A Useful Critique
Group Guidelines and Critique Criteria Options
By Sharyl Heber
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?
How? Because we are blissfully bamboozled by our own imaginations. Even the great writers need a reality check from a reader who comes to the work fresh, with no previous exposure.
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.
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 resonate.
The below guideline recommendations may sound strict but groups have gone awry without vigilance and it’s not a pretty thing. At its best, folks adore their critique group members and wonder how they could survive their writing journeys without them!
***A note of caution regarding our critique groups— Even if highly skilled, while invaluable, they do love us. They sense our fragility and will nurture, praise and support us. They will not risk friendship to tell difficult truths. They may only address broader issues. They may not require or take the time to scrutinize a written copy. They won’t demand a publish-ready product and may well be swayed by the dramatic performance in our oral readings. My critique group loved it, may not mean it’s ready.
Don’t invite them to be honest, beg them to be ruthless.
Critique Group Guidelines:
Agree on Guidelines:
Agree on these below, or some other set of group guidelines so that all members have the same understanding of the expectations and follow the same etiquette during the process.
Agree on Logistics:
Agree on optimal meetings times, frequency, and location. Agree on a process format, e.g., will you exchange chapters electronically only, for a line-item edit? Will you meet face-to-face and read to each other aloud – for an oral critique? Will you bring paper copies for each member? Will you dine together first or share snacks? What is a reasonable amount of time to devote? It may be helpful to agree up front on a page limit. It can be very frustrating when a member consistently sucks up time and attention with more than their share of pages. These decisions should work for the majority of members.
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. There may be varying degrees of expertise. The best functioning groups may be those who have grown to trust each other and who can proceed on task, without need of a facilitator. 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 to critique 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 and say thank you.
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 work, what does not 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 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:
a. Avoid the cavalier brush off-
While members aren’t ‘forced’ to comment, do avoid the attitude, “Oh, that’s not my genre.”
Even if you don’t usually read YA vampires, use your general expertise to find the 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.
b. 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 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.
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. No need to ‘defend’ your work. If you cannot leave your ego at the door, give your group members the greatest gift of all, and gracefully… quit the group.
Critique Group Etiquette Reminder
Most of us are not rude or inconsiderate in our social interactions, Critique Group Etiquette is much like the manners and consideration we would afford in any other social relationship. It is so very important to honor those standards.
- Honor your attendance agreements:
Your host and your members have essentially, blocked out at least an entire ½ day to the meeting. 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 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 has 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 the reader of important input to their work. They may not get a 2nd 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, it interrupts 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 interrupt them and say… enough please.
WHAT MAKES A HELPFUL CRITIQUE?
If you’re new to the critique process and are unsure about commenting, here is a small list of criteria you might use to assess for quality:
Points of confusion: More information or rephrasing may be needed for clarification.
A Story Problem: A story problem or story questions (What is the book about - generally a good idea and often best established right up front,) may not be discernable at all or identified soon enough – so we don’t know why we’re reading the story. The identified story problem/questions may not be followed throughout, or may not be resolved in the end. (A favorite resource on this topic is Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise - storyisapromise.com)
Sub Plots: Story may read as thin, and benefit from subplot(s). Existing subplots may simply be diversions and not sufficiently tie into or adequately support the main plot.
Description: Inadequate or superfluous— Not enough and the scene can't be visualized, too much and the story drags.
Over or Under Writing: This is a tough call as it is often subjective. Is it literary skill or a matter of style? Sentences overflowing with adjectives and adverbs can suck tension from the writing. Though it might vary with genre, there may be a point of diminishing return with the flowery descriptions— Sometimes satisfying to write but NOT always satisfying to read.
Tension: Generally, tension needs to remain taught. Many misdiagnosed story problems are really sagging tension problems. Or, perhaps the tension is too intense or prolonged and a break is needed.
Conflict: A valuable, if not necessary, story component. Are the protagonist and antagonist identifiable? Does the author simply ‘claim’ the characters are in conflict and have to convince the reader with narrative protestations, or do they craft the personalities and situations so the conflict is inherent and organic, e.g., put a racist, a person of color, a homophobe and homosexual in a broken down elevator… and maybe throw in a time bomb. You’d have to work hard NOT to have conflict.
Point of View: 1st person, 3rd person, omniscient, etc. Who is telling the story? Through whose eyes are we looking? Is the POV established early on and used consistently? The choice of POV may not be the most powerful for the story. There may be unintended changes or inconsistencies in POV. Intended changes may not be clearly identified, causing confusion.
