Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mentor Monday: How to Critique in a Group Setting

  • Remember the writer is a human being who is entrusting you with her work and her words. She's likely worked to whatever skill level she has, and wants an objective critique. Be sure you're critiquing the writing, not the writer.

  • If you're new to critiquing, don't worry about your level of writing skill. It's all about how skilled you are as a reader. You wouldn't be in a writers' group if you weren't also a reader, would you?

  • Listen to the critiquing voices you trust. What resonates with you? What are some of the things your fellow writers focus on?  What questions do they ask? Can you ask similar questions?

  • Don't assume you have any superior knowledge about writing. Even the most inexperienced writer can teach you a thing or two about writing – if you're open to it.

  • Listen to what the writer has said before you read the piece. An experienced critique group member will sometimes preface her work with a question she has about the manuscript or a statement about something she's struggling with. Focus on that, while also keeping in mind the piece as a whole.

  • At first, pay attention to the way you feel about the entire piece rather than focusing on the specifics. A critique group is not a place for heavy line-editing. Notice places where you're pulled from the story or where the writing technique is more obvious than the content. What didn't sit quite right? What was confusing? It's only toward the end of the critique that the Sisters mention little nit-picky things, such as word choice, grammar, or punctuation.

  • Don't feel the need to respond immediately after you read the work. Give it at least a minute for some thought. As the discussion begins, the conversation will develop naturally. You'll have time to chime in.

  • Some groups insist on the sandwich model of critique – where the negative comments are sandwiched between two positives. The Sisters have been together for a long time, and are comfortable with who we are, so sometimes this doesn't happen. We're cool with that . . .

  • Sometimes asking a question is a softer approach to critique, i.e. What did you want to accomplish with this paragraph? Why did you choose to write it this way?  How do you feel this paragraph moves the action forward? The writer's answers may help her discover something on her own.

  • Don't speak with authority unless you have it. The Write Sisters have each been writing for children for 20 years, and we're still not authorities on the subject.

  • It's not your job to rewrite someone's work.

  • Consider your delivery. Sometimes many voices can feel like an attack. If you need to be the one to pull the group out of its feeding frenzy, don't hesitate to speak up.

  • Some authors feel a need to answer every comment with an explanation. A gentle reminder to that person should be enough to get her out of this habit. After all, the writer won't be sitting there as an editor reads her submission. The work should speak for itself. If she insists on explaining, you must persist!

  • Pick your battles, and remember that some authors don't want to hear about everything that's wrong with a piece all at once. Sometimes the author will discover the rough patches on her own when she goes back to rewrite it. Give the author hope so she can go back and revise with confidence.

  • Mark up copies if the writer has provided them. If not, make notes as you listen. Don't be afraid to ask the writer to re-read something . . . or ask for the copy so you can read it yourself. In my opinion, critiques work best when the critiquers can see words on the page. The Sisters almost always bring copies for everyone. 
Next time: How to Receive a Critique.

4 comments:

Diane Mayr said...

A fabulous summary! Especially:

Some authors feel a need to answer every comment with an explanation. A gentle reminder to that person should be enough to get her out of this habit. After all, the writer won't be sitting there as an editor reads her submission. The work should speak for itself.

Barbara said...

Great tips for every writer, Janet - new, experienced, or in between!

Andy said...

Excellent advice, Janet! I'm looking forward to Part 2.

Mur said...

"Mark up copies if the writer has provided them."

This is the part that helps me the most as a writer. Sometimes, I can't process the entire critique at once. Looking back on the written comments helps me remember what was said.