Working with a Critique Group
Not all of us are objective about our work. In fact, if you asked even top authors if they are the best voice of reason over what works and doesn’t work in a given story, they’d probably say no.
Why? We are too close to our writing to see the flaws. And to be quite honest, a piece of writing is a lot like a child–even if your kid is ugly in the eyes of other people, you see the beautiful creation of your genes. You don’t see the missing plot lines, the stilted dialogue, the flowering descriptions. You see art.
The best option is to find a critique partner or a critique group with some experience in the writing world, but also a good knowledge of the publishing industry and how it works. The opinions of those outside your work can often serve as a great beginning for revision. A few cautions, however, before you hitch yourself to a homegrown editorial service. A good critique partner/group should do the following:
Understand Where You Are Going. A mystery writer might not be the best partner to evaluate your book on plant life in Antarctica. Someone who has no idea what is selling in the humor market today also might not be the best authority on your Dave Barry-type work. Search for people who are at least familiar with your market.
Keep Your Voice In The Material. The last thing you need is a critique partner who will impose his or her ideas, voice and style on your work. That’s not to say that a good critiquer shouldn’t offer suggestions, rather that they should leave the door open for you to make your own decisions.
Let You Learn From Your Mistakes. Showing you how to craft a good lead for an article or suggesting a strong hook for the end of a chapter is one thing, continually rewriting your work is another. You are there to learn. A good critique group helps you do that by pointing out areas of weakness and giving you options for fixing it. The true rewrite, however, should be done by you.
Point Out Your Weaknesses. This should be done honestly, and without malice. You don’t need a critique partner who says, “This is terrible.” You need someone who can say, “Your opening is a little weak. Why not try starting with this scene instead?”
Do Not Forget To Mention Your Strengths. You also need feedback on what you are doing right. This helps you understand your areas of best writing and then capitalize on them in your work.
Be Kind: This doesn’t mean every comment should stroke the writer’s ego, but rather, be put in a way that doesn’t purposely hurt the author’s feelings or disparage his/her skills. We’re all trying to succeed at this writing game-let’s be a help to each other, not a hindrance.
Be a Reciprocator. Some critique groups take and take, by bringing in first drafts and unformed pieces. They expect the group to help them write the entire piece. In exchange, they give nothing. Be prepared when you go to your critique meetings, and offer as much as you receive.
If you aren’t getting all that you need to from your critique group, don’t be afraid to say something. This is your work, after all, and if you don’t stand up for it, who will?
Remember, a good critique group is there to help you with your writing, not harm. While criticism is never easy to take, as long as it is constructive and paired with honest compliments, your writing will benefit. So search for a group that gives you all you need, and then be prepared to see your writing skills grow.