Narrative Tense: There may be unintended changes or inconsistencies in past/present/future tense.
Action: Long sections of descriptive narrative can drain tension. Scenes may need a higher proportion of action, or some action interspersed. Or, perhaps the action is too intense or prolonged and a break is needed.
Pacing: The story may drag or race too quickly in general or at particular points.
Character Development: We may not feel we know a character; their personality may not be discernible. We may not care about them or their situation. Characters may not be distinguishable from each other. They may be too stereotypical and not quirky or interesting enough. Motivation may be lacking for their actions. They may not have a function/goal/purpose in the story. They may not be learning, changing or growing if that is required of them.
Plausibility: Things may seem unlikely, e.g., this would never happen in the unique story world the author has crafted. Or a character, as the author has developed them, would never do or say such a thing.
Plotting: Events of the story may not flow logically, they may not offer an adequate structure to support subsequent events, or may stray too far from an established story problem. Depending on genre, the plot/story events may need an arc with ratcheting tension.
Beginnings & Endings: A more compelling hook at the introduction or a more satisfying conclusion may be required. A more discernable 3-act structure may be helpful.
Drama vs Melodrama: Does the drama feel real, deep and organic? Exaggerated emotions and stereotypical characters, dialogue & behavior can contribute to melodrama.
Emotional Impact: The author may describe the emotions of the character but you, as the reader, can’t experience or feel them. Show-Don’t-Tell may help. The author’s protestations that Roger is full of rage may not translate the experience as well as watching Roger shred his mattress with a hunting knife. Taking it out of narrative description and ‘putting it into a scene’ with action and dialogue can help. And, do say what emotions you feel as you critique. The author may not have intended to evoke those emotions.
Dialogue: May be too stilted, cliché, too obvious or ‘on-the-nose’, more subtext may be beneficial. There may be a distracting over-use of dialect, slang, or cursing. Dialogue may not be adequately grounded in narrative context. And, also related.... Voice: All characters may sound the same and can’t be distinguished. Dialogue may not be unique enough to reveal character.
Setting / Environment: Is the story is set in an environment that maximizes the drama? Is the environment adequately described and used to best advantage in the plot?
The Big Picture: This point is beautifully made by Jane Friedman on her blog: janefriedman.com - "Can we glimpse enough of the Big Picture to have that all-important yardstick? It's the 'big picture' that gives readers perspective and conveys the point of each scene, enabling them to add things up. If we don't know where the story is going, how can we tell if it's moving at all?"
Forward Motion: Is the story continually moving forward along the plot line?
The Five Senses: The story's impact might be enhanced by mining the senses: sight, touch/feel, smell, taste, auditory sounds.
Archetypes / Universal Appeal: The work may not resonate as relevant to the reader. This may be purely subjective, a matter of personal taste— but it could also be a deeper problem of overall relevance; failure to identify and tap into issues that readers relate to. Or, the writing my not be appropriate for an identified audience.
Theme/Subject: The theme or subject may not be discernable, it may not be profound or compelling enough to carry a full story, or the story line may stray too far from the established theme/subject.
Mood & Tone: There may not be a discernable mood or tone to the work, or portions may seem out of alignment with the predominant mood and tone.
Command of the Language: General skill or quality of the writing or phrasing may be lacking.
Word Choice: Ineffective word choices, inaccurate word use, or repeated words may diminish the story. The work may benefit from expanded vocabulary, or perhaps, a more modest vocabulary. Tossing a million dollar word into a simply-told story can stand out as pretentious or incongruous.
To be, or not to be: Overuse of the verb, to be, may diminish the writing. Was, was, was… can plague a page, and while the word may be grammatically correct, it can be dramatically inept. More active verbs can usually replace ‘was’ and make for more powerful prose.
Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Typos:
Format: Readability on the page and professional presentation is important. Generally, flowery type fonts are discouraged, proper use of tabs/indentations are expected. If the work is varying from ‘industry standard’, it is done so with purpose.
The above list is much abbreviated. Entire books have been written on some of these elements and I'm sure there are many more I haven't noted.
When critiquing, also mention things that you love about the piece or that seem to work very well.
• Portions that are phrased beautifully
• Characters you love to love, or love to hate
• Sections that hold your attention or have you spell bound
Add your own criteria for comment as you read through the piece. Gut reactions and first impressions. Say what works for you and what does not. ANY thoughts you have as you review the material could be valuable to the author! Try not to second-guess your instincts. Say what comes to mind... in a respectful, way that supports and improves the work and the author.