A critique group should be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal.
Your rough drafts may be totes gorgeous and amazeballs, but believe me, if you haven’t had anyone else who’s knowledgeable about writing and/or your genre take a look at it and give you some honest feedback, your manuscript probably isn’t done. A critique group of writers supporting each other through constructive discussion about what works, and what doesn’t so much work, is worth one’s tender ego being a little bruised now and then after finding out one’s first draft is not the burnished gold one thought it was.
That said, sometimes you might find yourself in a critique group that’s not a good match for you. Sometimes the personal chemistry doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you need to move along and find other writers to work with, and that’s okay, too.
So I’ve decided, after being asked questions about all of this in several interviews over the last year, and after realizing I’ve spent the last twenty years either participating in or leading critique groups, to write a blog post about the dos and don’ts of being in a writers’ group.
In preparing for this post, I asked a lot of other writers, those in my current group and some not, for their ideas about good critique group etiquette and professionalism: what you can do, and what you can avoid, to make your––and everyone else’s––experience more positive and productive. There were a lot of common threads, and many of the items you’ll read on these lists were echoed by several of the contributors.
I’d like to thank Casey Fleming, Christa Forster, David Jón Fuller, Adam Holt, Brenda Leibling-Goldberg, Tyson Morgan, Meredith Moore, Shirley Redwine, Lucie Scott Smith, and LiAnn Yim for their input. And if you, dear reader, have some further suggestions on what a critique group participant should or shouldn’t do, please contribute to the conversation in the comments section below!
When it’s your turn to present to the workshop, assuming your group reads the manuscripts ahead of time, DO SEND YOUR WORK OUT TO THE GROUP EARLY so they all have enough time to read it carefully, rather than rushing––or not reading it at all until the night before the meeting. Each group will determine what kind of prep time they need, based on the number of pages each person presents and how many people are sharing their work at each meeting.
Again assuming your group reads manuscripts ahead of time, DO READ EACH MANUSCRIPT BEFORE THE MEETING, more than once if you can. (If you have time, reading it through once and then making notes on your second pass works well.) Have specific notes to give the person. Commit to the time and effort to make a good try. Give it your best effort, even if you don’t love the manuscript.
WILLINGLY ENTER THE CONE OF SILENCE. It’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s so important to keep one’s mouth shut while others talk about your work. LISTEN FIRST and don’t argue with the critics. Wait until they’ve finished, and only then ask questions about the issues they raised. If there is a significant misunderstanding on anyone’s part, it’s better to clear that up before getting into a protracted debate, but there’s also tremendous value in just listening to the effect your writing has on a reader, rather than interjecting partway through and curtailing discussion. Remember that when your work is published and available for a wide audience to read, you won’t be standing over every reader’s shoulder explaining stuff, and you need to see whether your manuscript can stand on its own, whether what you intended to get across on the page actually comes through. Keep quiet until the Redirect, or until the very end.
Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” DO GIVE NOTES ON WHAT WORKS in the manuscript. People learn better from praise than they do from criticism. Cheering on a great line, a plot twist, or character insight––and being able to say why it works––is so meaningful. It’s too easy for writers to feel like our work––particularly our rough drafts––just plain sucks. Getting notes on the parts that don’t work helps, but so does hearing when we’re on the right track. It really helps, in fact, to start your commentary with the praise; if you can start by looking for the good in another writer’s work, it builds trust and helps the writer find a voice and a path. Just picking apart someone’s work mercilessly is counter-productive.
DO STAY ON TOPIC. Keep focused on the writing and feedback. It’s completely normal and acceptable for a writers’ group that’s been working together for a while and that’s built up a solid rapport of mutually respectful, trusting, cordial relationships to be social when they get together, but if you do, keep this part of the meeting confined to the very beginning or very end of the meeting. In my current group, for example, we always eat dinner together when we meet, and we socialize or catch up or chat about writing in general or writing opportunities we’ve come across that we want to share over dinner, and when we’re about done eating, we know it’s time to get down to manuscript business.
