Every time I get together with my writing group, we make time to share something we’re working on. To get the most of critiques, here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Critiquing isn’t a job to be taken lightly. Someone has chosen to share their ‘baby’ with you, and your care and attention to their work should reflect that trust. Do your best to avoid suggesting changes based on personal preference. People would rather hear up front, “You know what, nothing personal but I don’t read _______. I’m not sure I’m the best one to read your work.”
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were in a writer’s critique group called the Inklings. They were each other’s toughest critic.
Set The Tone
If I’ve taken the time to bring something to read and get feedback, I’m not looking for a confidence boost, I’m looking to make my work better. But not everyone wants that. When you bring work to a group to read, or a fellow writer for critique, be sure to establish right up front what you’re looking for. When someone says, “I just wrote this, it’s really rough. I just wanted to share.” That person is looking for an audience not a critique. If I picked their work apart they’d be devastated because that isn’t what they were looking for.
What do you want a critiquer to look for? Are you looking for feedback on dialogue, plot, setting, description – what? Give the critiquers something to listen for. When I bring work to be critiqued by a group, I ask them to listen for 1, no more than 3, specific elements. You’re more likely to get useful feedback this way than six answers all over the map.
When I go to fiction intensives at conferences, you’re given a set of 10 or so questions to answer, each examines one aspect of a piece. Is the dialogue effective? Is the story vague in any place? These sorts of focus questions will give more detailed feedback. If you’ve got 5 people saying, “Yeah, I didn’t get that he died there” that’s a definite detail that you can identify to tweak instead of 5 people saying different things, because what if they’re the only one confused by that?
Choose Critiquers Based On Their Strengths
When I’m on the first draft, I’m looking for feedback on several key areas usually. I’m looking for feedback on the idea in general, characterization, and description because I know those are personal weaknesses. These are more big picture edits of a scene or story. Heather is good at identifying with characters – does the audience like my protagonist or is another character stealing the show? I ask certain people to look for specific things.
When I’m looking for brutal honesty though – I mean, cut throat, no-holds-barred critique, I go to Marcy every time. But why not go to Marcy for all critiques? Because we have a close relationship, I feel free to ask her (though she’s a professional) to read my work, but if I asked her to read everything at every stage I’d wear her out. There’s giving favors and being taken advantage of. I save the Marcy critique for the final step before Beta readers. She’s going to drill into word use, POV shifts, grammar and punctuation (if I ask her to), show don’t tell, small picture edits scene by scene. Often I ask her for feedback on sensory description, conflict, hooks, the finer details of a work.
Does that mean that the earlier critiquers aren’t useful? Absolutely not! Without them, Marcy is distracted by big picture problems and she won’t bother critiquing the finer details because there are major problems that need to be fixed first. Before you ask a roofer to come, you have to make sure you’ve got four walls first. I’ve wasted her time.
When I’m at the final step before querying, I turn to my beta readers. These are readers, not writers. I turn to my mom for some projects (a life-long avid reader in certain genres who won’t hold back on the criticism), and a couple of university pals who are intelligent readers. If your mom loves everything you write she may not be a good one to have at this stage. I don’t have that problem
I only turn to writing professionals in my network when I’m looking for a pair of fresh eyes on marketing material like a one-sheet, query or synopsis. (outside of a conference) I don’t ask them for a critique of the manuscript because typically they charge a fee for that, and I’d feel like a skunk asking them to do it for free. A marketing critique isn’t as intense, and I’m asking more for their professional opinion. I’ve only done this twice in the last 10 years.
Know Your Own Strengths And Weaknesses
I know that dialogue and conflict are my strengths. I don’t often ask for feedback on those issues. Rather, I’m going to ask my early critiquers to focus on the areas I’m weaker on. Because I’ve done a lot of critiques, I can recognize weaknesses in other people’s stuff, but struggle to have that objectivity with my own work.
Do you have a critique partner or writing group you look to for feedback?