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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Writing Tip: Critique Etiquette Basics

Unless you've decided to go the professional critique route, if you've joined a critique/writing group, you'll be part of the receiving and giving end of the critique.  Since you've done your research, you know this is a huge time commitment and needs to be taken seriously.  As I've mentioned before, I love the critique process.  It's an incredible learning experience and as with any form of study, it takes time to do well.  Because you wanted to know about this, I've decided to share with you the basics of critique etiquette.  If anyone else has anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments.

If your work is critiqued:
  1. Submit your writing in the best shape possible and if needed, tell your group members what you need help with.          
  2. If you are unable to submit on time, let your group members know and find a replacement, if necessary.
  3. Be prepared for honest feedback and do not take it personally.  Remember the critique process is meant to help you improve your writing.
  4. Thank people for their feedback, even if you don't agree with them.  Depending on the size of your submission, group members will focus on your work for an hour or two.  Be grateful and show it.
  5. Do not argue with what people have written.  Step away from your work and the critiques, if need be, and then reread at another time.  If you have questions about what someone said, start up a polite dialogue.  This is not about winning the argument, but getting your work in top-notch form to submit to an agent or publisher.  
  6. Remember that critiques are offered as suggestions on how to improve your work.  You have the final say on what you will implement in your writing.    
If you are the critiquer:
  1. Spend time to read the submission.  I've read in some groups they recommend you read over the work two to three times.  Once to get the immediate impact of the work and then at least one more time to go over specific feedback on the writing. 
  2. Be honest with grace.  This is not a forum to abuse the writer.  Give constructive criticism with kindness.  Remember, your job is to help the writer achieve his/her vision, not change the story to fit your likes or writing style.  
  3. Give specific examples, rather than only general comments.  "Great job," does nothing, but "I couldn't wait to finish reading this to find out how X character resolved his conflict.  Nice ending, don't change a word,"  or, rather than "Not sure about Z," how about saying, "Develop Z character more.  He is sixteen-years-old but when he talks to his friends, he sounds and acts like he's twelve."  
  4. Be specific about character development, dialogue, setting, POV, and pacing. 
  5. Keep your personal taste out of the critique.  You may not like reading historical fiction, but you can still use your knowledge to offer productive feedback.   
  6. Encourage the writer at the end of your critique.  State what you liked about the writer's piece.
  7. Offer praise.  If there is something specific that wows you, let the writer know.  It helps the writer know what he/she is doing right, as well, they're less likely to change it if they know specifically what you were impressed by.  
  8. Remember other people in the group will benefit and learn from your critique.  Not everyone in the group will "see" the same things and may offer up different feedback.  Study all the critiques.  They will all help you in different ways to strengthen your own writing.
  9. Honor the confidentiality of the writing in the group.  
Every group will have their own set of guidelines, so make sure you know your group's rules.  If you have anything else to add, feel free to do so in the comments.

Once you're in the group for awhile, and have experienced being the giver and receiver of critiques, you'll be able to tell whether the group works for you.  Look at whether your manuscript is improving, focus on the group dynamics, study your critiques you receive and give to your group members.  Ideally, if you're as lucky as I am, you will have a honest, trusting, respectful relationship with your group members.  And your writing prowess will be refined and strengthened.  Yay for FFW (my critique group)!


beckylevine said...

Here, here! Especially the part about writng very specific (and always respectful) critiques. Remember those teachers who wrote "awkward" on school papers? They needed a lesson in critiquing!

PJ Hoover said...

And you mentioned commenting on something you like. I'd even go a step further and always find something you like. Even with something needing tons of work or something which doesn't appeal to you at all, there is ALWAYS something positive to say about it. And the positives make the writer feel SO happy!
Great post, HWM!

Christine M said...

Fantastic post! And I agree with PJ - always say something positive. Everyone needs a little positive to take the negative with (if there is negative) Remember - a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!

beth said...

Positive comments are great. There have been scenes I've been iffy on, but other readers LOVED them. It helps me to know what works, as opposed to just knowing what doesn't.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I'm not part of a critique group, but people have given me things to read before. I try to give constructive criticism, but I always wonder-- what do I do when it's really just awful? When someone asks me if I think something should be published, I say that there is no way I can make such a pronouncement. After all, there are a lot of good manuscripts out there that haven't been published, and a lot of dreck that has.


(What Would HipWriterMama Do?)

Vivian said...

I'm glad you all liked this post.

And Alkelda, what to do if something is simply awful? I'm hoping there's some redeeming quality about the piece. I'd say always speak positive about something, while offering a kind critique.

There is always the chance that your insight will help the writer revise his/her work to something quite wonderful.

The beauty of published books is that it offers something for everyone.

How's that for a diplomatic answer?

Cloudscome said...

I am just getting caught up, reading back over this series. You've done a wonderful job of telling us about critique groups. I was once in a fiction writer's group at the local library and it was a great experience. Now I am thinking I need to get in a poetry group. Thanks for the inspiration.

taralazar said...

I like your tips. I want to add to your "encourage at the end" with "encourage at the beginning." We use the sandwich method...offering a positive comment to start the critique, then we launch into the more constructive comments. Finish up with a slice of goodness and you've got the critique sandwich! Yum!