THE SCRIVAS SAY:
ScrivaAmber says: An effective critique group can benefit your writing life in three important areas.
First–CRAFT. A good critique of your work addresses the fundamentals of craft: plot, character, setting, voice, point of view, pacing, dialogue, and word choice. Giving good critique–analyzing the craft fundamentals in the work of others–will improve your writing even more!
Second–BUSINESS. Critique group members can share resources (articles, marketing plans, books, research materials, professional subscriptions), contacts (agents, editors, librarians, booksellers), and hold each other accountable to a professional standard of work.
Third–COMMITMENT. The writing life is like crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat, long periods of boredom punctuated by exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. A critique group is there to celebrate, encourage, prod, cajole, and commiserate along the way.
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ScrivaAmber says: There is no “right” way to structure a critique group. Here are some things to consider:
Online or face-to-face? Thanks to online critique groups even writers living in remote locations or writing in niche genres can find like-minded, dedicate groups to join. Online critique can be less intimidating and easier to take because you have time to process comments you receive before responding. Face-to-face groups have the advantage of in-the-moment discussion and a more social aspect as well.
Genre-specific? It can be helpful for all members to know the conventions of the genre you are writing in. Picture books, mysteries, and chick lit all have their own unique features. On the other hand, different perspectives can be great.
How often to meet? From weekly to monthly, the key is to match meeting frequency with your productivity. Too often will mean a dearth of submissions. Too infrequently will mean you can’t revise based on comments in a timely fashion. And be realistic. We do have other lives as well!
Critique in advance or cold read? Some groups send mss around in advance so that each member reads and writes comments before the meeting. Advantages: more in-depth critique, change to “think” before you blurt out first impressions, and better way to learn craft in the beginning. Disadvantages: time-consuming. Other groups bring mss copies for each member who does a “cold” read aloud. Advantages: no advance prep, chance to read aloud. Disadvantages: those new to critique may not be able to identify strengths and weaknesses on the spot.
Highly-structured or free-form? Some groups need to have deadlines, submission requirements, and a strict structure to each meeting (ex. 20 minutes for comments during which writer is silent followed by 5 minutes of response). Other groups have a more free-form discussion.
Mid-critique discussion or silent listening? This is related to the issue of structure but bears a second look. Initially it can be uncomfortable to receive critique and the writer can feel defensive. In these situations, listening to critique without discussion and then processing the comments at home is a good idea. Once there is more comfort with critique (and more trust among members), open discussion can be more productive.
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ScrivaNicole says: A good critique group requires a group of writers who are dedicated to their craft, care about one another both professionally and personally, and who all know the proper way to critique a manuscript.
Beginning with dedication, the writers should be knowledgeable in their field and take the art and craft of writing seriously. It’s best if the group does not consist of “hobby” writers, but those who wish to publish in the type of literature the critique group represents. It is best also if the writers read in the field they are writing in, not just craft books, journals, blogs, tweets, and periodicals (though all of those are necessary as well), but in the actual genre. As the infamous YA writer Richard Peck has said quite often, “We write by the light of every book we have ever read.” The same can be said for critiquing as well, since writers most likely critique by the light of every book they have ever read.
Caring about the writers in your group is important too, because then every victory becomes a celebration for the whole as well. It is hard enough to open up our veins and bleed on to the page in front of others. If the members of the group get to know one another better by going to conferences and retreats or having writing days together, then it makes the process of sharing raw material a little bit easier since mutual trust begins to flourish between members of the group.
Finally, it is important to know the proper way to critique a manuscript both on the page and during the meetings. Everyone should listen to what a writer is looking for regarding their manuscript critique, whether it be a need for line edits, a basic sense of whether or not the plot is working, or if a character is sounding flat, or all of the above. Group members should make sure to include what works in the piece that they are critiquing as well as what isn’t or what needs clarification. When giving critiques during the meeting, writers should take turns speaking, allowing everyone a chance to share, and always, always begin with the positive aspects of the manuscript.
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ScrivaAddie says: As with writing, good critique takes practice, and you will develop your ‘author’s eye’ over time. But to start with…
Read with an open mind: Aim to read each piece at least two times– first for general content, and second for line edits. Start noticing what you respond to and what interrupts you. Was the character consistent and believable? Did it pull you along or drag in parts? Did the voice and p.o.v work for the story? Where did you lose interest?
Compose your thoughts ahead of time. Attempt to organize everything you noticed into two or three important points. Most of us type up an overview paragraph or write a quick bulletted list for the manuscript, and refer to these notes in the critique group.
Use the praise sandwich. When giving critique–on paper and in person–always start with the good, put things to improve in the middle, and end with something you like again. There are multiple things to praise in every single manuscript: become a seeker of them.
Listen to everyone else. Over time the Scrivas have found a natural rhythm, and sometimes we cut in to strongly agree/disagree with a point being made. But the general rule is: never interrupt someone else’s critique. Listen and learn.
Don’t nitpick. Most likely, you will give the critiqu-ee either the hard copy or an electronic copy with line edits. With line edits, you can nitpick away! But it is important to use group discussion time to talk through the major issues of the work, and especially true of novels.
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Let’s face it: Nobody likes to be criticized. And that’s why it is vitally important to draw a clear distinction between criticism and critique. Some excellent blogs and books for writers describe the differences between the two (see the Scribe’s Alley blog if you’d like to read a few).
It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the author whose work you are critiquing. Ask yourself what he or she needs to hear and not what you need to say. And when in doubt, check yourself against this list:
- Where criticism finds fault, critique finds what’s working and what needs work.
