Yesterday we discussed Evaluating Critique Groups for workshopping your writing. Now lets look at the responsibilities of individual critiquers and the ways that both an ineffective and an ideal critique partner might engage with the group.
A critique partner or group member is essentially charged with three things:
1. Giving feedback.
A critique partner evaluates ideas, chapters, or manuscripts from fellow writers and offers constructive feedback on how to make them stronger, clearer, and more marketable. She examines big picture elements like character development, plot, scene construction, and pacing, and might also suggest ways to tighten and clarify language. She might suggest comparable titles for the writer to examine or recommend specific craft books and articles to help the writer work through some of his trouble spots.
Not all critiquers are created equally, and giving clear, constructive feedback is a skill that takes time and practice to master. Often, groups will comprise at least a few of these ineffective critiquers:
- Mr. Nice Guy lavishes praise and glosses over weak spots, concerned with sparing a writer’s feelings rather than helping her strengthen the manuscript. His critiques are the equivalent of mothers who encourage their tone-deaf children to try out for American Idol, only to see them embarrassed on on national TV. Nice’s feedback is a pat on the back—pleasant but not helpful.
- The Brut is the opposite of Mr. Nice Guy. He takes sadistic pleasure in tearing down other writers and often reminds people of his vast experience and knowledge. There’s no mincing words with The Brut as he tells a writer exactly how to fix something—his way. While Brut’s keen eye for weaknesses may be an asset, his delivery leaves writers bruised and battered, unable to glean anything positive from the experience.
- Can’t See the Forest is adept at identifying spelling and grammar issues but misses the big picture. Her best friend is the red pen, and her services are best saved for a final polish rather than a work-in-progress critique.
- Can’t See the Trees offers comments so broad that they could be applied to any manuscript. She says things like, “I don’t like the main character,” “The plot doesn’t make sense,” or simply, “I don’t get it.” While she may have legitimate concerns, she is unable to articulate them in a constructive way.
- All About Me sees everything through the lens of her own experiences and can’t imagine characters or situations beyond that limited realm. She says things like, “This doesn’t work. I would never have done that when I was a teen.” or “Your teen narrator is unrealistic. My daughter doesn’t talk like that.” Her refusal to acknowledge the reality beyond her own front door makes her advice questionable and ill-informed.
- The Skimmer waits until the last minute and speed-reads through the pages, making a few cursory notes. When meeting in person, he waits until others give their feedback and then poaches it. His critiques are superficial, lacking context, and generally useless.
- The Refuser has a long list of topics and situations she doesn’t like or that conflict with her beliefs, and the moment one appears on the page, she refuses to read. To be fair, some readers are genuinely unable to read about certain emotionally triggering events, but rather than letting the author know about her concerns in advance, The Refuser waits until it’s time to offer feedback and then throws in a casual “I don’t read books like this” or ignores the submission altogether.
When it comes to giving feedback, the ideal critique partner is a careful, considerate reader who offers a balance of personal opinion and objective advice based on her knowledge of craft, literature, and the marketplace. She’s not afraid to criticize, yet she does so constructively with tact and care. She may offer solutions or alternatives, but she doesn’t rewrite the project as her own. Instead, she poses questions like, “Have you thought about this?” or “What do you think of this idea?” designed to help the reader explore her own creative solutions. She keeps an open mind about others’ work, but if she’s truly unable to read about a specific topic or situation, she discusses it with the writer in an objective, professional manner and offers to read a different submission, if possible. If she’s unable to complete a reading in a timely manner, she makes arrangements with the writer to turn in her detailed feedback at a later date.
2. Receiving feedback.
It may seem like an easy task to sit quietly and absorb the constructive criticism others offer, but like giving feedback, receiving it—and incorporating it in a meaningful way—is a learned skill. Writers may lack confidence or feel attacked during a critique, particularly if the critiquer exhibits some of the negative traits above. Good feedback may be conflicting, leaving the writer confused about how to address the issue. And some writers, despite the fact that they’re involved in a critique group, don’t like having their work dissected and criticized. All of this angst can suck the creative energy from the group.
No one loves to receive negative feedback, but some people make the process even more difficult and create a toxic environment for everyone involved:
- The Nod-and-Smiler lacks confidence in her work and dutifully incorporates every bit of feedback she’s given, even if it waters down her manuscript or turns it into a hodgepodge of randomness. She’s reluctant to ask questions or contribute to any meaningful debate about craft and style, and her lack of participation and progress weakens the group.
- The Defender is quick to justify his choices in the face of all constructive criticism. He’s often belligerent and specializes in criticizing mistakes in others’ work that he makes tenfold. The Defender often joins workshops and critique groups seeking validation that he’s already awesome, so he’s not really open to feedback that might actually help him become a better writer.
- The Eye-Roller is closely related to The Defender, but is quieter about her dissent. She internally scoffs at criticism, often wondering what she’s doing with a bunch of amateurs who simply don’t understand a work of literature when they see one. Like The Defender, The Eye-Roller may also seek validation rather than helpful advice and, because of her inflexibility and unwillingness to learn, is unlikely to achieve her publication goals.
- Poor Me cannot separate constructive criticism of his work from criticism of his person. He internalizes negative feedback and is quick to give up rather than work hard to overcome writing obstacles. It’s difficult to help Poor Me because his emotional reactions often illicit feelings of guilt, causing the critiquer to default to unhelpful Mr. Nice Guy behavior.
When it comes to receiving feedback, the ideal critique partner understands that constructive criticism is integral to a writer’s growth. She appreciates and considers all feedback, incorporating ideas that resonate with her and discarding those that don’t. She trusts her intuition when it comes to conflicting advice, and she knows how to dig beneath surface criticism to find the root of the issue. She’s not afraid to ask questions and follow up for clarification after she’s had time to consider her group’s comments. Above all, she understands that critique group members, like readers in the wild, are subjective; the book that one person despises may be another’s absolute favorite. Even in her darkest hour, when all else fails, she doesn’t give up writing. She simply starts a new project.
3. Moving beyond the critique.
If a writer is seeking traditional publication, at some point, he has to stop workshopping his manuscript and send that baby out into the world of agents and editors. But the querying process can be a frightening step—so frightening that some writers avoid it altogether. They become professional workshoppers, tinkering with their manuscripts line by line, researching and preparing for that next big step but never actually taking it. A good critique group can be a wonderful support system, but it’s not supposed to cocoon writers from the potentially harsh—and potentially rewarding—realities of publishing. Writers who rely on their group to shield them from next steps will find themselves, not surprisingly, unpublished. Their lack of progress and motivation can lend support to the fallacy that publication is an unattainable dream, a fantasy that no mere mortal can realize.
Instead of dragging her feet, the ideal critique partner works on her manuscript until she believes it’s the best it can be. She recognizes that this process could take months or even years, and she’s committed to it for the long haul. At the same time, she doesn’t rely on the group as her sole motivator for writing or use them as an excuse to avoid the next step. When her manuscript is ready, she queries actively and shares her experiences with the group so that they can learn from and support one another. Some members will be excited to see her striving for her goals. Others will be jealous, spiteful, and negative. Regardless, their feelings won’t prevent her from working hard, querying and re-querying, and starting new projects while she waits.
Ideal Critique Partners… Are You?
Writers, what do you think? Are you an ideal critique partner (at least most of the time), or do you recognize yourself in some of these ineffective feedback styles? Those of you who’ve worked in groups or partnerships, have you noticed any other helpful or detrimental critiquer characteristics? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.