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Rules for being in a critique group

posted in: Writing Craft | 6
By: Joanna Penn

So, I was inspired by CP’s post the other day as well as a meme I saw to talk about something I’ve come across at writing meetings a lot. There are a lot of writing groups that allow people to bring in material for critique. Depending on the group, you can only bring flash fiction, a limited number of chapters, or something else. Whatever you’re bringing in, here are some things to keep in mind.

Pre-Conceived Ideas are your enemy. 

The number one thing I’ve heard of and seen personally is someone handing their work over while adding a caveat, “It’s not that great, but…” or, even worse, “This is my favorite thing ever.” What’s wrong with this? It tends to taint the reader of the piece, especially when you talk it up to a level it’s nearly impossible to live up to. Let your reader come into their critique with a fresh eye that has no inkling of what to expect.

Be prepared for lots of red.

No one likes to see their own work covered in red ink. In fact, some schools have done away with using red to spare people’s feelings. I say let the red fly. Every crossed out word or note is an opportunity to improve and grow. Read each note with an open mind and then cross-reference with the Chicago Manual of Style or Grammar Girl if in doubt.

Be curious.

Check your notes before you leave and if you’re confused by something or can’t read it properly, ask. Asking these questions will not only eliminate headaches later, but it might even inspire a discussion that will help the other members of your group.

Following these guidelines and being a great critiquer in return will help all involved to become better, more courageous writers. And remember: if someone gives you a note that stings, look at it as objectively as possible. If it’s not accurate or helpful, disregard.

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Jamie White is a music addict, book lover, pet servant & NaNoWriMo survivor. When she's not busy writing posts for CultureShock, she's taking pictures for her photo blog and spending time with her husband and pets. She released Stains on the Soul and Clutter via Pagan Writers Press in 2013.

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6 Responses

  1. Susan Kiernan-Lewis
    | Reply

    I came into genre-writing from a long career as an advertising copywriter. One thing I got used to FAST was someone critiquing my writing and often not gently. I became quickly capable of separating my worth as a writer and the content of my writing on any given project. Writing genre fiction is no different. When my chapters come back to me from critiquers covered in “red ink,” my first thought is “Thank God!” Because the stuff my critique group/partner caught is now stuff not the reason for a 1 or 2-star review from an annoyed reader after the book is published. When my copyeditor says to me: “Did you know you have an unfortunate habit of (fill in the blank)?” I feel nothing but grateful. (I don’t have that particular habit any more.) I say, bring it on! Everything you find wrong or clumsy in my first drafts just pushes me one step closer to the best book I can write.

    • Jamie White
      | Reply

      Exactly, Susan. It’s an opportunity for growth, so long as the person giving the critiques is being detailed and helpful in their comments. A “I couldn’t really get into it” doesn’t help someone to improve. LOL. Which I have gotten before. Thanks to the people I’ve worked with, I discovered a few habits I’ve been working to remove from my writing.

  2. Mary Ann de Stefano
    | Reply

    You are an editor’s dream Susan!

    I refer to them as “habitual surface errors” not “annoying habits” but we all have them in our writing, and they are hard to spot on our own. For some reason awhile ago I was hooked on the word “myriad” and used it so often that it was, er, annoying.

    The other thing writers need to remember always is that you can take or leave feedback. Be open, listen to feedback, and process it honestly, but make up your own mind.

    • Jamie White
      | Reply

      Very true, Mary Ann. The critiquer or editor isn’t always right. They’re human just like anyone else and can make mistakes, so it’s important to look stuff up.

  3. Stephen Kindland
    | Reply

    Nicely stated, Mary Ann!

    Self editing is a dangerous and difficult task, but self critiquing is virtually impossible — at least if your objective is to learn from the thoughts and opinions expressed by your readers. Still, I can’t seem to drive out of my mind something Benjamin Franklin reportedly said during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

    I found this excerpt online and thought I might share it. The post is part of a blog written by Dick Margulis, who describes himself as “… not the only curmudgeon on the Web, but one worth getting to know.” (www.ampersandvirgule.com)

    “I have made it a rule,” Franklin said, “Whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you.

    “When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription.

    “He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined; but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.

    “The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats,’ which show he was a hatter. It was struck out.

    “The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out.

    “A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’

    “‘Sells hats!’ says his next friend. ‘Why nobody will expect you to give them away, what then is the use of that word?’ It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board.

    “So the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”

    Just sayin’.

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