BE RESPECTFUL. Keep the writer’s goals in mind, rather than trying to rewrite the manuscript in your own style. Your comments should be about the writer’s goals and about the craft, not about your own tastes or preferences. Focus more on the reaction the manuscript provoked in you, rather than on how you would rewrite it or what the author should have done. Some good advice is to help “make the story more of itself,” which reminds us to examine what the writer wanted to do with the piece––and make recommendations accordingly. (Another way of looking at this is the adage, “It’s not all about you.”)
GO INTO WORKSHOP READY TO HEAR COMMON PLACES OF CONFUSION. Make a list beforehand of what you think could be improved in your draft. Nine times out of ten, good writers already know what’s wrong and just need that list confirmed by other people and re-articulated so they can start to fix it. That process makes the critique feel less personal. In other words, “They’re not tearing my piece apart, they’re helping me see clearly what I already know but am too immersed in the work to approach with clarity.” If you have specific questions you want the group to address, you can do so in Redirect or (if your group allows this) include a short list of questions with your manuscript (if your group reads them ahead of time).
KEEP YOUR OWN COUNSEL. Ignore overly prescriptive advice. Not everyone follows these rules, and it’s important to remember that you’re the one writing this manuscript, not anyone else. If you’re feeling squeamish or discomfited by the critique you’ve received––either because it’s unproductive or because it’s pulling you in numerous different directions––it’s helpful to remember this is your work. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.
DON’T MONOPOLIZE THE DISCUSSION. Speak your piece concisely and make your point, and then let someone else speak. If you’re in a group where the critics take turns giving their commentary, and you have more to say after everyone else has had a turn, ask if you can add something. If you’re in a group where the conversation flows more like a dialogue, an open discussion, then pay attention to your involvement so that everyone gets a chance to contribute.
DON’T DISPARAGE THE WRITER’S WORK OR GENRE. Use your imagination and allow the author’s work to grow; don’t try to kill it before it blooms. Even if the manuscript isn’t in your genre, don’t treat it like it’s covered in snot. Everyone has different tastes, and if you’re going to work together, you need to respect each other and each other’s work. It may not be to your taste. That’s okay. Rise above your personal preferences and be a professional. Ron Carlson said the workshop participant’s job is to help the writer understand what her piece is trying to do or be and then give some thoughtful encouragement about how to get it there, rather than trying to bend it to the critic’s tastes. To that end, consider Andre Dubus’ essay “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop.” In short, honesty is good––but negativity, just destructive.
DON’T COMPETE. You’re not there to be the best in the group; you’re there to learn from each other. Be open to the idea that you will all learn from each other. If you were the most competent writer in the room, it would be really tough for you to ever get any better at your craft. Plus, competition really inhibits the kind of trusting rapport a group needs to function well.
DON’T SHOVEL ON THE B.S. As one of our contributors said, “I’d rather have someone be brute than dance around the subject.” There’s a difference between honest praise and kissing up, and anyone whose ego is smaller than Texas can recognize it. “Be encouraging at all times” is very important and worthwhile advice, but this doesn’t mean insincere flattery will be helpful in any way. Be diplomatic and kind, but respect your fellow writers enough to be genuine, too.
As one of our contributors advised, “DON’T USE THE F-WORD.” Be diplomatic and respectful in your choice of language. No personal attacks. And if you’re in a situation where someone is launching them at a member of the group, DON’T TOLERATE IT.
DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOUR WRITING IS YOU. It’s something you produce. It’s not personal, nor is it a reflection of your worth as a human being. Keep this in mind because no one is there to judge you. They’re there to improve their work and yours, so don’t be overly offended by criticism or overly enamored with praise of your ramblings. Just listen, learn, improve, and enjoy. Don’t get defensive, or the people critiquing your manuscript will be less likely to give you worthwhile, honest feedback. The important corollary to this, of course, is simple: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF EQUATING THE WRTER WITH THE MANUSCRIPT. That’s just uncool.
I (and the other contributors to this piece) hope you find these guidelines useful. As with any set of rules, of course, you and your group will settle into a dynamic that works for you all. But establishing your rules of engagement early on can save a lot of heartbreak and stress later. Writing and critiquing and becoming better at your craft can (and should) be a fun, productive, valuable process.
May you find an excellent critique group, and when you do find it, may you stick with them. It’s one of the best ways to avoid having too solitary a life, too narrow an echo chamber. It’s one of the best ways to make your work better.