By Chris Stewart
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