Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Making the most of Critique Groups

Your Critique Group:

Most writers will, at some point, use a critique group, either online or in person. Some are, admittedly, better or more productive than others. Finding the right critique group for you is a personal choice and different groups will fit different writers.

You should aim to find a group that is both friendly and productive--reliability is a good thing too. Find people who meet at the same place, at the same time, or chasing them around will become a nightmare. This is less of an issue online.

I highly recommend critique groups and have been a member of some truly fantastic ones. I've written this tutorial to give writers some tips to make the best of them.

Stop wasting everyone's time:

If you do not edit to the best of your ability before sharing, you are wasting everyone's time.

When someone gives feedback, they are going to focus on the errors that are most obvious to them and work down their mental list until they run out of things to say and/or they run out of time. Most of the time, that will mean you only hear about the top two or three problems from readers.

That does not mean those are the only problems there are, just that they are the biggest.

Every traditionally published author has an editor. I doubt any author, regardless of how famous or wonderful, had a book go to print without at least one round of edits. If there has, I bet that novel was weaker for it.

So if there are errors you know are there, fix them before sharing the work! If you know about all the problems readers discuss, you got nothing and they wasted their time.

There ARE things in your writing that need fixing that you can't see. So make sure that's what readers are addressing.

Listening between the words:

Sometimes readers make crazy, useless suggestions. The kind that make you roll your eyes and wonder what novel they were reading, because it sure as hell wasn't yours. However these suggestions are always gold and you should always make note of them.

Am I suggesting you use their completely mental ideas? Of course not. But however misguided, they're usually highlighting a critical problem. I had a reader suggest that my main character torture a secondary character for information. Not only would this have been completely out of character, but it would have made my main character completely unlikeable.

However the message was blazingly clear: the scene needed more tension between the characters.

People can't always put into words what is wrong with the scene, however if you can recognise the intent behind their feedback, you will get the answers you need. You have to be willing to REALLY listen and not just hear them, but understand what they are trying (and sometimes failing) to say.

Stupid suggestions are not stupid. They're just badly worded. Look for the weakness the reader is trying to 'fix'.

"No one has anything useful to say!":

Occasionally I hear writers bash their critique groups. 'The people there are idiots, they can't find their asses with both hands and they certainly don't know good literature'.

It is possible to have a bad critique group. I have been to some that are either 1) mean--no actual critique is given, writers are just bullied and mocked or 2) butterflies and kittens--no actual critique is given, writers are just praised and congratulated.

Surprisingly, the latter has the worst writers.

However, most of the time, if you say a critique group is terrible, you're the problem. No them. You have failed to listen and interpret correctly, or failed to ask the right questions. It doesn't matter HOW bad someone is at writing, as long as they are capable of reading, they can give you fantastic feedback. The most important thing you can get from readers is how they interpret the information and how interested they are in the story. If they didn't get it they didn't 'read it wrong'. You 'wrote it wrong'!

It's highly unlikely your group are jealous of your brilliant writing. If they're giving you a lot of suggestions, your writing probably needs a lot of work. In my experience, the more a comment hurts, the more true it is.

Writers who cannot handle or use constructive criticism are unlikely to ever be published traditionally and they are the ones making such an ugly mess of self pub.

When not to share:

Sometimes it is the wrong time to share your writing. If you are very early in a project some critical feedback can completely derail the writing process. I always, without fail, recommend you write a complete first draft before you share ANY material.

That may mean huge re-writes in the future that you could have been spared if someone else had looked over the work, but compared to banging out that first draft, re-writes are easy.

Some work may be very personal to you too. Personal work, critiqued, can hurt. A lot. If you have written a story about the death of your mother, any critique is going to feel like a criticism of you and is going to be intertwined with the trauma of the experience you are writing about.

If you would like to share something personal, don't be shy to say: "I don't want feedback, I just need to read this out."

Share and get critique when you are ready. There is no good reason to rush.

Talitha Kalago. Copyright 2012.

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