I got my laptop back from the Genius Bar 10 days ago, and the graphics card has just started to go again, so I probably only have another week or two before the whole computer dies a third time. In the meantime: the post-Nanowrimo entry that I promised!
Writing groups are invaluable for authors. The one I’m currently in is run by my friend Rob, who I met through Nanowrimo lo these many years ago. If you’re looking for a writing group in your area, check out Meetup.com, or get in touch with the people in your regional Nanowrimo forums. If there aren’t any around, there are some online writing groups that might benefit you. You could also start your own, but I’d recommend seeing how other people run this kind of group before you take on the responsibility yourself.
How To Critique
1. It’s not all about you
A lot of groups require you to attend and critique other people’s work a few times before you can submit your own. The group isn’t there for you to dump your most recent work on and then jet off when you’re done. We’ve had a few people do this in our group—a brand new member signs up for their first month in the group, gives us a short story to have critiqued, and then never shows up again after that. Worse is when they do that but don’t actually show up for the critique itself. Writing groups are give-and-take, and that means you have to put in the time before you get the benefit. And why wouldn’t you? If you cultivate your relationship with the group, you can continue to use this resource for years afterward.
2. Their work is not your work
One of the first mistakes a lot of critiquers make is trying to mold other people’s work to fit their own style. You don’t say “It would be better if you…” when you’re critiquing. What you say is “This part didn’t work for me.” You’re there to tell the author what parts felt off to you. You’re not there to fix it. That’s their job.
Sometimes you’ll get a work that’s perfect in every way, and you struggle to find something to say. Other times you’ll get something that looks like someone mashed their face into a keyboard for ten minutes. In the first case, you congratulate the author and ask them what specifically they’re looking for, since the odds are they have an idea of what they think needs work (unless they’re just there for the accolades, which is something I’ll address in a moment). In the second case, you need to think about what advice will help the author the most. You can’t point out every mistake, because the author might get demoralized and give up on this story (or writing in general) forever, and in any case it’s a waste of your time. Instead, look at the big picture. What is the biggest problem with the story? Which thing, when fixed, will make the biggest difference? Focus on just one of them.
4. Forget grammar and spelling
No, seriously. Forget them. That kind of stuff is cosmetic, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time to focus on that when the whole story or chapter might be rewritten. There have been people in my writing group who refused to critique someone’s story because of the typos or punctuation problems they had, which is a ridiculously condescending thing to do. It’s not helping anyone. It’s just embarrassing the author. Remember when I talked about priorities? Grammar and spelling are two of the lowest priorities, and should be focused on only when the bigger issues have been fixed. You, as a member of the writing group, are not the end audience for this work. You’re seeing this story in all its rough, half-constructed squalor. Don’t waste your time critiquing the paint job unless the author asks for it.
5. Don’t forget the good parts
Yes, you’re there to point out the mistakes, but it really helps to point out what worked, too. Every single time you critique, try to find one thing you liked, even if you absolutely hated the story. They probably didn’t get everything wrong, after all, and a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as they say. They’ll be more likely to listen to your critique if they know all is not lost. Additionally, letting them know what worked means that they won’t cut that part out in their edits.
How to be critiqued
1. It’s not all about you, part 2
It’s nice to get compliments on your work, but your writing group is not the place to get them. If you have a story that’s perfect in every way, maybe consider submitting something else instead. And if you do submit something that you think is perfect, don’t be surprised if and when it gets criticism. That’s the point of a writing group.
2. Stay inside the glass box
Some writing groups have this as a rule. Mine doesn’t, but sometimes I wish it did. When you’re getting critiqued, you cannot argue with your critiquer. Ideally, you shouldn’t talk at all. If your critiquer has completely misunderstood the point of the story and is going off in the completely wrong direction, it’s not your place to tell them. Once your work is out there in the wild, it has to stand on its own. You won’t be there to correct every reader of their misconceptions. So when your critiquers get something wrong, take that as a sign that you need to fix the story, not set your critiquer straight.
3. Give yourself a few days to soothe your ego
Critiques can be demoralizing. Remember: they’re not critiquing you. They’re critiquing your story so you can make it better. The ego punch gets easier each time you get critiqued, but it still can bug you even if you’re a seasoned veteran. Your first reaction might be to reject all the critique and give up on editing entirely. Don’t let that happen! Instead, wait a few days or a week, then revisit the criticism with an open mind. (I hope you took notes!)
4. Consider saying yes
There have been a few times in my writing group when my critiquers have suggested a change to the story that was completely out there. Get rid of your main character. Write the story from someone else’s point of view. Rework your magic system. My first reaction was to dismiss that out of hand. That big of a change is ridiculous, right? It would require rewriting everything. But then I actually sat down with my notes and said to myself “What if I did make this change? What then?” What had seemed ridiculous quickly became exciting, and the changes I made to my novel (rewriting it from the point of view of an entirely different character) vastly improved it. If you get advice like this, especially if it’s from a majority of your writing group, it doesn’t hurt to consider the possibility. Squash your initial urge to say no and seriously consider what the changes might do.
5. Know when to say no
On the other hand, there can be times when your writing group is urging you to write an entirely different story from the one you wrote, and you have to put your foot down. Remember that this is only a small subset of people, and they don’t always know what’s best for your story. If only one or two are advocating for a big change, or if the people who don’t like what you’ve done are people with little to no experience in your genre, it might be a good idea to put their advice aside. After all, your writing group is there to critique, and there is always going to be more to critique, ad infinitum. At a certain point, you have to know when to stop editing and release your story out there into the wild.
2 thoughts on “Nanowrimo Now What?: How to Critique and Be Critiqued”
This post is full of fantastic advice. During my creative writing workshops in college, our professor always made us stay in the glass box. While this was often torturous, it teaches a great lesson: you work HAS to speak for itself and you CANNOT defend it once it’s out in the world. It did turn many a writer red in the face, though. Thanks for the great post!
Yes, my first experience with the glass box was in a college writing class as well. It was so difficult at first, but it’s also incredibly valuable. Not only does it force you to learn how to put everything into your writing, it also keeps you from making any inflammatory responses to your critiquers.
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