- Criticism picks nits; critique picks specific concerns and causes for kudos.
- Criticism can be snarky or sneaky in a superior tone. Critique is honest and objective in an unfailingly kind manner.
- Criticism can be sharp and pointed or go on and on; critique knows how and when…
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ScrivaSabina says: What we write feels like part of us: after all, we birthed it, or perhaps merely opened up a vein to create it. In critique, though, it helps to remember that only The Work is under discussion, not you. There really is a difference.
There are Before, During Critique, and After components to help with defensive or hurt feelings.
1. BEFORE: Know thy group
Elsewhere we discuss the importance of being in a critique group with people you like and trust. When you know that your fellow writers believe in your work and in you as a writer, that their one goal in critiquing is to make your manuscript better, you can more easily complete the tasks that follow.
2. DURING CRITIQUE: Open yourself up
(Think) The manuscript is being critiqued, not you. The critique group members have your work’s best interests at heart, and are only offering options for strengthening it. You will go home and think over the comments given, implementing what will most help your manuscript.
(Do) Listen. Take notes, including comments you don’t like or agree with. Swallow hard if necessary, but don’t defend or argue. Keep your clarifying questions brief and to a minimum, if they’re really needed. Say thank you. (At this point, smiling is optional.)
Several tasks follow AFTER…
3. Know thyself
Remind yourself you’re a wonderful human being even though you’re not Shakespeare. Pat yourself on the back for doing the hard work of writing and for seeking to grow in your craft. For the rest, be even more ready to set aside defensive or hurt feelings if other things are going on in your life that may be wearing you down. Everything seems worse if you’re facing problems in your job, health, or relationships (or, er, it’s just that time of the month).
4. Give thanks
Be grateful for your group’s incisive insights! You want your work to wow that agent…that editor…that reader (and the next, and the next), and critiques help you accomplish that. I’ve picked up books I couldn’t stand to read, even by authors whose earlier works I loved, and knew what went wrong: the books were not properly critiqued/edited. You don’t want to cringe, re-reading your published book when you’ve grown as a writer.
5. Re-open the manuscript
Lick your wounds. Dare to pull out the work and consider the suggestions made. Apply them, even! It’s OK, you can take out the changes if “All Those People Were Wrong!” after all. You’ll be surprised: most everything that was said will help your manuscript. (You may now wish to repeat the previous step, and give thanks!)
POSTSCRIPT: Very Rare Problem / Solutions
Occasionally a “tear down person” burrows into a critique group. If this is a real problem, not just for you, and not just once in a while, you have a couple of options: 1) as a group, review guidelines for giving good critiques, including the praise-sandwich (refer to the Viva Scriva website or other resources if needed); 2) if problems persist, have a gentle talk with this person, outside critique time, in the hope that they’ll realize what they’re doing and change; 3) if they don’t, leave the group for one where all members know that the phrase“constructive criticism” is a hard but beautiful one made up of two equally-important concepts.
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ScrivaRuth says: If you are the person giving a critique, reread the answer to what makes a critique group work. ScrivaNicole pretty much nails it. OK, but suppose you are the one receiving a critique. The key here is to back away from your manuscript enough to allow for fresh perspectives. Listen as objectively and attentively as possible. One way to focus is to takes notes in two columns: strengths and weaknesses. Another is to jot down questions, such as: “Hero too young? Hat store scene needed? Kill off grandma character?”
A critique is not about achieving consensus. It’s about reaping a heap of ideas from creative minds other than your own. Bring on the differing opinions. Bring on the opposite points of view. And trust that in an “aha!” moment one or two—or twenty—days after the critique you’ll find the solution that works for your manuscript.
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ScrivaLiz says: We wish you could! But the sad answer is that you can’t. Here’s why: The biggest reason is that we are full. We are at capacity. We have eight writers and about two hours a month to discuss critiques. If we all have manuscripts ready for comments, time is super tight. We get down to business, bam, bam, bam. We can’t even really handle eight full critiques in one session. Luckily it has worked out so that we usually have two to six manuscripts to critique. Even if we only have one manuscript, we easily fill the time and then some.
Even if some members moved on it would not necessarily open a slot. We have been sharing each others work, triumphs, and frustrations for enough years that we have built a level of trust that we all depend on. If we did get small enough that we wanted to invite a new member, many of us have dear friends in mind that we think would fit well.
But we do want you to have a critique group as good or better than Viva Scrivas. That’s why we started this website and blog!
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ScrivaMelissa says: Writerly sorts aren’t always known to be outgoing but in order to find a critique group, you will need to strike up a few conversations with strangers, either in person or online. Try one of these steps to help you get started:
1) Look for a community bulletin board at your local independent book store, favorite coffee shop, or library, or try craigslist. Post an advertisement to start your own group, or look for ads from an already established group that may have openings for new members.
2) Join a writer’s organization/association, either national or local. For instance, you might try the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and get involved with the chapter closest to you. You can also search out organizations and listservs closer to home, such as Willamette Writers, which serves writers in the Pacific Northwest, or the Lane Literary Guild, which is based out of Eugene, Oregon.
3) Go to a conference. Conferences are excellent opportunities to meet fellow writers and add your name to critique group sign-up sheets.
4) Take a writing workshop in your genre, either in your local community or online, such as with the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The class will give you practice critiquing others’ work, as well as a sense of whether your style meshes with potential group members.
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ScrivaNicole says: We’ve got a plan in the works to offer critique services, but we’re still working out the PayPal kinks so bear with us. If you are interested in learning more, send an email through our contact page. We look forward to helping you make your writing sing and your career soar!
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