16 Sep

Giving Useful Critiques

Posted in Critique, DIY MFA

Last week we talked about what goes into putting together a strong critique group.  This week and next we’ll be discussing the actual critique process, both the give and the take.

Giving critique is as much an art form as writing the work itself.  A strong critique can mean the difference between a piece being mediocre and it being great.  But to get this good result, you need both a reader who gives critique well and a writer who knows what to do with the critique.

What makes a strong critique?

 1) Positive first.  No point in tearing down the writer from the beginning of the critique session.  I’ve found that writers are more likely to listen to my critique points if I start off the critique with one or two positives, then offer suggestions for change.

 2) Keep it specific.  Often readers will give vague critiques like “the dialogue is stilted” or “I didn’t like the character” but amorphous comments like these are just cop-outs.  Remember the adage Show, Don’t Tell?  It works for critiques too.  Don’t just tell the writer what isn’t working, show them a specific example in their own piece.

3) Don’t just say what you like/dislike, say why.  Similar to the previous point, saying “I don’t like this part” doesn’t help the writer fix the problem.  Instead, if you explain why it isn’t working for you, then the writer has a better idea of what needs to be done in revision.  Notice that this point applies both to positive comments and critique points.  There’s no point in knowing that something is good if you don’t know why it worked so you can repeat it in the future.

4) Try to offer suggestions for change.  This point is always controversial with some writers because they firmly believe that writers shouldn’t tell other writers how to write their books.  I’m not advocating that those giving critique rewrite the work for the writer, I’m simply saying that they should offer suggestions, not just criticism.  Whether or not the writer takes the suggestions is up to him or her, but at the very least, they will have some idea of how to rework what isn’t working.

5) Write legibly or type.  This one seems silly, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gotten critiques back and the handwriting is so bad I have no idea what that reader was saying.  If you’re going to take the time to read and comment on a piece, make sure your investment is worthwhile by making sure the writer can actually read what you wrote.

Sample Critique

 Now we’re going to play a bit of a game.  I’m going to post a paragraph written by an “anonymous” author (AKA iggi) and you’ll all get a chance to try out some of the above techniques.  I’ve also gotten some writer friends to read this paragraph so I’ll include some of their comments below as well.

         It was sunny the day I died, and a light breeze tickled my skin.  Birds chirped.  Lavender scent floated from the bushes like an invisible cloud.  Of course, at the time I did not realize I was dead; that was to come later.  I lay on the ground, frozen like a statue, my hands and feet locked still as though they had been nailed to the pavement.  I wonder if that’s where the saying came from: dead as a doornail.  But I am getting away from myself.  A crowd gathered around me.  The first to stop was a woman with a Botox face and plastic boobs.  She wore a pink velour jogging ensemble but did not look sweaty so I figured she wasn’t wearing it for the jogging.  Next came a man, dripping and breathing heavily.  His limbs were long and stringy, like pulled meat.  His running shorts were too short.  There came others.  A pair of police officers.  A team of paramedics.  A dog-walker with a pack of thirteen dogs.  I remember counting them and thinking “that must be my lucky number.”  And then he came.  The man in the black suit.  He looked like a bodyguard.

 “Although the protagonist’s name is not given, we are shown through details that they have a strong use of the five senses: touch (a light breeze tickled my skin), sound (birds chirped), smell (lavender scent floated from the bushes…), sight (woman with a Botox face…).”     ~CB

“What does it say about a character that speaks in cliches? Very intriguing.”     ~CB

“I love the opening line!  It grabbed me immediately and made me want to read further.”     ~DR

“I liked the lines about the lavender scent from the bushes and the woman in the jogging suit. The line about the man who’s limbs were like pulled meat is excellent. Solid imagery.”     ~DS

“You mentioned a crowd gathering. What were they saying? How does the protagonist’s five senses come into play more during those details?”     ~CB

“I’m wondering if you could come up with something other than ‘frozen like a statue’ as it’s such a common cliche.  The same goes for dead as a doornail although that could almost work since you refer to it as a saying.”     ~DR

