It’s a Critique Group
Last time, I told you about the critique group held twice a month by the American Fork chapter of the League of Utah Writers. It’s every second and fourth Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. at the American Fork Library, and you can read more of the basics in that previous post.
Here I’ll give you a better taste of how it works, in case you’re on the fence about whether it will work for you.
Our meetings consist mostly of three activities: reading (aloud), giving critiques, and receiving critiques. Each of these could make someone squirm, I know, but it’s the price of improving as writers. We try to be kind, helpful, and candid.
How It Works: Reading
Some or all of the writers in the meeting will read excerpts from something they’re writing, or the whole thing, if it’s very short. They may or may not preface their reading with a brief explanation of the work, of what has happened previously, or what sorts of help they especially want. It’s all on a clock; unless the meeting is especially crowded or we’re running late, each reader gets up to seven minutes for the reading itself and any introductory explanations.
In the meetings I’ve attended, I’ve read from three short stories (one written that day on the train, because an idea struck), the first and second chapters of a novel I’m polishing, and an essay I drafted a couple of years ago and have revisited a couple of times, but which really isn’t working yet.
After each reading, the author circulates a signup sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide a critique at the next meeting will sign up. Sometimes two people sign up; sometimes it’s six or seven.
After the meeting the author sends out the piece – up to 2,500 words – by e-mail, at least a week in advance of the next meeting, so everyone who signed up has time to read, reread, and critique it.
How It Works: Giving Critique
Being a helpful critic is an acquired skill – and it’s an interpersonal adventure which many find difficult. For me it didn’t come easily at first, but after teaching writing at the college level, working off and on as a writer and editor, and participating in online writers’ communities for the last couple of years, it’s now mostly routine.
In fact, I usually enjoy it. It’s not just that I like taking a good paragraph (or a bad one) and figuring out how it can sing. I actually like being helpful. And I like finding things that are working well and figuring out how and why they work.
Even without social or emotional discomfort, on a technical and artistic level it’s a challenge to find the right balance of encouragement and critique in each case, to suggest changes without imposing my style and tastes on the writers, and to find ways to be helpful in genres where I’ve never written and rarely read.
In another critique group, the critiques might immediately follow the reading. I like our way better. I’m convinced that we get better, more thoughtful critiques from readers who have time to read and consider the work than we would from listeners who have to make their critiques in the moment.
We occasional wing it in special cases, as we recently did with a new member’s novel synopsis. We discussed it and asked some questions, and maybe it was helpful. We urged her to bring a chapter to read at the next meeting, which she did. We critiqued it last night. It’s charming. Then she read from the next chapter, and I signed up for that too.
Usually I’ll take the Word doc the author sends us, set Word to track changes, then suggest some tweaks, add comments here and there, and finally turn off the tracking and offer some general thoughts. I’ll send all that to the author after the next meeting.
At that next meeting, we each take a few minutes to hit the high points of our critiques of that piece. We mostly avoid getting down into the weeds of spelling, punctuation, and grammar in our oral critiques. That’s a sure way to bore a critique group out of its collective mind, and it goes better in the document itself anyway.
Sometimes I disagree with others’ critiques of a piece I’ve critiqued — and sometimes we discuss such things in the meeting. Often I hear something and wonder why I didn’t notice it, because it’s obvious, once someone else points it out. Almost always, I see the virtue in having multiple critics, because we each have different strengths and interests as critics, and different backgrounds as readers and as humans.
Among our regulars, I’m the most likely to try to massage a bumpy but promising paragraph until it reads energetically and beautifully. Another regular is more likely than me to offer useful insights into the plot. I can help your politics sound realistic; another is better at insuring that your teenage girl talks and thinks like a teenage girl. Even my own critiques differ considerably, depending on what I’m reading, how much time I can devote to it, and how deep I decide to set the plow for that particular field.
In my three critiques for last night’s meeting, which happened to be on novel chapters . . .
- In a novel’s first chapter I praised an engaging main character, noted a nice mix of personal and political tension, speculated on how an interesting theme may develop later, highlighted some phrases and sentences I thought were particularly artful, and flagged numerous places where a pronoun would work better than a proper name. As usual, I pointed out a few passages where there were too many words sitting idle while others did the work. In our three oral critiques of this piece, we discovered that we had each read a main character differently; this prompted further discussion.
