A post by my friend Sierra about her toxic critique group inspired me to remind people how to give critiques of other writers’ work in a writers’ group or workshop.
The sandwich method always works best: Start by saying something positive, followed by your constructive criticism, and then end with another positive comment. The reason for this? It’s important to give the writer something she can work with (“I found myself losing interest at the bottom of page 3″) without making her want to give up writing altogether (“YA fantasy novels don’t really interest me.”)
Writing groups and workshops take on different formats. Typically, a group of people (anywhere from 3 to 12) agrees to meet every week or two at which time they will critique a chosen number of works—usually two or three for a 2-3-hour meeting. The works are handed out a week beforehand (either in person or by e-mail), giving the readers a week to read (preferably twice, once straight through and once while marking up the ms) the works.
The night of the meeting, the format could go a couple of different ways.
In my former writers’ group, there were about six people, and we met every other week. We worked in a circle, taking turns giving our verbal critiques while all the other writers, including the writer being critiqued, remained silent. After everyone had spoken, the writer being critiqued could comment and/or ask questions. The reason for the writer being silent during the critique is that writers tend to get defensive about their work and want to explain why they did this or that. The point of a critique, however, is not for you to defend the choices you’ve made, it’s for you to hear the opinions of others and then decide whether or NOT to take their advice. The more experienced the writer, the better she is at distinguishing which advice to take and which not to take. A good rule is that if several people agree about something, you should probably take the advice seriously. That does NOT mean they are right (40,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong, but five writers can be). At the end of the verbal critiques, we all handed over our written critiques, some a couple sentences written in chicken scratch and others a one- to two-page typed analysis of the plot and characters. That was left to personal choice.
In my MFA program, we had twelve people in a workshop and we met every week. Rather than work in a circle, however, everyone just jumped in when she had something to say, everyone but the writer being critiqued, who remained silent. This format allowed for back and forth discussion: “I loved the scene in chapter one when the protagonist knifed her boyfriend in the neck,” “I totally disagree, I found the violence in that scene gratuitous,” etc. Some of my professors (but unfortunately not all) required that we start with the positive aspects of the manuscript, which was great until ONE person said something negative. Then suddenly the floodgates opened and everyone pounced on the opportunity to give negative critiques. Why? Because it’s SO much easier to give negative critiques than positive ones. SO MUCH EASIER. Whether a piece is magnificent or terrible, the flaws tend to be glaring. It’s much more difficult to articulate what works about a piece than what doesn’t. SO, the minute someone says that first negative critique, it’s all over. The writer is lucky if someone throws her a positive comment at the end. Once the pack of hungry dogs have been corralled back into their den, leaving the writer to lick her wounds, written critiques are handed over, this time with a minimum one-page, preferably typed, critique. (A copy of the critique goes to the teacher and counts toward the critiquing student’s grade, so they’re usually fairly thorough.)
Whether in a group/workshop with format one or format two, it’s important to leave the writer with some positive feedback to take home. I knew one woman who, while being critiqued, marked a check for every time she heard a positive or a negative comment. Her “negative” column was four times as long as her “positive” column, and it had nothing to do with her writing. (By the way, I DON’T recommend this practice. It’s terribly destructive to your self-esteem.)
The job of a critiquer is not to decide whether the writer should give up writing, and not to tell the person what she should write. It’s not her job to REwrite any portion of the person’s work either (not even sentences or phrases). It’s simply to tell the writer what works, what doesn’t, and what are some suggestions for improving the manuscript. If a person doesn’t like the genre at all, that person has to 1) Critique the piece as objectively as possible 2) Consider moving into a writer’s group that includes only the genre she does like. For example, if everyone in your group is writing sci-fi and you’re a literary fiction writer, maybe you need to change groups. If not, you’d better learn to critique sci-fi without being biased toward the genre.
What about you? What experiences (good or bad) have you had with writers’ groups? What did you learn from those experiences?