Saturday, July 7, 2012

Part I

Barbara Wolcott's wonderful critique group, A Novel Idea.  
This SLO NightWriter's group has met happily for years.  
Find Barbara Wolcott at

I have the privilege of serving as Critique Group Coordinator for SLO NightWriters.  I’ve developed a starter package for folks new to the critique group process.  I call it, A Useful Critique, and will share it here in two posts.  Do copy and use it if you find it helpful!

Part 1 - Critique Group Guidelines & Etiquette
Part 2 - What Makes a Helpful Critique

And, do comment.  I’m always looking for pointers on how to maximize the critique experience and would be grateful for your suggestions!

Part I - Critique Group Guidelines & Etiquette

We eat, sleep and breathe our own stories.  We dream about them, they live in our minds with vivid clarity.  We feel the emotions, see the imagery, and sense the tension.  We laugh and cry in all the right places.  In our minds, our own stories are perfect.

How could anyone else not get it?!

I’m betting that even the greatest writers need a reality check from a reader who comes to the work fresh.  And, I’m guessing that even the uber-successful, best-selling authors have editors.

Critique groups can offer some of this feedback, and generally, free of charge.  While they may not be professional literary editors, group members can provide a first level review and give invaluable feedback on points of confusion, and a multitude of things that may or may not work in the writing.

I believe the best outcomes emerge when members feel completely free to give their honest reactions, and writers feel completely free to flush the feedback down the toilet if it doesn’t work for them.

The below group process guidelines may sound excessive but groups have gone awry without vigilance and it’s not a pretty thing.  It’s a bit like a marriage— you need to find the right partners.  When it works well, folks adore their critique group members and wonder how they could survive their writing journeys without them!  I know I kiss the feet of mine, on a regular basis.

Every critique group has their own style, focus and personality.  Yours will be unique.  Celebrate that!


Agree on Guidelines:
Agree on these below, or some other set of group guidelines so that all group members have the same understanding of the expectations and follow the same etiquette during the process.  These decisions should work for the majority of members.

Agree on Logistics:
Agree on optimal meetings times, frequency, and location.  Will you meet in a coffee house or at member’s homes?

Agree on a Process Format:
  • Will you do a line-item edit or address broader issues only? 
  • Will you do electronic edits only or meet face-to-face and read to each other aloud for an oral critique?  Or, a combination of those?
  • Will you bring paper copies for each member, or send them electronically in advance? 
  • Will you read your own work aloud, or read each others work (reading for each other can reduce the likelihood that you’ll cover mistakes by dramatizing the work in a favorable way)
  • Will you wine/dine together or share snacks as part of the meeting?  Who brings the refreshments?
  • What is a reasonable amount of time to devote per person? 
  • Do you have a page or word limit to ensure that all members can participate?
  • Do you have a membership limit to ensure that all members can participate? 
  • Will you welcome guests?  If so, can they read and comment, or listen only?

Group Facilitator:
Groups, especially new groups, may benefit from a facilitator to keep the process on track.  Avoid the concept of ‘Leadership’ if possible.  Remember to leave your egos at the door.  Generally, critique groups are comprised of peers, sometimes with relatively equal footing and comparable expertise. 

The best functioning groups are likely those who have grown to trust each other.  Even if there is a member with more experience, as long as sound group process and etiquette are followed, a facilitator may not be required.  If the facilitator concept is one that is necessary or works well, it is best that all group members agree on the assigned facilitator to minimize tension or conflict.  

If you don’t want public comment on a piece of work, do not bring it to critique group: 
The critique process assumes the work will be read by others and will need to be as powerful and clear as possible.  Some writing we do only for ourselves and we don’t care what others think; diaries, journaling, deep personal work, etc.  If you don’t want honest comment, do not bring it to group.

Do not bring the work expecting only praise: 
The group is not assembling for the purpose of telling you how magnificent you are.  Be open to all feedback, positive and negative.  If the feedback is consistently of no value to you, consider joining another group, perhaps more genre-specific or with more experienced writers.  You are here to learn what works and what doesn’t work from differing perspectives.  A viewpoint other than yours can be a gift.  A room full of differing perspectives can be a windfall.  You’ve no obligation to incorporate them.  Just listen, say thank you and assess. 

Provide your feedback in constructive terms:
Offer comments that explain your perceptions.  Comments like ‘this sucks’ or ‘this is great’ are not particularly helpful.  Say specifically, what does and doesn’t work, and why.  Try to comment on both the positives and the negatives.  The goal is to improve the work and help members learn to increase theirs skills.  

