Being in a critique group is one way to add dimension to your writing process. As a participant, you receive or give critiques on ways to improve the story under discussion. But giving input in a positive, productive way is tricky. Even the gentlest of critique can rub the receiver the wrong way. And the harshest kind of critique can send a writer into a rampage or a self-esteem downward spiral.
Of course, the best thing for writers to do in a group is put on their rhinoceros skin coats and deal with the input. I call it “taking the hits” ’cause you’re not always going to like what you hear. Keeping that in mind, good critiquing isn’t personal but deals with the words on the page. The writer being critiqued is free to use or disregard the input.
I’ve just joined a group and wanted a method to assess someone else’s writing by which I didn’t rewrite their work or mess with their voice. I looked at my own thinking process. How did I want to go about the business of evaluating? It’s not like judging a contest. A judge receives a finished product. The piece works or it doesn’t. The critique group process is dealing with a piece of writing which is being born and refined and deepened. The story is growing in some places and shrinking in others.
I decided to look at a piece in three ways:
What do I like? A phrase, a description, a detail. The mood. The tension. The title. A unique character, a set-up, a turn of events. A good story. A fresh, original approach. Use of language. Flow. Pace. Story arc. In other words, I’m looking for strengths. For good stuff. For writing that works.
This is the place I ask questions designed to have a writer dig deeper. What does the character want? What are the obstacles standing in the way? I look for ways to strengthen a scene, use details, use the senses. I try asking the “What if” question. This is the place I suggest a writer clarify or cut or add. Etc.
Nuts and Bolts
This is housekeeping. Tightening the writing. Glaring mechanical problems. Action verbs, active voice. Use of attributions. Use of tags or stage business. Use of transitions. Word repetition. Etc.
A critiquer, whether working in spoken or written form, needs to by mindful of word choice, tone, and the way things are said. It’s easy to let the critique rip or just say “how it is” in that writer’s view. That’s one philosophy. It’s not mine. The long term goal is to improve writing. It’s an ongoing, open-ended process. A critique group is a place where we are all works in progress, helping each other grow.
My process? I read the selection for overall feel, making margin or mental notes. On a sheet with the three categories I mentioned above I enter my ideas. I find this process keeps me focused on the overall story, keeps me working toward that author’s big picture, and I don’t become a nit-picker or a rambler. I don’t speak in generalities but can give specifics. Hopefully, I’m offering something of substance, something particular, something of use.
I’m currently processing the critiques I received on my own story during the last meeting of my group. The story, among other things, has a POV (point of view) problem. So now I’m going into revision mode.
Finally, the critique group also offers a strange phenomenon. While assessing other people’s writing you discover strengths and weaknesses about your own. What’s not to like? A good two way street.
And a closing word. Whether you choose to write solo or be in a group, keep writing!
Very helpful. I already “borrowed” some of your points!!
Great. Glad you found something useful!
Another great posting. Critiquing is definitely as much an art as a science and as such, needs to be learned and practiced. It also seems like everyone brings their own unique wants/needs to how they want to be critiqued. As a novice fiction writer, I want brutal honesty and welcome suggestions in vocabulary, sentence structure, scene setting, POV, pacing ,emotional arc etc. I run things by my husband before anyone sees my work and his red pen is ruthless. It has made me a better writer. However, my husband’s way is as much an editing process as critique and some people do not want this.
Your suggestions on the way you look at a piece are helpful and targeted. The separate paper certainly is a good tool-You certainly have a good way of critiquing!
Hi Danielle – Thanks! We all have different ways of achieving the same goal – to become better writers. In the critiquing process, I like the philosophy of being an honest witness, whatever the method. Onward!