The last two posts have discussed some of the ways writers benefit from good critique, as well as things to watch out for. Today, let’s go through what a good critique session might look like. For the purpose of this post I’m imagining a group of serious writers who seek traditional or self-publication.
Writing Tip for Today: If you form or join a critique group, how should a meeting unfold?
Nuts and Bolts
A productive critique group has rules in place for how and when members deliver work and feedback. Generally, it’s like any other meeting: Be on time, commit to regular attendance, treat others with respect. Some groups opt for distributing workshopped materials in advance of the meeting (these days, generally over email) while many still read aloud from printed copies during the meeting. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Reading work before the meeting gives members more time to think of thoughtful feedback, but it can also lead to procrastination or forgetting to review work in advance. Reading from hard copy during the meeting simulates more closely a reader’s experience and eliminates the forgetfulness, but also can make members feel “on the spot.” Whatever method you prefer, a good group often chooses a moderator (either paid or rotating among members) who decides the order of workshopping material and keeps members from unproductive comments, cross talk or long-winded critiques. Decide in advance if you wish to meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly and how long each meeting will run. Put in place a plan for adding new members (do they audition?) and contingencies for emergency calls and other meeting particulars.
Timing is Everything
In a smooth group, timing is everything. Choose a word or page count limit for reviewing work, and insist on a standard font and spacing to limit the amount of work one writer can workshop at any one meeting. If Writer A single-spaces in 10 point Arial, she’ll have many more words to review than Writer B who is double-spacing in 12 point Times New Roman. If members break these rules, consider a time limit for each writer’s stuff. You’ll also want time limits on giving feedback. You can use an actual kitchen timer if necessary, or the chosen moderator can oversee. The order in which the members offer feedback is another place that can be regulated. A moderator can establish time limits and gently nudge members on to the next writer’s work. If your meetings consistently run past about two and a half hours, you may want to consider reviewing shorter work or limiting feedback times.
What kind of feedback is the most useful? Remembering your childhood oral book report is an example of unhelpful critique. Go beyond saying you liked or didn’t like the work. The aim of a good group is to help the writer produce her best version of the work, not to please you. Students in my classes often complain that they “don’t know how” to critique. While it’s true that writers learn skills as they critique over time, you’re always a reader—the most coveted part of this whole endeavor. You can share with the writer places in the work where your attention was grabbed or where you lost interest. You can comment on spots where you didn’t understand or you got lost. Yes, you can correct spelling and grammar, but try to focus on how the work proceeds. Did you care about the character? Did you feel the work was organized well? No matter how new you are to the critique world, your insights as a reader are almost always useful. And when you are the writer, try not to think of your crit group as a place to “perform.” While we all want others to like our work, it’s the constructive criticism of weaknesses that really helps us the most. After all, what help is it if you get feedback akin to, “It’s got a good beat and I could dance to it?” Reach for more in any critique group and grow some of that thick skin writers need. Better to hear criticism from your peers than on a rejection notice.
Do you have questions about critique groups? I’m listening!