“I’m also not sure about how I feel about the man who was dripping and breathing heavily.  He needs more of an explanation as to why he was dripping and breathing heavily.  At the end of the sentence we can deduce that he’s been running because of his shorts, but I’d rather see that in the beginning of the sentence.”      ~DR

“I wasn’t sure if the internal monologue about “getting ahead of myself” worked for me.  I lost focus there a bit.”     ~DS

“Also, did the police officers and paramedics do anything? I’d like to get a sense of what they were saying or if this character could even hear them. Were they describing the scene as it looked to them? Did anyone have a look on their face that indicated that the main character was dead?”     ~DS

Today’s Task:  Read the sample paragraph above and if you like, share your critique below.  Don’t worry, iggi’s used to having his work pulled to shreds so go wild!


09 Sep

Critique Groups 101

Posted in Critique, DIY MFA

In June of 2007, I started a critique group with some writers I met in a fiction class.  This group started out pretty loosey-goosey, but over the years, we’ve developed a structure, built a rapport and formed lasting friendships.  Eventually we coined a name for our group: Quill&Coffee.

Whether you’re looking for (or starting) a critique group or are in a group already, here are some tips I’ve learned in my three years with Quill&Coffee.

Joining (or starting) a Critique Group 

1)  Follow the rules.  At first.  If you’re joining an already established group, it’s a good idea to follow the group’s rules and standards.  Avoid submitting your work at the last minute and make attendance at the meetings a priority.  At the same time, don’t be afraid to voice your thoughts and suggestions about how the group is managed.  Just make sure you build a rapport with your fellow writers before you start trying to change how they run things.

If you’re starting your own group, make guidelines and try to stick to them.  Things to consider are: How often will you meet?  How often can each writer submit?  Do you need a schedule?  What does everyone expect in terms of critique (full letters? margin notes? brainstorming?)  And how do you plan to run the actual critique session?  Of course, you can always change the rules as you go, but it’s important to start with guidelines in place. 

2)  Find like-minded writers.  This is true both when joining a group or starting one.  Perhaps the most important thing in a critique group is that the writers be more or less in the same phase of writing and publication.  If one writer has several books published while the rest of the group is just dabbling in short stories, there develops an imbalance in the group dynamic and it becomes difficult for the to have a useful dialogue.  When shopping around for a critique group, look for other writers who are in the same boat as you (or, if you’re ambitious, writers who are one or two steps ahead) but try to avoid groups where the writers are on a completely different plane. 

3)  Look outside your genre.  Again, both when joining a group or when starting one, it’s good to consider writers of genres different from your own.  One of the most valuable things about Quill&Coffee is that each member writes in a different genre.  While we are all more or less in the same place in our writerly development, we also each bring something different to the table with our writing and our critiques.  Of course, some writers can also find very strong and valuable critique groups within their genre.  If a mixed-genre group is not for you, that’s OK.  But even in a group with a specific genre focus, it’s a definite plus if the members have different perspectives on the genre and different styles of writing and critique. 

Once You’re in a Group

4)  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  OK, this one’s a no-brainer and it applies whether you’re looking for a group or already in one.  Still, I think it bears repeating.  Writers in a critique group should treat each other with respect and have each other’s best-interest at heart.  If you’re shopping for a group and the writers don’t respect each other… RUN, don’t walk.  If you’re in a group and a writer is being disrespectful, then it’s time to have a serious talk with the offending party.  In the land of critique groups, respect is gold. 

5)  Play to each other’s strengths.  After working with my writer’s group for almost four years, I’ve learned who to go to when I have specific questions or concerns about my work.  Each member of the group is good at something different and by recognizing and embracing these differences, I’ve learned to maximize what I get out of my critiques.

