C is for Critique Etiquette
You wrote an amazing book, absolutely the next great American novel that will be on every one of the Ivies’ freshman reading lists, and a blockbuster to boot. Everyone is gonna stand in line at Amazon check out to get their hands on the E version and download it onto their Kindle quick as Jack jumped over that candlestick and singed his tush. Every other writer is gonna burn red with envy and wonder why they didn’t write as magnificent a tome. It’s gonna set the world on fire, they’re gonna award you the Pulitzer in fiction, offer you a million bucks for the movie rights, and that’s just for starters. How do you know it’s so great? Because Mama done told you. Thanks, Mom. Always there for you.
Now get off that plastic star she hung in the backyard so you could always swing from something sparkly, and get that book of yours to a critique group. Let a bunch of raisin faced strangers have at your WIP and tell you what they really think of it. Because if you do submit to a crit group, they will tell you what’s what. And that’s a good thing, because your Mama, the sweet Georgia peach, needs glasses in more ways than one.
This isn’t an article about how a crit group might establish its bounds or how to start one or how sections are assigned to review. It’s to identify the etiquette of being in such a group of writing mentors, to take a minute to consider the rules of the crit playground. It’s to show you how to get the most out of joining in terms of participating and improving your writing. A group’s governing purpose is to bash the heck out of your efforts to point out the strengths and weaknesses of your work so you can improve it before you send it out to editor-land. It might keep your work out of the slush pile and get it slapped up on an agent’s desk. Yahoo!
Remember the other thing Mama always said: make good choices. Join for the right reasons. Crit groups aren’t for the overly sensitive; that kid will walk out sobbing, a drooling puddle of self righteousness, defending his mediocre work all the way to the rejection list. Groups aren’t counseling sessions; if you need to evaluate your life and justify bad decisions, sign up with a mental health group. If you write and want useful, honest feedback about your work, and are willing to provide the same for other members, that’s the reason for joining.
It’s a two way street at these meetings. You need to show up as a reviewer as well as a writer, putting as much effort into each activity. It’s your unwritten contract. You don’t get to be the star at every meeting. Most of the time you’ll be the laborer, putting in a lot of time pruning someone else’s work. Reading another person’s work lets you see the understructure of a WIP. The hidden benefit of this is that it will ultimately help you improve your own writing as you struggle to evaluate and then express your ideas. Listening to other reviewers discuss other stories is another opportunity to determine what people find commendable and what reads as clumsy. You’ll identify the errors you also make, giving you a chance to correct it before you ever present it to new readers. At the end of a session, you’ll have learned much even if your work wasn’t evaluated.
If your crit group submits work a week or a month in advance so everyone has time before the meeting to read it and prepare a crit, spend a reasonable amount of time doing just that. If work is presented at the meeting, two to five pages read aloud by the writer, listen attentively and take notes so you can offer valid advice. If you’ve joined an on-line group, you’ll have plenty of time to read and prep a review. These are three standard options and you’ll develop a preference for one or the other based on how much worthy information you’re able to glean.
As you make your evaluation of someone else’s work, consider the quality and determine how well the author achieved his goal. Think about everything you know about how to write and everything you enjoy when reading. You might write out your review, but don’t try to rewrite the work. It’s still the brain child of that other writer. Remember that his Mama also thought his work was genius so be polite and supportive. Couch your comments with a balance of what you found effective, creative, impressive, and what you THINK could be improved. It’s OK to point out grammar and spelling flaws, but know that these may be indications of some kind of dyslexia and are not a lack of intelligence. Modulate your voice and understand that the world won’t rotate on your evaluation. Be humble, truthful, compassionate, contributive, and honest. And this last is perhaps the most important: Mama didn’t come with you to the meeting, but her advice should have. If you don’t have anything nice to say – well, you know the rest. Be 100% absolutely sure that you say something nice, something positive and appreciative about the work you are critiquing. That’s a human being at the other end of your review, and that person has feelings as sensitive as yours.
Stay on the topic of reviewing the story at hand and refrain from wandering to other topics related only by the fact that something the writer wrote triggered a personal memory for you. Very nice, we’re all happy for you, but keep it to yourself. If you dislike the kind of meandering review that has little time to address the concerns of your story, know that other writers are just as frustrated under similar circumstances. If it isn’t your time to talk, remember another of Mom’s rules: be quiet.
When you’re on the hot seat and it’s your turn to present work for review, submit only your very best work, neatly presented, as perfect as possible, but note that readers are going to find flaws. As the group gives their crits of your work, listen politely and save the rolling eyes, the looks of disdain, the angry outbursts, the sputtering, and the tears for when you’re back in Mom’s kitchen. At the meeting, listen attentively and take notes. Don’t interrupt. These nice people spent two or three hours alone in a dark room with your WIP, trying to get it to stand up straight. That’s a big commitment for a kid that isn’t theirs. Being in a crit group is a reminder that it takes a village to raise a child – and to write a book.
There is certainly a social element to being part of a crit group. We writers spend long hours in front of our computers, composing our stories, creating our plots, imagining our worlds. It’s solitary work at the back of a dark closet. Having a chance to get together with a group of like-minded folk and talk about the subject that empowers and impassions you is like being prom queen – or class clown, take your pick. Whether an on-line group or an in-person one (my preference,) it’s a wonderful chance to chat with people who don’t think you’re crazy when they spot you tooling down the highway, practicing your presentation out loud. It gets you out of the house on a regular basis and gives your computer a chance to catch up on its email.
There’s a third part of the contract, the one you instigate when you get home. First, do what Mama says and wipe those stupid tears off your face. Then sit down and do your homework. The WIP wasn’t perfect – that’s the reason you went to the crit group, remember? Because Mama is always there to pat your back, but the crit group has your back in a different way. Review the entire experience, reading the notes you took at the meeting and the hard copies the “critters” gave you. Make the changes necessary to improve your book. This is a crucial part of the critique group process because if you disdainfully skip this, you just wasted not only the hours spent at the meeting, you also wasted all those hours the other members graciously worked on your behalf. It’s like the time you threw Mama’s hard work at raising you in her face by walking out the door looking and smelling like you lived in a rat’s nest at the end of the alley. Trust me, Mom didn’t forget that one.
You give, you get, and if there isn’t a relatively commensurate relationship in the group, look for another one. This post grew out of my participation in my writer’s critique group. I am still learning how to be a better critter and a better hot-seater, but the more than 10 years’ advice I’ve gleaned from that generous and tough group has exponentially helped me improve three WIP. I am deeply grateful for their sage advice and hope you are as fortunate in joining such an outstanding group. One last little bit of wisdom: when you finally get that WIP polished and ready for publication, remember the people in your crit group and acknowledge all the hours they spent with your unruly baby. Give them a shout out on the acknowledgement page and mention every single person by their full name, right after Mom’s.
In the end you’ll still be following Mama’s sage advice: Keep your mouth shut, have an open mind, and make the best of everything.