Tag Archives: advice

Elements of Critique: Participation

The success of any group depends on the combined effort of its members. While a strong personality or two can carry a group for a while, everything will fall apart in their eventual absence.

The more the members know how to communicate and contribute to the whole, the better chances the group will be successful and sustainable.

So how does this work in a critique group? What makes one a good critique group participant?

Like many things in life, the answer boils down to the Golden Rule: Give what you’d like to get.

The biggest part of this Golden Rule participation is: Be timely. Ironic, as I scramble to get this written and posted (three minutes later than my planned publishing time). No one’s perfect, but we keep trying.

Most of what matters to good participation is wrapped up in how we use our time. Submission, preparation, sticking to the main point, and sharing the limited time with others–all of these require being timely.

I try to submit work on time or as close to on time as possible. But life sometimes gets in the way and delays that effort. If I know I’m submitting late, I understand that may mean my work doesn’t get the indepth level of critique I want.

Likewise, I only submit to the group ahead of time (though sometimes late). If I haven’t gotten a submission out before the group meets, I will not bring some printed copies for everyone to read during the session. First, that eats up time, because now everyone is expected to stop and read. Second, the rushed critique will be off-the-cuff, not the thoughtful and reflective critique members might prefer to give. Usually if someone does this, a polite way around it is to say “Can you e-mail me a copy so I take some good time to read and critique it later?”

I also try to be timely about critiquing. I want to give other participants’ work the thoughtful attention I hope they’re giving mine. So I try not to skim, to rush, to read at the last minute. I confess sometimes while others were sharing critiques on one piece, I was reading the next one. But this is unsatisfying for me, and I fear the shallow critique is obvious to the recipient. So I make more effort to carve out time for critique.

Finally, I have to watch the time when I am sharing my critique. I can get wordy (no, you couldn’t tell after almost 30 posts on this subject), and I love pointing out what I think will help. Timely participation means I say my peace and let others take their turn. I don’t want to dominate the time with my indepth review. So I (try to) prepare key points ahead of time, to ensure I hit on what I think is most important.

Everyone has something to share, too. When someone else is talking, I won’t butt in unless I’m certain I can help clarify a moment of confusion. When someone is critiquing my work, I won’t speak unless I must answer a question posed to me, and then only to answer the immediate question.

I like giving helpful advice, and I love it when it seems to make sense to the writer. When they hear it, nod, and agree, I can hope I am helping strengthen their writing. Since I like them to listen to my advice, when it’s my turn in the hot seat, I have to shut up and listen to what others think of my work.

That means I must be open.

Getting defensive is natural. These stories or articles are our babies. We want to stick up for them, or at least justify the mistakes by explaining the intricate thought process that led us to write a certain way. But defensive ears don’t receive advice.

And finally, I must be thorough.

The quality of my critique should be what I hope to receive from others. I want good critique. Thoughtful, constructive, indepth, pointing out both good and bad parts. So that’s what I try to give my fellow group members.

When most (if not all) the participants share these values and strive toward these goals, the critique group will be a powerful resource to improve not just my own writing but everyone else’s involved.

And it’s as simple as “Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.”

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.