Monday, January 28, 2008

Rules of Critiquing; On being Critiqued and on Giving a Critique

Recently, the question came up, for the rules of being critiqued.

When is it OK for the writer to explain or defend their work?
Well, to be blunt... NOT DURING A CRITIQUE!
My feeling is this, if you have to explain your work, then your writing is not clear enough. After all, you are not going home with every reader to explain what you meant anytime they are confused. So, if someone is telling you they were confused, or something didn't make sense to them, LISTEN. Tuck it away in that little file cabinet in your brain. See if anyone else offers you the same comment too. Chances are, if you hear the same comment a few times, they are probably right, and you probably really do need to go back and fix this area.

Critquers are not always going to tell you what you are longing to hear. They are not always going to understand what you have written and they are not always going to love your writing. OR your story for that matter... But, it is much more beneficial to be in a group of writers who feel free to speak their true mind so your writing can be all it can be.

The best thing you can do for yourself during a critique is listen. Take notes and ask questions at the end. You do not have to agree with what they say. You do not have to do what they suggest. You can take their comments or leave their comments. That is up to you. All you have to do is listen.

These are the rules I wrote up and handed out to the writer's group I organize in Hunterdon County NJ.

On Being Critiqued...

  1. LISTEN; the worst thing writer’s do is defend their story and thus are not opened to receive some potentially insightful information. So remember, breathe and listen.
  2. HOLD YOUR COMMENTS UNTIL THE END. If you are afraid you will forget, jot your thoughts down as you are listening.
  3. AGREEING vs. DISAGREEING; you DO NOT have to take every piece of advice you get. You can feel it in your gut when someone’s advice rings true to the story YOU are trying to tell. So if someone says something you don’t agree with, just listen, and move on.
  4. QUESTION; once someone is done giving their opinion, ask anything you are unsure about. Ask for clarity if you need it, or ask if you can email them or call them on the phone. Or if there is time at the end of the meeting, approach the person then.
  5. GENERAL CRITIQUE vs. SPECIFIC FINDINGS; If you want the readers to look for something specific in your story, like… is this character’s voice distinctive enough, etc, tell the readers BEFORE the critique so they know what type of a critique you are looking for... a line editing vs general comments.

But the writer is not the only person who should abide by some rules during a critique. How about the one critiquing? Are there rules for these people in your critique group too? You betcha! Again, these are also the rules my group tries to live by.

On Critiquing without Criticizing...

  1. Remember, THIS IS NOT YOUR STORY; it is not your job to rewrite it, or tell the writer what YOU think his/her character would do. Instead ask questions to provoke the writer to consider things and figure them out on his/her own. Such as, I was curious about so and so’s decision to…or… It made me wonder what would have happened if he touched the bubble and it popped… This is so much better than saying, I think your main character would have touched the bubble and I think it should have popped.
  2. LET OTHERS TALK; be considerate of the other’s in your group who also deserve time to give their notes. Plus it is rude to the writer who wants to be able to hear from everyone and not just one person. For this reason, it might be a good idea to elect a different member for each critique (not the writer) to keep track of time so each critiquer can be gently reminded their time is coming to an end to help avoid the above from happening.
  3. Keep in mind the point you are all there… no one is better than anyone else. Sure, you might have studied with so and so, or attended such and such school, but all members in your group must believe that you are all equal. The goal of a writer's group is to lift each other up and help each other reach individual goals.
  4. If you don’t like a story someone is writing, leave your personal feelings out of it! It is about you helping that writer make his/her story the best it can be. They LOVE their story, as you love yours. Always keep that in mind. If it has not reached its potential, how can you help that writer get there? Most of the time, the best bet is through asking questions.

I hope you can use these rules in your next critique session or in your writer's group. I hope they help your group achieve a balanced, inspiring, and encouraging dynamic.

So now let's share... What are some critiquing hardships, or nightmares you have experienced? Have you ever had to critique a story you hated? Did anyone ever give you a real downer critique? What are some things your group does that workds particularly well? Share your best or worst stories...



Jim D said...

