…That helps you while still nipping hurtful criticism in the bud.
Love ‘em, or hate ‘em, a critique group is absolutely unquestionably necessary to any serious or aspiring writer.
Of course, some will disagree with me, but I believe most writers recognize the universal quagmire that occurs after staring too long at your own words—you start second-guessing the entire motivation for writing and wondering why you wasted piles of hours crafting the piece in the first place.
That is the moment you know you need another pair of eyes. Perhaps those of a close friend or a significant other, but these safe, warm people have too much personal investment in their relationship with you to give the unbiased feedback you need.
Because the rest of the world isn’t going to be nearly as nice as they are, and you shouldn’t be blindsided when that time comes.
Now, before the idea of a critique group becomes unbearably frightening, let’s establish this fact: I know from personal experience that a critique group can be both constructively critical and wonderfully encouraging.
I was a budding author studying Creative Writing at the University of Washington, and it wasn’t until the final quarter of my final year there that I discovered this revolutionary method for critiquing written work. The method is based on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, and adapted specifically for writing into 4 steps:
1. State the Meaning
2. Author Questions
3. Neutral Questions
Before your meeting: distribute copies of the story to all members in the group and establish a calendar for turning items in as well as when items should be read and prepared for discussion.
- 1. State the Meaning
Go crazy on the compliments. Tell the author what worked, what was strong, evocative, clever, funny, etc. You can even state the meaning, message, or themes that you noticed as you read. We begin by building each other up. (See? Told you it wasn’t scary!)
- 2. Author Questions
The author brings his/her questions to the table.
Examples: Did this scene communicate my character’s hidden anger? Was the last paragraph on page 5 confusing? Is the pacing fast enough at the beginning?
When the author gets to choose the focus, he/she remains in control and confidence is allowed to remain high. Some of my favorite questions to ask: Were you lost at any point? Did anything here confuse or bore you?
- 3. Neutral Questions
This is the first time a “traditional” critique is voiced, but it still stays structured.
Let’s start with a question that isn’t neutral :
Your scene on pages 8-10 is way too long. You should shorten it. That same question, posed neutrally is What did you want to show the reader with the father and son’s argument on pages 8-10?
If, for example, the author wanted to show in this drawn-out scene that the father never listens to the son, it may have been achieved in the first few lines, thus, permitting an easy fix by chopping off the rest of the scene, but without getting deeper into the author’s intent, opinionated criticism may attack from the wrong angle entirely.
Opinionated, unstructured criticism puts authors on the defensive, and both writer and written work suffer for it.
The key here is to find a way to discuss a problematic part of the manuscript in a way that helps the author assess his/her goals for the section and arrive together at a solution, instead of just pointing out flaws.
- 4. Opinions
Here is when we finally bring out the big guns. Perhaps we’ve done our best to sidestep around the truth that the main character is completely irritating half the people who read the story. The neutral questions will likely have touched on these problems, but now it’s time for the rest of the critique group to state their actual opinions. Do this kindly. Many of us have tasted the bitter tears of heartless criticism, and we don’t need any more than necessary.
I encourage my group to say I have an opinion about_____, would you like to hear it? Rarely will the author say “No,” but I’ve once declined an opinion because I already had enough to work on and I didn’t want to overwhelm myself. Remember, the author still gets to stay in control (no public verbal floggings).
I recommend creating a printable form with these four sections on them, so that the readers can write down their observations, questions, and opinions, and hand them to the author after the critique is through. My group typically spends 30-40 minutes critiquing each piece. We meet once a month, and discuss up to three stories or novel excerpts each time.
The reason I suggest you form a critique group, rather than join one, is to make sure that you can ground it on the guidelines listed above. There are several good groups and many more awful ones out there already, and it’s important that you and your writing buddies agree on the aim and process for your meetings.
With the right tools and supportive attitudes, you will find your insight soaring for both your writing and the writing of others. This process transformed my literary life. May it do the same for you!
Elise Stephens facilitates a successful critique group that has met for two years. She received the Eugene Van Buren Prize for Fiction from the University of Washington in 2007. Moonlight and Oranges is her first novel and was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Visit her blog at www.elisestephens.com and follow her on Twitter @elisestephens