Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Critiquing the Critiquer

So I've been wanting to join a critique group for a while, but had not been able to find one. Well, I finally met some people through my League of Utah Writers chapter that were also interested, so we started a group. Last night was our first time meeting, which went really well and was quite enjoyable.

There are a lot of bloggers out there who write about finding a critique group (including Natalie Whipple's great suggestions at Between Fact and Fiction). But although I have heard it discussed in workshops/presentations/classes, I have not found many bloggers responding to how to react once you have a group. This is what I would like to address today based upon my own experiences.

1.  Put in what you expect to get. Commit to give as much effort into each of your group member's writing what you want them to put into yours. My group meets face-to-face more frequently than I am able to commit to right now. However, I have openly told them to please continue to send me their drafts, and I will still respond electronically even if I cannot meet in person. As I did not want to take advantage of them or be selfish with their time, I asked them if they wanted me to send my pages regularly, or only the weeks that I felt I could be there. They all told me to continue to send my drafts to them even if I could not make the meeting.

2.  Find out what the writer thinks is his/her weakness. If at all possible, ask the writer what feedback they want before you even start reading. One group member last night said he would like some help converting a nine-page story into a six-page story in order to meet some submission requirements. So, of course I looked for more than just that, but I was able to focus in on words/phrases/sentences that he could either eliminate or combine. As a result, my critique was more helpful and directed toward what he was trying to accomplish with that particular revision.

3.  Find something positive. I am a firm believer that there is value in virtually everything that is written. There is a lesson/information to be learned, or some way to apply the literature. Individuals' writing drafts are no different. Always point out the positive things in their work, even if it is simply a perfect word or phrase. It gives the writer more confidence that they can do something correctly, and their writing is worth improving. There is always something to be built upon.

4. Don't be afraid to be honest. Straight fluff and happiness is not going to help a writer.  But you also have to balance that with kindness. If all you ever express is something like, "This is crap," you will destroy the writer's confidence. Instead approach it with "This didn't work for me. Here's something you could consider that might work better." I had a difficult time naming something specific that was positive in one particular excerpt I read for last night. It was not that it was not good; on the contrary, it was a great storyline and premise. There was one fundamental flaw that made the whole thing difficult for me to work with. I told the author that the biggest concern I had with the piece was that the character's fundamental personality shift was not believable in the characterization he established at the beginning. As I talked to him about it, he confirmed that my assumption for the shift was accurate, and I don't think he realized my assumption was not completely obvious already. I gave him a couple of suggestions of how he could fix it, which would need no more than a sentence added, but that sentence was crucial. After this conversation, he seemed to be glad to see that perspective, and equally glad that the way to correct it was so simple as well.

5.  Focus on one or two big things. Especially with a novice writer, you may occasionally feel like you get a draft that has so many problems you don't know where to start. First of all, mark up your copy with what you want. But when you actually talk to them, focus on one or two major things. Really, there are only two times when you should focus on grammar: a) if it is a huge, glaring mistake that repeats itself over and over, and b) if they say it is a final draft or that is what they want you to focus on. Chances are, they are going to remember what you say and take it into consideration a lot more than they will what you write anyway. If the other problems you saw are not resolved in future drafts, use those times to bring them up. Otherwise, if you try to tell them every single problem that is wrong, one thing is guaranteed - the writer will be as overwhelmed as you were when you received the draft, and all their creativity and desire will be stifled. And do really you want to be the one who made the next bestselling author stop writing? 

6.  Don't forget the "why." Let's be honest with ourselves; critiquing is a subjective activity, and there is no way to get around it. Sometimes what I like is not the same thing someone else likes, and vice versa. Equally, sometimes what I "get" or what "works" for me is not the same as what someone else, especially an author, meant. So if you qualify your criticism with why you feel the way you do about something, the author can at least understand your perspective. Then he/she can make a more informed decision about if they want to take your advice or leave it. 

7.  Leave ownership to the author. In conjunction with the guideline above, always remember that you are not the author. You can make as many suggestions as you would like, but ultimately, the author has the right to decide if he/she will accept what you offered. Do not be offended if the author decides to ignore what you have suggested. For example, in my draft I had a phrase that talked about only smelling the smells of smoke and cold. One critiquer made corrections to say "smoke in the cold." I appreciate his comment, but I will not be changing it because it does not say what I want it to say. When it is cold outside, there is a distinctive scent of the cold, and that is what I was trying to express.

8.  Know when to be quiet. With the above-mentioned story that gave me a difficult time, there were some other issues I wanted to point out, but I also did not want to make my review purely negative. So I said nothing. If the issues still exist in a future draft, I'll bring them up then, but I wanted to be sensitive to the writer's feelings. Also, if a writer decides not to accept your criticism, you may ask if they did that intentionally or just forgot, but if it was intentional, do not insist. Again, refer to guideline #7. Conversely, as a critiquee, accept the criticism that comes your way, even if you do not agree with it. Do not argue with the critiquer; remember they are just trying to help you. Instead, thank them and keep in mind guideline #7.

9.  Know when to leave. We all have different personalities. Just look at our choices of friends and acquaintances. We click with some people and not with others. I'm lucky enough to be in a group where I think I will work just fine with all the members, but that is not always the case. If a group is not working for you, find or start a new one. Or you may outgrow a group's benefit and need something else. If either of those are the cases, walk away. You are doing yourself no good, nor your group members. I tried to start a critique group a year or two ago, but no one else seemed as committed to it, and I was the only one who consistently showed up. Finally, I gave up and walked away. Now I have a new group that I think will be much better for me.

This guidelines have been gleaned from various resources and personal experience, but I know they work. Even last night, one group member mentioned to me that I have excellent insights. I tell you this not to brag, but to let you know that with the right focus and effort, any person can be a successful critiquer. The only other thing to remember is to also be a successful critiquee. And the last bit of advice I can give on that is to remember that your group members are trying to make your writing better; it is not a personal attack at you. (And for those rare times when it is a personal attack, find another group!).