his outburst, then sat down to fume. Thereafter, he kept coming back each month to simmer and occasionally take potshots at the stronger writers in the group while not bothering to critique the less skilled writers' work. When his own work was found lacking in any way, he argued and often left in a huff at the end of the meeting. His body language and volatility were finally brought up by some brave soul, and he had another meltdown, not quite as forceful as the first one, but still, inappropriate - and then apologized again before he could be asked to leave.
There we were, caught in what amounted to a cycle of abuse. Of course, since women are so damn nice, as was the one other man in the group, we didn't seem able to eject him.
So what did we do? We informed the guy that we "disbanded," and we stopped meeting at the original site, then the next month re-convened the group elsewhere without him.
Sometimes an individual's behavior is so erratic and inappropriate that you might have no other choice than to act as we did.
As time goes by, group members will get to know one another, and the opportunity for sharing personal information and life events grows into friendship. Writers tend to be somewhat solitary creatures. So much of our work is done alone, and the chance to share and relate to others is often irresistible.
Then at some point perhaps someone will bring a snack or uncork a lovely alcoholic beverage, and next thing you know, everyone's focusing on food and drink. Less time is spent on critiquing, more on connecting personally.
Avoid this at all costs!
This is a sign that your group needs to institute new rules. If your group is devolving into what feels more like Social Hour and not enough real work is being done to critique and help one another with manuscripts, you're in trouble.
One way to deal with this is to set a specific amount of time to devote to the personal. One of my favorite groups would set a meeting time half an hour before the actual start time. Those first thirty minutes allowed members to share snacks, talk about personal things, and get caught up with each other. Once the buzzer went off, though, it was all business.
You might also choose to launch right into the work - and then when it's done, have Happy Hour or go out for dinner or whatever. Honor the work time and remember that the focus of your critique group needs to be on the manuscripts. As long as each member is making satisfactory headway, you're doing well.
Ending a Group
All good things must come to an end, and most groups don't carry on year after year into infinity. If the energy dissipates and you've come to the end of what you can do with and for one another, admit it. Perhaps the group can delay the demise, or maybe the group has fizzled out. Acknowledge it, figure out a way to thank one another (perhaps with a celebration or dinner or small gifts or a reading), and move on.
If you, individually, can no longer meet with a group or aren't getting the benefits you need, say goodbye and explain. If you're leaving because there's something about the process that doesn't work for you, be brave and tell your colleagues. It's possible that they may be willing to change or to compromise with you. You can never tell unless you're honest.
And if a group doesn't work out, whether you started it or joined it, don't take it personally. Wait until you're ready, and then start a new group or look for a new one that suits you. Writing is a process, critiquing is a process, and there will always be ups and downs, starts and stops. It's the nature of the experience. Don't give up on it.
© 2010 Lori L. Lake, from her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.