Tag Archives: writers group

Elements of Critique: Plan

I’m about to go to overseas with the military, and I don’t think I’m going to find a writers’ group like the one I’m leaving here. Perhaps you can relate to not finding a good group where you are.

What’s stopping me from starting my own group? Fear of a challenge I’ve never tried before? Fear based in lack of experience? Worry that I wouldn’t know where to start?

After the A to Z and the two add-ons, I’ve covered the essentials for how to critique. The only question I can think to answer now is, “How do I run a critique group?”  It’s simple once I have a plan.


To answer that question, I’ll steal from the guidelines used at the lovely group I attend. This is a starting point; these can be altered to suit whatever an in-person group needs, and can easily be adapted for an online group.

1. We set up a monthly date. Ours is the fourth Tuesday of every month. A monthly group means I’m not always critiquing or writing a submission. It’s manageable for me. Your mileage may vary.

2. We say submit up to 1200 words a week before the meeting. Setting that limit helps ensure we can all read the submissions even if we have busy lives. We’re pretty flexible about it; I usually submit a longer piece with a 1200-word spot marked so that if someone is willing to critique more, they can.

3. We have a standard format for submission. This seems nitpicky, but there’s a reason “A” is all about appearance. I got a comment from someone judging a competition, stating that the vast majority of submissions were disqualified because people failed to follow the guidelines on format. Ours is: header with last name/title on left, page number on right. First page upper left has name, address, email, and word count. The whole submission must be Times New Roman, double spaced.

4. Our guidelines restate that we should submit a week ahead, but they leave room for late submissions and encourage participants to come offer critique even if they didn’t submit anything that month. Everyone’s input is valuable.

5. We normally submit by email, but we’re trying out a Facebook group where everyone can “submit” by uploading their document to the group’s page. That way the documents don’t get lost in the shuffle of email.

6. Our group usually has five to eight participants. Eight borders on too many for our two hour meeting to cover well. We aim for a short 15-minute social time at the beginning, followed by 15 minutes of critique per submission. We actually use a timer visible for the whole group to keep everyone on track. When there’s time, we read a short portion of each entry (perhaps a page or two at most). Then we go around the room for critique.

7. Our guidelines reinforce what’s expected when your submission is being read and critiqued. Don’t cringe; no one’s out to hurt anyone. Don’t jump in to explain or defend (since we’ll never get the chance to explain our slant or ideas to an editor). Don’t apologize for what’s written. Listen fully; take what you need and leave the rest.

8. After each person’s piece is critiqued and read, they receive hard copies with comments and highlights, or they receive an email with an electronic document marked with comments and highlights.

That’s all there is to it. Seems easy, right?

It is. It doesn’t take much, it doesn’t require some amazing author or insightful editor to organize. All anyone needs is a host, a location, and some willing writers.

Adapting this to an online group is even easier: no need for a host or locale. A group could agree on a monthly timeline and submit critiques back-and-forth via email, or use an online chat feature like Google Hangouts to share together while geographically separated. And if all attempts at forming a group fail, there are online pages like Scribophile which are all about building community while getting and giving useful critique.

But this covers the basic framework. I can’t say enough good things about how beneficial a critique group has been for my own writing. I feel like a critique group evangelist when I meet other writers, and I have to tone it down so I don’t scare them off.

Perhaps you know of a group that runs differently in some key way. I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

And that’s all, folks. Everything anyone needs to at least kick off a group of their own and begin offering meaningful critiques. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this month-long journey and providing encouragement along the way. The feedback has been valuable to me beyond the power of words to convey. If there’s any question or concern not covered, shoot me a comment and I’ll be happy to respond with my take on it.

So with that, farewell. What are you doing reading blogs anyway?

There’s writing to get done!

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.

Elements of Critique: Wordiness

In three months of limited mobility after a couple months of relaxation, I ballooned up to 250 pounds. No judgment of any readers intended in that statement–but the Air Force does not look favorably on an active duty service member gaining so much weight.

