Writing Critique Groups
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
~ Neil Gaiman
This is a large and complex subject with lots of issues for consideration. (What’s the difference between a critique group and a group of writers who get together to discuss craft and/or business? Does a critique group give you something beta readers don’t? Do betas have any advantages over critters? If you’re a struggling writer, can you realistically expect help from other struggling writers? If so, what kind? Problem identification…? Editorial help…? Moral support…?) And the list goes on—we could do a dozen posts on the subject. But I want to focus on one aspect of writing groups—the mindset of the critic, when giving (hopefully) constructive feedback.
Some context: I don’t belong to a formal critique group. But, as I’ll go into more below, I do belong to an informal, two-person writing support group which has been very useful for both of us, for years. Also, I’ve used a very limited number of betas—like two or three—who are all really intelligent people who (a) read widely, and (b) are good at putting their response to a manuscript into coherent thoughts. I don’t always use them, and I don’t think I’ve ever had all of them read on the same manuscript. But occasionally I’ll go to them for a gut check. What I mainly want is their emotional response to the story—what worked for them, and what didn’t. And sometimes, why something worked or didn’t, if offered. But I’m not looking for specific solutions from beta readers because—unless they can really get inside my authorial mindset—they may have solutions, but they’re very unlikely to fit my vision of what the story’s about.
And that’s what I want to discuss: the crucial difference between helping someone write their book as best they can, vs. telling them how you would write it. The first part (helping the author best realize their vision) may actually be easier for a non-writer to accomplish than a writer (who is much more likely to stray into second-part territory—telling them how you would do it). All of which can become problematic in light of the fact that a writers group is mainly comprised of, uh… other writers. All of whom have ideas about how things should be done (of course they do—they’re writers) and may put forth the details of those ideas regardless of the intent of the author in question.
Example: Let’s say our intrepid writer is working on a contemporary YA and part of her authorial vision for this particular project is having her characters talk the way many teens actually talk, multiple f-bombs and all. There are a couple of approaches the critic could take…
Critter: “Can you think of a way to say it without cursing?” Or: “What I do is write, ‘He swore.’ I’d recommend you try that.” Or: “A good writer could convey the emotion using better vocabulary.” Or: “Do kids really need to hear this language?”
Writer: “Shit.” [Hangs her head.] “Sorry.”
Critter: “What are you trying to do here?”
Writer: “I’m trying to convey what life is really like for a contemporary teen in high school. Like it or not, IRL this is how some teens actually talk, and I’m trying to authentically show that via realistic conversation.”
Critter: “Okay, got it. In that case, I thought scene X had more impact than scene Y, because…” [Explains why they liked X over Y]
Writer: “Thanks. That was helpful.”
It’s really just the old “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” thing. We have to recognize everyone’s coming from a different place, and we have to honor that when giving notes. In other words, help them tell their story—in their own unique way—as well as possible… not your version of it. Otherwise the writer’s work would ultimately read like the critic’s work, and who needs that? (This is similar to the over-simplified notion that one shouldn’t write about anyone with a different background than their own. See the earlier “Authenticity” post on doing the hard work to make your characters unique individuals instead of stereotypes.) So if you’re planning on doing more than pointing out where things didn’t work for you (which is really about 80% of good critiquing in the first place) then you need to get inside the author’s mindset and understand what they’re trying to do, and why. Otherwise it can become an exercise in “Write as I write.”
The little two-person writing group I mentioned is comprised of me and my wife. We’ve both been writing professionally for over twenty years, and we’ve been each other’s first reader since day one. But we always take care to read and comment with the other’s writing goals in mind, not our own. Not too long ago we were discussing ways to up the ante—tension-wise—around a certain scene in something she was writing. I remember laughing and saying if I were writing it I’d just add an R-rated sex-and-drugs scene to show how far off the rails a certain character had gone, but I knew that was totally wrong for the book, the author, and the audience, so I offered a pack of bad ideas (as per usual) and we tossed things back and forth until something finally clicked. Because I knew where she was coming from. (For more thoughts on the benefits of “talking plot” with another writer, see this post.)
Try to keep your ego out of it and stick to the writerly aspects of the story in mind. The most helpful thing we can offer each other (besides encouragement, which is really #1) is simply pointing out where things might be unclear or unbelievable or not working for you in whatever fashion, and allowing the writer to decide how she might fix this. Additionally, try to use positive reinforcement rather than negative, because one of the most important things for successful writing is simply that the writer not feel discouraged. Believe me, nothing kills creativity faster than thinking your work is crap. So avoid making the other writer feel this. (Ex: If you find part of the manuscript exciting and part boring, point to the part where you were engaged and say, “I loved this! I’d like to see more of this during the other part.”)
And finally, keep in mind that a critique is simply one person’s opinion. It’s your job as the writer to weigh things as objectively as possible and try to determine if there’s some truth in the critique. (A good sign there might be is when you already had the vague feeling that something wasn’t right with the part in question… usually our own subconscious knows before anyone else. Another is when you get similar comments from multiple critters about the same part.) But in reality there’s no way everyone’s going to like a given story, even those who supposedly have skill in sniffing out good manuscripts: there are countless stories of professional editors passing on what turned out to be critically acclaimed books.
As I like to point out to other authors when they get a bad review, if you write a book and 99% of the public doesn’t care for it but 1% buys it and likes it, you have a runaway bestseller on your hands.
So… let’s hear about your critiquing experiences, either as critter or writer.
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