Open Receiving, Careful Critiquing
By Jenny Flake Rabe
Critique groups are like listening gold for writers. Done right, groups help one another, grow together, and celebrate each other’s successes. The other day, I was sitting through a critique group session. I have to be honest. It was painful. It really was and after a few authors read, I wanted to leave. Critiquing another writer’s writing is very hard for a lot of reasons. Here are some things to consider:
1) The author is the only one who sees the big picture
2) Everyone’s time is valuable
3) It is human nature to be defensive about your skills (reading and writing)
With those understandings, I feel we can get more out of our critique groups.
Here are some tips for writers seeking feedback.
1. Be specific
Advice is all over the place when the writer is not looking for something specific in the chapter. Before an author begins reading their chapter, they can really do a lot to prepare for the meeting. Read it in advance, see what initial problems they see in the chapter, and have specific questions or parts of the plot in mind when asking for help. If you don’t have time to do this before, then as you read, try to identify the parts that don’t seem right and make sure to ask those questions while others are giving feedback.
2. Be open
I learned early in my teaching career that when a parent is ready to critique you on how well you’re not teaching their child, you get a notebook and write down whatever they say. No talking, just nodding and writing. Does that mean you agree with them or have to do what they are asking? No! But here’s the thing you need to remember. 1- The writer knows the story way better than the listener, so they are giving you a critique based on limited knowledge. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can tell you what holes are missing that you thought you filled. The story is so close to you, so you can’t see when you’re not explaining it well. It won’t be as helpful if they don’t have previous knowledge of other chapters, they will not understand future chapters. In those cases, you just ignore their feedback without trying to fill them in on previous chapters. It doesn’t matter at that very moment that they understand and it can make a critique meeting longer than necessary.
The “Don’t talk” part comes into play when it comes to defending your story. Let’s say some of your partners have attacked the way you executed the plot or how you made a character so unlikable. We’ve all been there…and we all do it. In those cases, instead of trying to defend why you built a character or plot a certain way, nod, write down what they say, and let them finish. Critique partners are similar to beta-readers. They are helping the writer see what the reader thinks…and that is extremely valuable since readers do not have the story in their head. If a handful of people are telling you the same type of feedback, there’s a good chance you might want to rework a chapter and try it a different way. But here’s the key, you have to decide in the end what to do. You can please yourself and be happy with what you write, or you can aim to please readers and make sure they have a quality experience with your story. It also is very frustrating when a writer dismisses your critique when you took the time to jot down your overall thoughts about it. It makes them limit the amount of feedback they want to give you in the future.
3. Be grateful
You know what writers love to do most….write! Do you know what they hate to do most? Anything that takes them away from their writing. It is a sacrifice to come to critique groups. You are giving up valuable writing time to volunteer words of advice to other writers. When writers seem to ignore a listener’s critique, it is hard on writers that have made the decision to listen and offer their help. So regardless if you agree with their feedback, be grateful. Saying a few kind words or even writing them a little note of appreciation if their critique was especially helpful goes a long way. It’s also a way to keep that critique community happy. One rotten egg spoils them all.
Now, I have spoken a little about how writers should respond when sharing their work. Now, let’s approach the subject of how listeners should respond in a critique meeting.
1. Be attentive
You made the decision to show up and offer your aid to some other writer, so be there if you are there. Do whatever you need to do to pay attention and give helpful feedback. If the writer hasn’t shared anything they are looking for, ask them if there are any trouble spots in the chapters. This will help you stay focused. It’s especially hard if you have online critique groups that are late at night. I am not perfect at this either, but I am going to start bowing out of meetings if I’m too tired to give every author my full attention.
2. Be kind
Understand that you do not understand the story as well as the author does. Many times when we are confused by the story or the writing style doesn’t match our own, we tend to be harder with our critique. We have less kind things to say. On these instances, we need to try harder to find good and constructive things to say. A writer shouldn’t be able to pinpoint in a critique session that you don’t like their writing. I am guilty of this, and it really is hard to put your personal feelings aside and only share feedback that can improve their writing. There are so many things to focus on.
-Execution of dialogue
-Sentence structure/Consistent punctuation or other editing issues
These topics don’t even scratch the subject, but they give you a few things to focus on if the writer doesn’t already have some questions in mind. Be sure you are following the positivity rule of three positives to every negative. We are here to build each other up, not make each other run from the room crying. I also try to follow Thumper’s rule—“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
3. Be patient
It is a complete mixed-bag when you have a critique group. Writers are at different levels of skill, and sometimes it may seem like you are the bottom of the pile or the top looking down, training all the young guppies. Neither is a bad place to be. I love how in this group, there are no statuses. We are not better than each other in all areas. She might be better at dialogue, or she might be a good proofreader, or he might be an excellent marketer of their books, but in a multi-skilled group, we can use each other’s skills to grow. Be open to learning from each other.
Putting yourself and your writing out there makes you vulnerable, and it is normal to feel defensive. But don’t let that stop you from progressing in your writing. Realize that every listener may have something to offer you in terms of critique if you are only willing to be humble enough to receive it. And listeners, remember that every writer putting themselves out there just wants to know they are on the right track. If they’re not, then gently give them guiderails to grab onto to get back on track without pushing them off the ledge with no rope to climb up.
Jenny is an honest-to-goodness southern girl at heart. Other than her love for her husband, two boys, and her feline, writing, ballroom dancing, and public speaking are some of her favorite pastimes. She's an avid across-the-state traveler and spends her spare time running a beta-reading group online and serving her fellow authors.
School’s out for the summer, but 11-year-old Kendall plans on camping out on the playground until he finds a permanent place to hide from his crazy-mean adopted parents. He meets Lorelei, a girl his age, and together they find out not all treasure can be bought. When his adopted parents show up at the playground and Kendall disappears, Lorelei has to decide whether to tell break her promise and tell her mom that he's homeless or risk losing her best friend forever.