Skip to main content

Critique Groups - Getting Them On Their Feet - Part 3


By Chris Stewart

Part 1

Part 2

So now you've found the group that meets the criteria we've discussed, or started one, and you're ready to go. How do you run it? What are its rules of conduct? How do you convey your comments and suggestions to your fellow writers and poets in a respectful and helpful way so they don’t rip your head off?

Running the Group

It’s fairly simple. You:

a) Agree to meet at one neutral, easily accessed location for each meeting OR rotate houses so everyone in the group hosts.

b) Each week a different person in the group facilitates (the host if you are rotating houses). This means keeping time, keeping people on task, and keeping the peace. The latter means asking someone to be clearer and offer examples that illustrate their comment, or rephrasing what they’ve said in a nicer way and asking them if that’s what they mean. It usually doesn't mean breaking up a fight or trying to coax a crying writer out of the bathroom, but I've seen both. Brush up on your yogic breathing, you might need it.

c) Start on time and end on time. If you need to run over, ask if everyone in the group is okay with that. If someone has to leave on time, make sure you critique their piece before they leave.

d) Choose criteria to go over appropriate to whatever form you all work in. If poetry, choose line breaks, imagery, form, rhythm, sound, language – etc. For fiction, perhaps, voice, tone, plot, structure, characters, dialogue. The facilitator prints this list out for everyone to have in front of them. Use it to guide the session.

e) Two main questions to ask for each piece: “What works?” and “What could be made stronger/better?” Start with “What works?” first.

f) The writer/poet should not talk until after the group has critiqued the work. It inhibits people and detours the discussion. Once the comments are finished, ask the writer/poet if they have questions, want to bring up anything the group missed, or wish to clarify something. If they get defensive, gently interrupt them (and perhaps cut off the wine).

People who strike out on following these guidelines 3 times should be asked to leave. Pick the person who will do this with the most compassion and who has a thick skin!


How to Comment

As for commenting, this is similar to navigating an argument, only instead of using “I” phrases in place of “You” phrases (as in “I feel that we aren’t right for each other anymore,” instead of “You’re such a $%@#*&%^$!!! Lose my number!”), you reverse it and use “You” instead of “I” (as in “Your character development where the wife is concerned really works, particularly the part where she….” OR “Your character development could be stronger for the wife in this story, for example….” OR “You really know how to use metaphors. The most effective ones were (give examples)”).

Even better, leave off the ‘you’ altogether and speak in neutral terms. I’ll show you what I mean in a moment.

Once you say “I” you make it personal. And you can bet the writer will be more likely to take your comments personally. The focus should be on the piece, not on you. The first habit you need to break in order to move into this direction and style of critiquing is to stop saying “I like” or “I don’t like.” This is completely useless information as it:

a) Makes it personal, as stated above.

b) Doesn’t give the writer anything to go on in terms of WHY you liked or didn’t like it.

c) Isn’t really relevant. It’s nice to know, but in the scheme of things, not important.

So what do you say and how do you say it?

Tone is easy. If it’s positive – be positive! Be enthusiastic! Smile!

If it’s a negative comment – be positive! Be enthusiastic! Smile!

In both cases – you must show that you care, that you are offering both the positive and negative suggestions as a means of helping the piece be better. I don’t mean giving a gag-inducing, saccharine sweet performance. I mean being pleasant. No frowning or smirking or laughing or pointing, ok? Remember, this same group is going to be discussing your work in a few minutes and you’ll get yours then, so this is definitely a case of “Do unto others….”

So phrase your comments like this:

NO: “I can’t understand the plot. It makes no sense. Everyone is so boring! They don’t do anything so I don’t care about them.” (I’ve heard worse, with expletives (!), but this will do as an example.)

YES: “The character of _________ appears too passive. She reacts instead of acts most of the time. For example (give example). Perhaps instead she could (give suggestion), to add more energy and show the reader her feelings instead of telling. On page (insert page) you do have her taking action about ___________, and it really works. It tells us that she’s ____________.”

Make a pact as a group to help each other stick to this way of commenting. In my classes we sometimes create a word that we use to indicate the person commenting has crossed the line. Make that word whatever you want – make it silly so everyone laughs. Or throw M&Ms at each other as a warning (make sure there are no pets around to get sick off of so much chocolate!).

It takes time and practice to learn how to do this. But you can see the difference. The writer will hear that you took the time to absorb their piece and find ways to make it stronger. This is excellent practice for you as well. It will train you to see flaws in your own writing, and construct better stories, poems, etc.

The best groups are those that grow together. That work hard to provide balanced critiques and are cheerleaders for each other. I wish for you a group like this!

Next time: the last installment. How do you know when it’s time to break up with or end the group? And how do you do it?

Chris Stewart is the program director for arts in education, literature, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is www.therealwriter.com

Comments

Worthy WE Wisdom

What Makes a Good Memoir?

By Paula Margulies As a publicist, I'm sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I've also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer's conferences. The bulk of these conversations have to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better. My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they've written. A lot of memoirs I've seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences – some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I

"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and it gets worse)

OUTSIDE OF NARCISSISM, IMPATIENCE AND BAD ADVICE ARE A WRITER'S WORST ENEMIES . If you ever attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulate like  ruinous viral memes through the nervous systems of America's aborning novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look and ask, "Where the hell did you hear that?" Yes, the primal question: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT? Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group . Ahhhh, of course , you think. Why just recently at an Algonkian event , one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both that using only one point of view to write a n

The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

What makes for good drama is a constant. To begin, we combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure joins "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story. We concur.  NOTE:  "Plot Point" is defined here as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In the genre novel as a whole, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: a first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax, but a surprise happens that resolves

Top Seven Reasons Aspiring Authors Fail to Publish

At a conservative estimate, upwards of 250,000 writers in the U.S. are currently struggling to write or find an agent for their first commercial novel or memoir. If you understand this business, you also know why an enormous percentage are unable to make it happen. Below are my top seven reasons why otherwise passionate writers will join the 99.9% never to become commercially published (btw, to read other valid perspectives on this, click on the " novel rejection reasons " label on the right). 1. NEOPHYTE SKILL SET AND A FAILURE TO COMPREHEND THE PROBLEM   In the case of the writer's prose narrative, it just does not display the kind of energy, cinema, creativity, and polish necessary to convince a gatekeeper professional to go deeper. The first line falls with a thud, and the graph dips from there into a pond of blah. This circumstance is perhaps the number one cause of quick rejection. Usually, the writer in question is sufficiently new to the game, not aware,

Labors, Sins, and Six Acts - Official Novel Writing Guide - All Genres

An ideal first stop... You will discover below a series of scholarly, researchable, frank and indispensable guides to conceiving and writing the commercial genre novel, as well as the plot-driven literary novel. But the cutting edge of the developmental peels and prods as presented makes an initial big assumption, namely, that you are honestly desirous of true publication either by a classic publisher or traditional literary press , and therefore, willing to birth the most dynamic and can't-put-it-down novel you possibly can. Further, you are also naturally desirous of great sets, mind-altering theme, unforgettable characters, and cinematic scenes, among other things. Does that go without saying?   Perhaps, but you must know, it won't be easy. Labors and Sins First of all, the method-based assertions and information we've gathered and elevated before your eyes below will shiver many of you like a 6.5 on the literary Richter scale because it will contr