Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writing Workshop: Tips for Giving and Receiving Critiques

Dan here. I thought I'd start the conversation -- and let all of YOU continue it -- on guidelines for critiques by writer's groups or critique partners.

Critiquing, also known as workshopping, is a critical part of finding success as an author. Basically, this is the process by which you solicit feedback for your writing from people who (1) are writers themselves, and (2) are not related to you, and therefore are more likely to give you honest feedback. If you take a short story writing or creative writing course, odds are you've participated in these exercises. 

A workshop for writers to share and critique one another's work is a wonderful resource, but it can also be the source of anxiety, embarrassment, and injured feelings. This has happened occasionally in some of my writers groups, and when it happens, no one wins. 

Tips for Offering Critiques

I'm a member of the Critters Workshop, operated by Andrew Burt (also known as "the Critter Captain"). He often refers workshop members to an article, The Diplomatic Critiquer, which offers some excellent guidelines on writing critiques that are helpful, instead of hurtful. Among them:
  • Be polite and respectful. The former is about word choice, and taking the time to write "Might I suggest a comma here," instead of "Put a comma here." As for respect, assume that the author knows what he or she is doing, and phrase your remarks accordingly.
  • Critique the writing, not the author. It's tempting to make inferences about an author's experience, skill level, or background when offering critique. Don't do that. Focus on the work at hand.
  • Don't state your opinion as fact. Your response to someone's story is your opinion. There is no right or wrong, and you should be careful to word your comments as "I felt that" or "I think that" to reinforce that it's one critiquer's opinion. 
  • You are not The Authority. You are not playing the role of parent or teacher here, but the role of a peer. Anything that comes off sound like you feel you're superior should be re-phrased. Don't cite authorities to "back up" your comments, and avoid coming off as bossy. 
Critiquers vary in the way that they tend to deliver critiques. Personally, I've always been a fan of the "compliment sandwich" technique, which takes the following format:
  1. Begin by offering your favorite parts of the story, what you liked best, and what worked for you.
  2. After that, discuss things that didn't work for you, and offer constructive criticism
  3. Close by touching on the strengths again, and offering some words of encouragement.
Let's face it: most authors have fragile egos. Sandwiching your critique between compliments and words of encouragement will go a long way. A lot of authors will know exactly what you're doing with this -- I usually recognize it when people use it on me -- but they'll still appreciate it.

Tips for Receiving Critiques

One of my writer's groups evolved out of a course we'd taken together at a local university. There, the instructor laid out a format for the peer critique (it was face-to-face, obviously) that we kept long afterward. 
  • We'd all read the same piece, and then each person would have a turn to offer his or her feedback (taking as much time as desired, within reason). EVERYONE would comment, even if just to echo the sentiments of those who'd gone already. 
  • During this entire time, the author of the piece would remain silent, even if the urge to answer a question or correct a misconception was burning the very fiber of his soul. 
  • Once everyone had offered comments, the author had a chance to respond to them, ask for clarification, offer clarification, etc.
You'll note that this format helps avoid confrontation and argument, and encourages even the less-outspoken critiquers to offer their thoughts. Some other tips I'd offer along the lines of receiving critiques, either online or in person:
  • Always thank the critiquer. Even if you hated every word he or she said, that person still took time out of a busy life in a busy world to read your work. 
  • It's OK to answer questions, but don't argue. This will go against your nature, because you'll want to defend your writing like you would your own child. Resist this urge. It will encourage open, honest critiques the next time around.
  • Listen to advice, but don't feel obligated to follow it. This is your story, and you need to do what's right for it. Often in Critters I get very contradictory critiques: one reader hates part of the story, but another loves it.
  • Key in on repetition. One critiquer who's confused about a certain turn of phrase might be a chance event. If two or three people make the same remark, however, it might be time to take a hard look at the offending passage.

How Do You Workshop?

How do you and your critique partners operate? If you'd like to offer your own tips on giving and/or receiving critiques, I'd love to hear them.

Caitlin This is great stuff, Dan, and it includes a lot of reminders that I needed to hear (*blushes*). I don't have a whole lot to add except a slightly different take on the author staying silent. We did this in my grad school classes and I liked it. After all, you can't sit there with everyone reading your published book and say "Well, what I meant by that was..." The work has to speak for itself and so it's interesting to have to listen to what others think without correcting misconceptions.

After grad school, I joined a critique group, the Metro Writers, that was more casual. They encourage discussion throughout. It felt weird at first, but now I see them serving a bit of a different role than I had previously thought they would. Sometimes it becomes clear right away that what I meant to say didn't come through, and instead of everyone reiterating that point, we can immediately move on to discussing how to adjust it so my vision comes through, and I like that a lot too. Admittedly, things get more rambunctious than they ever did in my grad school classes, but it's a different kind of helpful.

This may work for me because I have stages of critiques. I usually bring stuff to my writers group that I know I'm struggling with, whereas what I send to my online critique partners is usually much more polished (though still a work in progress).  I think different stages of the writing process perhaps can benefit from different styles of critiques. But I agree that the above rules are great to keep in mind no matter what your group's style!

Karlie: Thanks for the great advice, Dan! I'm definitely filing this away for future reference.
My biggest problem is being bossy, both online and in the real world. I have to keep a constant watch on myself, as I'm sure my friends will tell you, LOL.

I think every critique group should have a variety of critiquing skills...say, a person with an eye for world/setting, someone who excels at judging characters, and a plot wizard -  a few Grammar nazis never hurt either. ;) That way everyone comes away with a well-rounded, overall look at their story.

I have yet to find a writer's group I can attend physically, but my online critique partners are nothing short of heaven sent. I whole-heartedly recommend joining one to writers of all levels and stages. Find a good one, and it's so worth it!

Lisa: Great post, Dan! I like to do the sandwich method too. It's just nice to start and end the review with something the author did well, sandwiching the criticism in between. Bread (praise), meat (criticisms), bread (praise). It starts and ends the critique on a nice note. Another reason I like the sandwich method is typically writers think of their novel as their baby; hearing a constant barrage of negative things about their baby will only sour the relationship, not to mention discourage the author. In my opinion, encouraging the writer is as important as giving feedback. 

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