- In a chapter of another novel, I pointed out an opening sentence that is engaging and basically perfect, suggested a bunch of places to start new paragraphs for ease of reading, wrestled a long paragraph with logical problems into three shorter paragraphs which should distract the reader a lot less, and essentially said that, if I picked up this book in a bookstore and sampled this opening, I’d soon be in the checkout line. Another critic thought there were too many characters for a single chapter; perhaps all those Russian novels have dulled my sensitivity to such things.
- In another author’s chapter, I praised excellent, lively dialogue which becomes effective characterization for both participants, one human and one machine; praised the realistic description of an ongoing physical change in a character; noted that the prose is artful without calling attention to itself; flagged one bit of dialogue which doesn’t seem to fit the character; and suggested a dozen or so corrections to wording, punctuation, etc., to make it read more smoothly. Another critic proposed that the purple prose I pronounced praiseworthy actually did protrude, to the story’s detriment. (I apologize — fingers crossed — for my bad, bad, very bad alliteration.) Every reader is different.
This time I had about three hours to read three pieces and critique them. When I have less time, or if the writing isn’t particularly clean yet (grammatically or otherwise), I narrow my focus to what might be helpful at that stage, and I don’t worry too much about the finer mechanics.
Besides potential for improvement, I always find some good things to praise. These folks can write.
How It Works: Receiving Critique
When the others critique my writing in the meeting – which didn’t happen last night, because I didn’t read at the previous meeting – I may ask a question or two to clarify. But generally we just listen, when our writing is critiqued. We learn more that way.
I always thank my critics, and my gratitude is genuine.
For most, perhaps, it’s more painful to receive than to give. But this is how we improve. And I haven’t heard a critique yet, from anyone in the group, that wasn’t intended to be helpful, that was unduly personal, or where I suspected the critic was trying to show off or demonstrate superiority.
As the author, I don’t always agree with every point of every critique, but that’s okay. My critics don’t always agree among themselves, and that’s okay too. What keeps me going back is that much of what they say is genuinely helpful, and almost all of it is worth considering.
Here are some highlights from recent critiques of my writing. I’ll bypass some welcome and useful praise and plenty of suggested tweaks, and focus on a few especially helpful points.
- The first time I read, it was a short story I’d polished quite a bit, and which had won a small prize in a local contest. Others from whom I’d solicited critiques had essentially said, “It’s beautiful. Don’t change a thing.” I took it to the group to see if I could expect critiques that were more helpful than that. My critics in the group found two places where some symbolism didn’t work well, and identified a small plot element that might be superfluous. I agreed, and it’s a better story now.
- Later I took in another short story, which had won a slightly better prize in the same local contest. The group found a place where the reader needed to know something sooner (which I had missed, because I already knew it) and questioned whether the story wouldn’t be better without the last several lines and certain bits from the early paragraphs. I haven’t returned to it yet – I will soon – but I already agree with the first point, and they may be right about the second. It’s all worth considering.
- I knew my essay about an Italian child communist in my household had potential, but it wasn’t working yet. The group liked part of it and suggested cutting out about half of it. I haven’t returned to it yet, but I’m eager to. There’s something energizing about having a new perspective on improving a piece of writing.
- I got two valuable suggestions for the first chapter of a novel I’m polishing, which had already been through several critiques and even placed well in a first chapter contest, many revisions ago. In one case the group wanted more detail, which was easy. In the other they wanted to improve a beginning I and others had liked, by either eliminating portions of it or moving them to later points in the story. Changing the beginning as suggested took a few tries before it worked well. Once it did, I liked it better.
In the end, it’s all still my writing, but others’ views of it are valuable.
It’s Still Not LSD
Good critics don’t grow on trees. But I’ve found some in this group, and I try to be one. For me that’s worth two evenings a month at a critique group and a few hours outside it, reading and preparing my critiques.
If you’re a writer or trying to be a writer, bring something to read to us next time. (Detailed coordinates are here.) Or just come see how it works and enjoy the (optional) Mexican food to which we adjourn after the meeting. If it looks like it might work for you, sign up for a couple of critiques that seem interesting. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, and you’ll probably be okay too. There are no documented cases of lingering psychic trauma or flashbacks.
You don’t have to read every time you come — or ever, technically. But when you’re ready to screw your courage to the sticking place, we’ll be happy to listen and to read, and two weeks later, to tell you what we think.
We don’t expect you to be, write like, or dress like Shakespeare, when you come. Just be yourself.
Come to think of it, that’s good advice a lot of things.