Over the last two months or so, I’ve put in hours on the bike and elliptical every week, while carefully tracking every bite I eat. I started programs to build back my push-ups and sit-ups to where they once were. I’ve eaten carrots while my friends enjoy carrot cake.

Today was my first PT test since surgery. I lost 30 pounds, hobbled through a 16-minute 2K powerwalk, more than doubled the push-ups I was able to do at first, and improved my sit-ups to my second best score ever.

I barely met the standards, but I passed the test. A half-inch more on the waist, or a couple less push-ups or sit-ups, and I would have failed.

Wasted words have a similar effect on our readers. We never know when a reader will say “That’s one too many,” and put down our writing. So I look for wordiness when I critique writing.

Sometimes my writing gets fluffy, bloated with excess words. Paragraphs fill up with empty “calories” and sentences struggle to push their meaning to the reader. Unnecessary words weigh writing down. It becomes sedentary and slow, when it should be direct and dynamic.

There are two kinds of wordiness that I look for: flowery and flabby.

Flowery is the elaborate description or long, drawn-out paragraphs that say nothing while sounding artistic. When a writer describes a table for a couple paragraphs, discussing the waves in the grain of wood as though the years reflected in the tree’s core like the tides of the ocean, leaving small traces of life… stop. Please.

Flowery is the woman who wears makeup and perfume to the gym, who spends most of her time pretending to exercise while attracting attention. It’s the guy who spends more time flexing in the mirror than lifting any weight. It’s writing that says, “Look at me, aren’t I just the prettiest sentence?”

In other words, flowery wordiness serves no purpose in a piece of writing and doesn’t belong. Critique should point this out and politely suggest a cut.

Unlike flowery wordiness, flabby wordiness at least tries to get the job done. But it huffs and puffs, pushing through exhaustion because of the added weight it carries.

Flabby wordiness shows up when included words say nothing to strengthen the point of a sentence. In critique, I point these out when they appear to offer no benefit to the intended meaning.

I’ve made part of a sentence with several examples of empty words I look for. These words add weight we don’t want our writing to have to carry around:

What I took out “was just that which very suddenly has really had” enough usage.

In almost all these cases the offending word can be removed with no significant loss of meaning. There are instances where they should be used, but these are rare.

Was verb-ing is a frequent structure that shows incomplete action. Incomplete action reads weak compared to completed action. Reword where possible. A similar problem word is “started,” as in “he started to verb.” There’s no need for that unless the writer is saying how long ago a thing began, e.g. “I started playing piano when I was eight years old.”

Just is often used as filler, as a way to show some slight difference. “Just after 9 PM…” “Just when I got back from the party…” Since the difference is so slight, it is unnecessary. The reader will get the meaning without this filler.

That is often used in a passive style of writing. “It was after 9 PM that I got back from…” “She is the one that Mr. Smith saw…” We want to write active, not passive. We want cardio writing, not couch potato sentences.

Which is similar to ‘that.’ It specifies certain details to distinguish this one from that one or from all others. But the structure is often unnecessary, and often brings ‘was’ along with it. Consider: “The bird which was in the tree eyed the cat which was climbing toward it.” vs. “The bird in the tree eyed the cat climbing toward it.”

Very is horrible. It’s telling the reader instead of showing, but it doesn’t even tell anything. “The loud noise” vs. “The very loud noise” shows no significant distinction. Find a different word. “The very mean old man” could be “The old curmudgeon” or “The cruel miser” or “The aged tyrant who ruled the kingdom of Front Lawn.” Anything is better than ‘very.’

Suddenly is telling. “Reader! Something happened! Be surprised! It happened ‘suddenly’ so you should gasp or something!” Exclamation points are clearly the punctuation version of this. If showing sudden change is necessary, then we should show it in the reaction of a character to the event.

Has is usually found in “has been verb-ing.” This is still not past tense complete, so it’s still not as strong as it could be. Ironically, writing an action in the completed form makes it sound more alive and exciting to the reader, as if it’s happening right now.

