We all have guidelines we stick to in life. Often they're developed for us and we follow them studiously, but sometimes we make them ourselves based on our experiences in certain situations. As we develop as writers we become more confident and more aware of what works and what doesn't in our creative process. In 2013 I thought I had it all figured out, that my writing was strong and my knowledge vast, and then I started a critique group and realized I had so much more to learn, not only about writing but about genres, using craft elements effectively, and publishing. Imagine my surprise to learn I'd only seen the very tip of the tip of the publishing iceberg.
Now, after years of working with critique groups and partners I've developed my own guidelines, my own approach, and my partners (as you can see from the testimonials on this site) have responded well to them. I shared them with you on the About This Writing Thing podcast this week and I'm sharing them here with you now.
1) Be encouraging - The work you're reviewing is someone's creation, their baby. The last thing you need to do as a critique partner is tell them it's ugly. Find the good parts and point those out. Not only will it soften the sting of critique, it will let them know they're not totally lacking in talent.
2) Be kind - This goes back to #1. In those moments when you're looking at your screen telling yourself you can't read another word because it's so bad, remember that every first draft (true first draft) is rough. Again, don't say how ugly the baby is, tell them what they may do to make the lighting better.
3) Make suggestions - You're not in a critique group to hear how brilliant you are (though it's always nice to receive that type of feedback), you're there to make your work stronger, to find out what works and what doesn't work, and to finish the damn book. "I liked it" is no more acceptable than "I didn't like it" when working with critique partners. Be specific but remain kind.
4) Be professional - The top guidelines of critique all work hand-in-hand. One must be encouraging and kind, and they must do so while making helpful suggestions. It is also important that the critique partner exude professionalism while critiquing. Remember, you're most critiquing work that is intended to be submitted. It deserves your full attention and a thorough read - thorough with thoughtful and helpful suggestions. In other words use "LOL" and other text language sparingly.
5) Line-by-line - This one is really up to personal preference. Recently my MFA class explored our personal rules for critique. I was surprised by the number of people who dislike line by line critiques. Personally, I thrive on them. I was astounded, though, by the number of people who only wanted their critique partners to read and look for the specific things they ask them to look for, nothing more. I am of the mind that my work isn't perfect and my partners may find something I wasn't aware of being a problem, so I rarely ask my partners to look for anything specific in my work. I think writers who limit their partners to only looking at particular things are doing a disservice to their work. I also thing they may not be 100% open to critique. This, as stated before, is all personal preference and should be discussed as a group to see what works best for everyone.
6) Be thorough - I spend a lot of time with the submissions I receive. Sometimes it takes me hours to do a read through because I am moving through the work line by line. This, apparently, is not how others do their critiques. In our class discussions I've found that many people believe you should read through a sample one to two times before going back through to critique. I don't like to do double and triple work, y'all, so I do it all in one go. This is why it takes so long for me to read through and critique. The golden rule for this is to give your partner's work the same time and respect you want them to give to yours.
7) Be patient - If you're fortunate enough to find a critique partner that is truly ready for critique, be patient. In a past critique group one of our members was writing a historical. This genre is tricky because you need to weave history in with fiction and keep it interesting. She had a great story but she made the standard newbie writer mistakes: too much description and information dumping. We all do it when we're starting out. We have our characters describe themselves right down to the cutesy mole just below their left eye. This doesn't work in all genres, it really doesn't work well in historical fiction. The key to working with tedious writing is patience. She wasn't a bad writer just because she went into too much detail, nor was she a bad writer for giving too much information. This is where your skill and expertise come into play. You have to help her get better without being a jerk and without doing a disservice to her work. Patience, as they say, is a virtue, so use it.
8) Know writing styles (but don't critique them) - For this term's first week of class we had to submit a creative writing sample. One of my classmates critiqued my work, suggesting that I change some of my stylistic choices. Because she isn't familiar with the genre I write in she was unaware that the pieces of prose she highlighted are actually quite common in literary, upmarket, and women's fiction. It is very important, especially if you're critiquing outside your genre, that you are familiar with and understand the styles common in the genres you're critiquing. Women's fiction narratives are vastly different from those found in mystery and fantasy. In other words, know your shit or stay in your lane. Two cliches in one statement, how do you like that?
9) Refrain from proofreading (grammar) - As you can, no doubt, tell from this and all of my other blog posts, grammar is not my thing. We all have our weaknesses, right? This is one reason why I don't comment on grammar while critiquing. Misspellings, yes. Sentence structure, yes. Rarely grammar. You do what you want, but I'll save the grammar issues for the proofreader.
10) Never, never, ever give an unsolicited critique - I learned this one the hard way. When I began critiquing I was so excited. Here I was looking at fiction in a whole new way. I wasn't analyzing it, I was taking a look at the bones of a story and helping other authors make them stronger. It was (and is) exhilarating! At the time I was FB friends with an Irish woman who was releasing a book. She'd been advertising it for months and it was her very first book. I was excited to buy and read it. Then I did. It was a good story, but it was clear she hadn't worked with a developmental editor (not that I knew what that was at the time) or any other type of editor. So after I finished it I sent her a three page critique. I was foolish and presumptuous. She hasn't spoken to me since. It wasn't until years later that I realized the error of my ways. It turns out we're newbie writers in so many different ways. Yes, my craft was improving, but I had a lot to learn about etiquette.
So there they are, my golden guidelines for critique. Are they similar to yours? I'd love to know what you think.
Until next time,