You need a critique group.
Critique groups for writers are one of the best things you can use to improve your own writing.
A good critique group should:
1. Be a safe place for all levels of writers.
2. Give constructive feedback.
3. Have a stated process for critiquing.
4. Meet regularly and encourage regular attendance from participants.
When feedback is vague and opinion-based, the poor writer receiving the feedback is clueless as to how to incorporate the feedback. When questions arise from readers who have read the critique piece in a rush and haven’t bothered to read a second time often waste time with unnecessary questions.
There are many ways groups can go wrong. Those listed above are just some of them.
It wasn’t until I discovered a format, given to me in my final year at the University of Washington, that I had framework for a literary critique. This framework forms the critical core of my own critique group and has helped all of our members immensely.
State the Meaning-
Open every critique session with affirmations. Readers tell the writer what they read and liked, what worked, what was especially strong or profound. Readers note any themes they saw in the story, anything that reached out and grabbed them. No matter how rough a draft, there is always something to affirm the writer, who is currently baring his/her artistic soul by allowing this group critique. Gentleness is always important and key here.
The Writer Asks-
Before any opinions or questions get lobbed into the air, the writer gets to ask the readers questions. This is where the writer might say, “Regarding character X’s motives, were they clear enough in this scene?” or “I’m trying to communicate Idea Y. Did it come through at the end of the story?” This lets the readers know more about what the writer was trying to get at, and the group can zero in on weak spots that the writer has already identified as a place he/she would like to work.
The Readers Ask Neutral Questions-
I’ve heard negative opinions offered under the very thin veil of a question, but always implying that there is something wrong in the writing itself. This usually puts the writer on the defensive and will jeopardize the fruitfulness of the session.
The way to ask about something that didn’t work is NOT: “This scene was way too long. I’d suggest editing out all the unnecessary dialogue.”
When asking a neutral question about this same twenty-page scene, you might say, “Why did you choose to have your two characters discussing the weather and their breakfast here? Are these things going to come up later in the story?”
Neutral phrasing allows the writer to explain something that has perhaps not been fully developed, giving readers and writer an opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm ideas for a better piece of writing. When a writer understands why something isn’t working, this is far better than just being told it doesn’t work.
This is when the readers ask permission to share an opinion, no longer phrased neutrally. Incidentally, an opinion offered at this stage in the critique is often well-received by the writer, in contrast to one offered near the beginning.
Opinions can be anything from “I didn’t get a strong sense of setting in this story. Adding more details on the rooms in the house would be good” to “I have an idea for how to bring this character’s inner monologue to the surface. Would you like to hear it?”
It’s best to have the readers ask if they can offer an opinion about a topic that the writer gets to then decide if he/she wants to talk about. The writer always has a choice to say “no.” This keeps the writer in control (rather than at the mercy) of the critique.
If the writer has plenty to work with, he/she can choose to thank the readers and decline hearing the opinion. I’ve yet to see anyone reject hearing an opinion, but I like to keep it out there as an option.
Do you have questions about forming your own group? Are you in a group with questions about how to incorporate some of these details? Do you have something your group has done that you’d like to share?
Let’s hear ’em!