I don't think I've every hated anything I've critiqued. I have done some pieces with a lot of issues. In such case I try to figure which ones will be of most benefit to the writer (and not overwhelm them with everything). I always remind myself before critiquing that my objective is to help someone, not rip apart their work. I'm fortunate enough to have a really top flight group I'm in now, so this isn't an issue. (Although that may be my groups tactic for my writing. :-) )
Jim D

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks for the great critique thoughts! I love them and definitely plan to incorporate them. Like Jim, I also am part of a great group. Oh, wait - Jim is in my group :)
I think one of the greatest things for me is the online bit. It gives me time to really think about the critiques I receive and digest them.

Sheri said...

Thanks for checking out my blog Jim and PJ!

Isn't it so great to be in a group where you all just get each other AND the purpose of being in such a group? My current group is like this too. We all have our individual strengths and it is so great to have so many eyes making your work as strong as it can be.

So you guys do you group online? I always wondered how that works without the inflection of a voice over the phone or face to face.

PJ Hoover said...

My guess it that any method will lose something and gain something else. I love the online because I don't have to miss out on an evening with my kids.

Rebecca said...

Doing a critique of a story I don't like is an interesting experience. In some ways it is easier for me because I can be a little more objective about the technical aspects of a story, the writing.

In other ways it is harder because I have to bite my tongue rather than point out what I think the story should be (the story, not the writing). We've all been tempted to completely rewrite someone's story when critiquing it!

Having said that, I do think that it's important to be upfront about whether you like the story or not (and why), and still be constructive. Sometimes it's about personal preference. You don't like stories with too much violence, you don't like stories with talking fruit, you're not into mysteries or sad endings--whatever. Those things can't really be helped--we can't please everyone. If that is the case, then it's up to you as the critiquer to be as objective as possible.

But what if the story just didn't grab you? What if you didn't feel for the main character? These, of course, are issues that can make or break a story.

Sheri said...

PJ, yeah, you're right, but I think I would miss that face to face. But with that said, I have never done the online group, so I really don't know.

Becky, I agree with you. While it is unimportant when you simply don't care for that genre, it is vital if the story really isn't working. For example, in an early draft of a picture book I am working on, I had a member of my group tell me she thought my queen was weak and that the princess came off as a bit bratty – both not my intention for the story at all – and as a mother should wouldn't buy the book as a result. I was so thankful she told me her honest opinion. It forced me to look at my characters in a new light which led to a great re-write, which subsequently she loved. So it is vital to know when your story has turned off a reader and why. I couldn't agree with you more!

Anonymous said...

Great rules. I find one of the most important things in a critique group is that personal agendas/jealousies are left out of it. I need to know that the person giving me the critique is genuinely trying to make the story the best it can be, not pushing a personal agenda or making it all about them. I need to make sure, when I give critiques, that I am giving it within the context of the writer's vision, not my vision of what I think the story SHOULD be.

I once had to critique a piece I thought was just awful. Sloppy writing, poor research, bad structure, etc. It was a person I genuinely liked. What I tried to do was find the tidbits that worked and praise them, and then make suggestions in some of the other areas with an eye to making the rest of it as strong as the parts I felt worked.

The worse experience I ever had was from an unpublished writer who claimed to know everything there was about getting published and somehow managed to earn money teaching workshops on writing -- without ever having published anything -- someone who could not put together a simple sentence or spell simple words -- tell me I didn't understand writing and I could never get published because "you don't write like Raymond Carver."

Sorry, babe, I make my living as a writer, and Raymond Carver's great, but I don't want to write like he did.

Barrie said...

Being a good critiquer has turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Not that it isn't worth it. :)

Sheri said...

Hey Devon and Barrie, thanks for visiting my blog and for your comments. And I agree Devon - members should leave their personal agendas at home. Good rule to add to this list.

Barrie, what are you fiding the most challenging?

For me, I have actually learned how to be a better writer by critiquing others. Being able to find grammar mistakes and help to clarify a scene, for example, has made me more aware of these same flaws in my own pages.

“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous