Critiquing someone’s work is like defusing a bomb. Without a delicate touch – and careful maneuvering – writers can become disheartened, disenchanted, angry, confused, vindictive, appalled or skeptical of criticism.
I founded a critique group more than a year ago in Springfield, Mo., with two other local writers. After a few months, we were comfortable with the routine and decided to invite a new person on board to make a group of four.
I met someone at a quarterly writer’s meeting. We all hit it off, so, at the request of the other two in the group, I invited her to check out our group. The first meeting went well. The newbie offered interesting insight into everyone’s work and brought her own to share. We thought she was a great fit. And everyone agreed that four was a comfortable number. Then, to our dismay, our newest member invited a friend of hers to join without discussion.
Individually, they weren’t so bad. But together, these two would tear a hole through anyone’s work but their own, with scathing critiques and zero suggestions on ways to improve the writing, plot or structure. They, of course, commended each other with glowing reviews – no matter how good or bad the work presented.
After a few meetings, no one wanted to share their work – except these two, of course! For them, joining the group was a way to bolster their self esteem by belittling the work of others. After each meeting, they walked jauntily back to their cars while the rest of us staggered to the coffee bar for java and comfort food.
Members of critique group should offer constructive criticism that peels away an author’s tunnel vision and offers suggested manuscript revisions. As writers, it’s easy to edit someone’s work to fit our own style. Many times it’s a subconscious effort, but there nonetheless. But we have to be careful to preserve the unique voice of each writer we critique. And we need to be fair when we offer suggestions.
I now belong to two critique groups, both online. Here’s what I have learned so far:
- Be truthful. Don’t harshly judge work simply because it’s not your style or genre. Read it, absorb it, read it again, then write down your thoughts based on structure, clarity and strength of the writing.
- If you want to join a critique group to make yourself feel better, don’t. No one wants to deal with an egomaniac. Writing’s delicate business. Hey, a piece of a writer’s soul is in every work. Would you like someone to take a stab at your soul?
- Find something good about each manuscript you critique. It’s easy to list the no-no’s, but sometimes we forget to give accolades where they are due.
- Work with people you trust, but don’t be afraid to show your work to others who may have fresh points of view and can offer new insights into your work.
- If you get someone in your group who simply cannot be positive about anyone else’s work, kick them out. Make a policy for your group that everyone comes on a trial basis for four meetings. If, at the end of the trial period, it doesn’t work out for the group or the newbie, no hard feelings. Be up front about the policy when you invite new people so there is no confusion later on.
- Embolden writers in your group to push their limits and continue working on stories, novellas, novels or freelance works – especially when they are feeling discouraged.