Really is another attempt, like ‘very,’ at trying to show emphasis. In the same way, it offers no measurement or indication of how significant an emphasis. We can use a stronger word instead. “The night air felt really cold” vs. “The frigid night air”

Had is often used to show an action took place long before the current scene. Sometimes “had” is used in flashbacks. Inspired by the noble rules of grammar and a desire to avoid any possible confusion, some writers turn into Sir Galahad’s brother, Addahad. They make every verb into “had verbed” because the reader has to know this is a flashback! However, if the sentence clearly shows the time the action took place, well before the current action, then there’s no need for “had.” Likewise if the flashback start point and end point are obvious, the reader doesn’t require “had” before every verb. They’ll understand.

Case in point, compare “When I had originally written this, I had been sitting in Starbucks where I had an iced Americano” with the following:
“When I originally wrote this, I sat in Starbucks sipping an iced Americano.” Eighteen words in the first version, thirteen in the second. Five words isn’t much, but this is one sentence.

Imagine reducing a plethora of sentences by five words each. That would be like spending hours on the “writing craft treadmill,” cutting down flab and achieving tighter writing.

And who knows? That might be the last bit standing in the way of passing a test and getting published or winning a lifetime reader.

Elements of Critique: Repetition

While going through this A to Z challenge, I’ve had to check my list often to make sure I haven’t written about something too similar to each new day’s post. When I originally organized the list, I ran into a couple topics that were almost repeats of another day. No reader is going to want to read the same thing a week later. We pick up on overused words and subjects. We notice when the writer is saying something they’ve already said.

That’s why I look for repetition when critiquing a piece of writing.

Repetition and overuse draw attention to the writing instead of keeping it on the story. Our writing is like a camera lens by which the reader can see the world we set before them. Repetition (like many other mistakes) is a smudge on the lens itself. We fix our eyes on the dirt as we read, and the image of the story behind it is obscured.

Consider these fairly egregious examples, and note that rarely is this issue so obvious:

He faced her and she noted his long face with a nose that jutted out of his face.

Flaming arrows rained down like flaming shooting stars, blanketing the area with flames.

Any time the same word is used twice in the same sentence, I want to rewrite it. With certain nouns (names, terms related to the topic at hand), this might be unavoidable. But when a descriptor is given twice in a paragraph, it feels like too much to me.

Sometimes the repetition is a character’s action or response to a situation:

“She cocked her head” (after having done so twice in as many pages).
“He furrowed his brow” (again, for the fifth time this chapter).
“She bit her lip” (as she always does in literally every tense situation in the book).

Reading out loud helps me catch some of these in my own work. “She cocked her head… wait, I just read that a few lines ago…”

The thesaurus can help here, so long as the selected replacements fit.

There’s one more area to watch out for, especially for fiction: the start of paragraphs. When a section involves a lot of action on the part of a character, the proper name or appropriate pronoun may find its way to the beginning of several sentences and paragraphs without the writer’s notice.

Lyllithe turned and faced her accuser… followed by a few sentences showing impending conflict.
Lyllithe ducked under his attack and sprang for the door… then some fight scene excitement for a couple lines.
Lyllithe slammed the crossbar down and felt the thump of his body when it hit… and this would make three in a row.

“She she she” can happen just as easily, and also occurs within individual paragraphs. For first person, the danger is compounded since there’s no real need for the POV character’s name. Thus we might see, “I this, I that, I some other thing.”

In writing clear, active sentences, we’ll see a lot of them start with a character’s name or a pronoun. That’s unavoidable.

The only cure for this I am aware of is rewriting to mix in description, dialogue, or POV character thoughts. Try anything to break up the monotony.

The one feeling we’re not trying to create in the reader is a sense of déjà vu.

Elements of Critique: Ending

During our time on Okinawa, my wife and I had a favorite date-night restaurant. Palm Springs was situated in a large round ring on the seventh floor of a building overlooking a nearby Marine Corps camp. They served French cuisine, or at least said they did. We didn’t know any better. On our first visit, we weren’t sure what to expect.