One technique I use when I’m submitting a long chunk of writing is I ask each member of the group to focus on a different aspect of craft.  For instance, I’ll ask one person to focus on character, another on plot, etc.  Of course, if I’m submitting something short, I won’t limit people’s critiques in this way, but for long submissions, I’ve found that it helps to give people a topic to focus on while reading.  Also, because it’s a long submission, this technique helps make sure that the areas I’m worried about get covered in our discussion. 

6)  If things aren’t going right, talk it out.  Open lines of communication are essential with a critique group.  After a while, this will come naturally because the longer the group stays together, the more you will see each other as friends as well as colleagues.  My critique group recently went through some growing pains and for a while it looked like things would fall apart, but we were able to talk things out openly and work out the situation. 

For more information on running a critique group, read this very helpful post: Writing Group at Waldorf to your Astoria.

In the end, my wish for all of you is that you already have–or are able to find–a group that fits you as well as Quill&Coffee has fit me.

Today’s Questions-of-the-Day are: Are you in a critique group?  What’s the most important thing you’ve learned by being in a group?  What advice would you give someone who’s looking to join a group?

If you’re looking for a critique group or critique partners, tell us a little about your writing and what you’re looking for.  Who knows, maybe someone else in DIY MFA is looking for the same thing and you can connect.


04 Jul

Are You Good at Taking Critique?

Posted in Critique, Process, Writing

Here’s a quizzy for you. Answer the following questions, then count up your “Yes” answers and see your score below.

1)  When your critique group says they don’t like your character, is what they’re secretly saying that they don’t like you?

2)  When a colleague points out a flaw in your manuscript, do you immediately reply with an explanation why that flaw isn’t really a flaw after all?

3)  You have 5 people in your writing group and they each have a different opinion about your WIP.  Do you try to rewrite your project so that it fits all 5 suggestions?

4)  When you send your manuscript to your critique partners, do you preface it by saying that the language is “coded” and that you’re going for something “post-modern”? (Meaning, of course, that if they don’t get it, it’s because they’re too dumb to get it and not because you were too dumb to write it like that in the first place.)

5)  A corollary to #4, when you send your manuscript out, do you preface it by saying it’s really, really rough and you wrote it in two minutes on your iPhone while standing in line at the movie theater?

6)  Do you refer to your manuscript as “your baby?”

7)  Do you find it hard to sit through a critique without your favorite comfort food?

8)  Have you ever cried after a critique but lied and told everyone it was because your hamster died?

9)  When your short story gets rejected by an editor, do you take it upon yourself to write back and calmly explain why said editor is utterly and completely wrong?

10)  You got critiqued by your writing group last week, got lots of suggestions for change and this week you come back with a manuscript that is… exactly the same.  No changes made.  Do you expect a glowing critique this time?

Count up your “Yes” answers and scroll down to see your score.

0 = You have a level head and you make the most of your critiques because don’t take anything too personally.  You take notes and you know when to incorporate feedback and when to let it go.  Keep it up and you’ll go far.

1 = OK, so you’re on the loopy side of normal, but you’re still pretty good about not letting critiques get to you.  Sure, you might need to reward yourself for a tough critique session with some ice cream or even a good cry, but that’s fine.  Just make sure you get home and close the shades before you do.

2-3 = You are a tricky one.  Let’s face it.  On one hand, you are a bit… how shall I put this… wacko.  The thing that makes it so hard for your critique partners to deal with you is that you seem completely oblivious to this fact.  Wake up!  Stop writing like a lunatic.  And start listening to what your critique partners tell you; they might actually be right.

4-5 = You are in need of a massive reality check.  Here it is.  Your book is not you.  Your book is not your child.  Your book is not a living being.  Get over it.  Now that we’ve made that clear, stop griping about how much everyone criticizes your work and focus on making it better.

6+ = Seriously?  You seriously answered “yes” to six or more of the above?  Wow.  I don’t know what else to say, but… Wow.  May I shake your hand?

Comments Off on Are You Good at Taking Critique?

Iggi & Gabi - All rights reserved © 2010-2011

I am a HowJoyful Design by Joy Kelley