Monday, December 6, 2010

Do It Yourself Critique Group

Everyone says I need a critique group. Which I guess is a passive aggressive way of saying, your work sucks, you need help. But I agree, I do need a critique group (and sometimes my work does suck. But I have awesome hair and yours is thinning out). I need someone other than my husband who believes too much in what I write and dear friends (or faithless hussies) who say they’ll read my book but never have the time – you know who you are.

So, when NaNoWriMo rolled around, I actually went to the weekly write-ins. I’d never done that before because I’m not a joiner (imagine that said with a sneer and maybe a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve of my white t-shirt.) The write-ins were great. I wrote tons and liked the people who showed up too, all local writers.  

In the spirit of ‘Gee, we could put on a show right here, in the barn!’ I decided to start a Bucks County Writers Group. Sounds impressive, right? Especially when I capitalize each word – we don’t respect capitals as much as we should. I digress. The problem is that I don’t know anything about critiquing. I gave one person a critique once, one that I thought was really kindly and encouraging. They’ve never spoken to me again. I don’t think it was because of what I said, exactly, because I wasn’t in any way mean. But because of what I didn’t say, ie. YOU ARE AWESOME! WHY AREN’T YOU PUBLISHED ALREADY!!

That’s what we all want to hear, really and when we don’t hear it, knickers get knotted. But here’s what’s worse. Someone does tell you that. It’s happened to me. Someone intelligent and lovely told me exactly that when reading one of my ms. I kept asking her if she was yanking my chain. She proceeded to tell me that indeed, no, she was not blowing smoke up my skirt. I declaimed, ‘Are you shitting me?’ It went on like this for a while. She still stands by her statement and I think she took smack, just the one time, and hallucinated someone else’s book when she was reading mine.

So, what’s the right mix of critique? How can you be helpful and encouraging while helping the writer weed out the garbage? Are there steps? Ground rules? Any suggestions on giving and getting critique?


  1. Ground rules are a must for a critique group. No assuming, no hurt feelings or riots. If the writers are interested, they will abide by the rules.

    The actual critique: Incorporating positive and negative feedback in a critique I feel balances the coddling of the fragile ego and opening a dialogue about the writer's submission. Softening the blow. Start the critique by giving the writer the positive feedback from everyone, then moving into the areas of improvement. Usually, the writer leaves with quality feedback they can sift through and use.

    I have a list of guidelines for critiques if you're interested. Areas to focus on and how to express your feelings and feedback without attacking the writer.

  2. Hey Laura
    I absolutely do want guidelines. Maybe we can meet up after the holidays and talk about your experience with the philly writing group - what worked what didn't. Also, what does 'positive' mean? Maybe before a critique, it's important for all group members to talk about what kind of feedback they're looking for, so critique is specific. For example, in my first novel, I'm looking to fill in any plot holes - what doesn't make sense to the reader in my story. A nice or not nice turn of phrase concerns me less at this point. See what I mean? Anyway, I'd love to sit down, drink coffee and discuss. Let's put something on the calendar soon!

  3. I heard Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide) speak a little while ago. He had an interesting anecdote about what Pixar folks call "shredding sessions". Basically (am paraphrasing / misremembering / making shit up) all the animators get together every morning (I believe) and review the previous day's output — probably 5-10 seconds of footage. Then they get medieval on its ass, critique-wise, no holds barred. Does it feel miserable? Yes, even to people who have been doing this at Pixar for years now. Does it ultimately result in some pretty amazing work? Yes, it does. Still, I'm not sure if wanton brutality is a prerequisite for this sort of honesty; I think it's a nice bonus for people who like to make people feel bad.

  4. That would be great. Let me know when is good for you in January and we'll get together.


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