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.”