The meal came out in courses. Tiny little plates with a sprinkle of food on them. My American desire for a giant pile of delicious food protested this obvious mockery they called a “meal.”

But the first course and second were both stunning. Perfect. My wife looked at me with eyes wide, reflecting the surprise I’m sure my face revealed. Subsequent courses did not disappoint, packing absolute satisfaction into each plate that seemed too small to hold such taste.

The meal ended. We sat back, and considered how we felt. No overstuffed “loosen the belt” sensation. No desire for another bite. The gas tank gauge in our stomachs hit right on the “F” with no need for more.

That’s what the ending of a piece of writing is designed to do. That’s what I’m looking for, if applicable, when I critique.

Now I know, some of you are probably saying, “No it’s not! Are you kidding? What about hooks? How do I get the reader to keep reading?”

Well, SPOILERS: hooks are for H, not E, so bear with me a moment while I make my case.

First, if an ending is appropriate for the piece of writing, then it had better be there. In a nonfiction article or a personal account, I want to know how the story of that event ended or what point the writer is making. In a fiction piece, the conflict has to be resolved. If it’s a chapter in a longer work, at least the conflict in the scene should be completed (before the hook that makes the reader start the next chapter to see what happens).

Maybe there’s a longer background battle taking place, which spans two or more chapters. That’s great.

But within that one chapter, I need to see the character make a decision, resolve an internal struggle, or accomplish an important goal. Otherwise, what’s the point of including the scene?

In works of fiction, we don’t include scenes and interactions to show how cool we can write or what mastery of dialogue we possess. We include them because they advance the overall story. They lead up to an ending of some kind, even if it’s part of a larger whole.

But with endings, the biggest danger is not failure to include one. That’s easily caught and corrected.

The biggest danger is that it falls flat. In a short story, or in a nonfiction article, no reader wants to get to the end and be shocked that it’s the end. I don’t mean shocking endings and surprise twists are bad. No, they’re great. I mean if I turn the page expecting more and find out “Oh, that was the last line” then I’m disappointed.

Not the kind we're going for in writing.
Not the kind we’re going for in writing.

After three pages of short story about the main character searching for a solution, once the problem is solved, the next line is not “And they lived happily ever after.”

Bam. Dead end. Brick wall out of nowhere.

Endings usually have some kind of impact. But not that kind.

A piece of writing, fiction or non, deserves a conclusion. This is something we build toward. When conflict is resolved (at least for the present), we know this scene, article, account, or story is coming to a close. We can take the time to let that sink in as we approach it.

Where abrupt or weak endings feel like a dead end, a proper conclusion feels like pulling into the driveway at home.

Conclusions often recap or summarize the main point. In a non-fiction piece or personal article, that might be the lesson learned, or the end result of the experience or event. In fiction, that might be a clever way of showing the moral of the story without preaching it to the reader.

If nothing else, they wind the piece down and offer a witty or memorable line to give closure. (You’ll note I’ve attempted to do this on each of these A to Z posts, with debatable success as far as wit is concerned.)

Now the reader knows the tale is finished, and they can move on. Or leave a comment. hint hint

Consider The Lord of the Rings. The Ring is destroyed, the Dark Lord defeated. The King sits on the throne of Gondor once again. And for a few chapters, the Hobbits still have to return home, reconnecting with old friends and saying their goodbyes. Then they have to fix the mess waiting in the Shire. And even then, they realize that the Shire is no longer home for Frodo. The heroic Hobbit departs for the West, and Sam makes the journey back to Bag End. He stands at the gate in a bittersweet scene, delighting in his children and wife while grieving the loss of his friend and Master. And almost with a sigh, he declares, “Well, I’m home.”

The gauge in the reader’s mind hits “F.” He or she sits back, sets the book down, and sighs with Sam.

The end.

Speaking of “F,” that’s what’s next on the A to Z of Elements of Critique, of course. It’s a fact. And that’s what I’m going to write about – including (and checking) the facts in a written work.