Respect for differing opinions is mandatory:
Critique group is no place for insults or disrespect.  Be vigilant about behaving in a respectful manner even if you abhor the work, despise the author, or are offended by the content or feedback.  Be considerate and professional at all times.  Don’t confuse respect with traditional ‘politeness.’  In Critique Group Etiquette, giving positive feedback just to be ‘polite,’ does not serve the work or the author.  Be genuine, with sensitivity.

If you disagree, do not argue:
Avoid the temptation to defend or explain your work.  Unless that conversation can take place with a concise goal toward helping to better the product, best to leave it alone.  Critique process can easily get derailed by explaining and defending, which can lead to arguing.  There is no mandate to agree with, or use, the feedback.  Simply say, “I got it, thank you.” 

Do not insist that others adopt your style, morals, or values:
Avoid the temptation to impose your writing style, morals or values onto others.  The goal of the critique is to help the author be the best that he/she can be using their own unique style, drawing from their own very personal ethics and life experience.

Group members have the right to opt out of a critique:
Any member has the right opt out of a particular critique with no explanations required.  If you are critiquing a piece on a subject that is too controversial, inflammatory or difficult for you, you may simply say, “I prefer not to offer comment on this piece.”  NO QUESTIONS ASKED. 

Do unto others… reciprocate the work:

     Avoid the cavalier brush off-
While members aren’t ‘forced’ to comment and may opt out, do avoid the attitude, “Oh, that’s not my genre.”   Even if you don’t usually read YA vampires, try to use your general expertise to find fundamental story elements to comment upon.  Is it clear, well paced, adequate tension, character development etc.  Others will work hard to comment on your piece.  Repay the favor with good-faith attention to their details and to basic principles of writing.

     Bring your best work possible-
Unless otherwise agreed upon by group members, bring the work in the best shape possible.  Avoid placing undue burden on your members to correct obvious problems.  We all climb the hills of our own learning curves.  Mistakes and genuine limitations of skill are acceptable— sloppy and lazy are not.  This includes incorporating lessons learned from previous sessions.  It is exasperating listening to yet another chapter where Suzy mixes her POVs or present and past tenses when she herself has agreed that it doesn’t work, but can’t be bothered to fix them.  Avoid, ‘Oh, my critique group will find those for me.’  Do the work required of you.

If there are irreconcilable differences or factions in the group that make the experience untenable or detract from the group’s ability to provide helpful feedback, it may be advisable to split into separate groups to maximize harmony and effectiveness. 

Leave your egos at the door:
You are not present to show how brilliant you are or how stupid others are.  It is not about you.  It is all about the work, and making it the best it can be, for ALL members.  It is also about supporting ALL members to enhance their skills.  You are not present to dominate any conversations or impose your will over others.  If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group.

An Etiquette Reminder

Most of us would not tolerate rude or inconsiderate behavior in our social interactions.  Critique Group Etiquette is no different.

Honor your attendance agreements:
Your host and your members have essentially, blocked out at least an entire ½ day to the session.  They can’t meet any of their own obligations because they have committed to this group.  If you are cavalier in your attendance it affects the lives of all members.  Everyone has cleared their calendars and your host has likely cleaned house, farmed out spouse and children, and prepared snacks and drinks.  If you cannot attend, call the host as far in advance as possible.  If the meeting has to be cancelled due to non-attendance, with enough notice, perhaps the host and all other members have a chance to plan a normal day.

Be on time to the meeting:
Your members rely on your feedback.  If you are late to the meeting, you deprive members of important input to their work.  They may not get a second chance for that input.  And, if you are late, you interrupt a meeting already in progress.  You get the benefit of all others critiquing your work, but you did not repay the favor.

If you telephone during the meeting to say you are not attending, you interrupt a meeting already in progress.

Submit your work in a timely fashion:
If you send your work in electronically ahead of time, and are late in doing so, it forces other members to scramble to review your writing before the meeting.

Honor you page limit agreements:
Page limits are generally a good idea if you need to guarantee time for each of your group members.  It’s beyond annoying for someone to read through multiple chapters when you’ve agreed to a shorter limit.  And, extremely awkward to be forced into a position of interrupting to say… enough please. 

See A Useful Critique Part II for 
'What Makes a Helpful Critique'

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