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...
- 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.
- HOLD YOUR COMMENTS UNTIL THE END. If you are afraid you will forget, jot your thoughts down as you are listening.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...