Because I feel like this is a necessary talk, and maybe you do too. At the last critique group meeting, I went to there was a bit of drama concerning the quality of writing and also the typical response to work. One member went into a bit of a fit because he did not believe the group when people said the liked something that he did not. He thought the group was lying to people in order to save their feelings. He said it wasn’t a critique group if we couldn’t be honest, it was just a social group for feelings.
Now I agree, you should be honest when you’re critique people, however, critiquing should never be personal and it should never be done with the intent of hurting someone else’s feelings. There are so many different critique styles out there, some are fluffier than others, and I think in a critique group you have the benefit of mixing them.
Personally, I know I have a more straightforward, down-to-business style of critique. Some people may find it rude because straightforward honesty is typically not taken very well. I’m not as good as other people as finding gems to compliment for the sake of complementing and softening the blow. This is where I appreciate other people a lot. There are so many people in the group that are able to spot details that I can’t or just didn’t. The benefit of a large group of people is that you bring multiple eyes, skill levels, personalities, and styles to look at your work and they’re all going to see something a little different from one another.
I greatly appreciate the people in the group who focus on line edits because I do not and I don’t particularly know how to craft beautiful lines on purpose. I’m very utilitarian when it comes to phrasing, and sometimes those phrases get compliments for how well they’re able to project the image I want. Sometimes they’re complimented for being poetic, but I cannot for the life of me create poetic lines by trying and I typically can’t identify them. That has to do with my personality and own disabilities; I’m not so good at the, uh, underlying of messages, subtleties, all that noise. You’ll notice, if you ever get to read my fiction, I don’t really do subtitles or language that hides what’s being done or said.
So, anyway, I might do a series on how to be in a critique group because apparently, it’s something a lot of people don’t really understand. Considering I’m already five paragraphs into this, I’m going to pick a couple really simple thing to comment on:
Read the Freaking Work
The first time I submitted content to this group, and you know, it’s a “you submit your work and critique other people when they submit theirs” kind of deal. One of the responses I got back said, “I didn’t read past page 3. I hate this.” There were no critiques on what he hated, why he hated it, or how I could make it better. This leads me to believe he just doesn’t like my style of story or storytelling, which is fine. There are always going to be people that are outside of your intended audience. Even people hate Jesus, but you’re in a critique group to read and respond to the work. You’re not a reviewer, you don’t have to like it — which leads me to #2 for today’s… tips (if that’s what you want to call them.
Don’t be Personal About It
I’ve read so much content I don’t personally like through critique groups. However, critique groups aren’t about what your personal tastes are. They’re about recognizing what the author is trying to do, identifying where their weakness is in doing it, and helping them strengthen that weakness to bring out the story. I’ve critiques works that had themes that were extremely against my personally held beliefs, but the group wasn’t about whether I liked or agreed with the book. The group was about reading the work and helping the author identify how to become better at the craft.
In critique groups (or one on one’s), I try to stay away from words like, “I love” or “I hate” because that makes it personal. It might sound cold, but I want to think of everything in a manuscript as a craft. I want to approach it from as subjective a level as I possibly can. If I’m going to compliment or critique something, I want a good, clear reason as to why. “The author showed this relationship well, and here’s how:” type of thing. Or, “This character was unlikable because of this reason. Are they supposed to be unlikable?” You have to be specific, clear, and offer alternatives when possible without trying to change the author’s story.
In every critique group I’ve ever been in, there’s always been that one person that writes on the story, “I hate this.” I honestly can’t think of a single group I’ve been in where someone hasn’t said that — and left no other comment. My response is always, “Okay. I don’t care if you like it. Tell me how to make it better. Give me tips on how I can make my point better, whether you like it or not.” But nope, it’s usually just a personal review of, I hate this.”
In fact, this last group meeting, I had a work out for review. I approach the area and this older guy (who had the rant) looks at me and says something like, “You submit that story? What are you doing submitting that trash? I hated it.” We weren’t even in group yet, but he ranted about hating the story because he just didn’t like it. In group, he had no tips on writing it better. His response was basically. “I hated this. I liked your other one better. So. I’m leaving it at that. I liked your other one better.”
Thanks, man. That’s a really great way to help me become a better writer.
If you’re in a crit group: don’t do this. Be a good writer friend. Be a good cohort mentor. Look for reasons why something worked or something didn’t. When you go at someone with just, “I hate this,” you’re not being constructive, especially if you give no tips on what was wrong about it. “Just not my taste,” also doesn’t do anything for someone writing.
I wasn’t offended by the comment and I think it’s mildly entertaining to see how people respond to not only the works, but the responses they get on their own works. Some people get defensive, some people cry, some people are quiet. I like to think I’m fairly good at picking through the feedback to find what’s relevant.
But just… keep in mind, if you want to be an extraordinary critique group partner: actually take the time to read or view the work (if it’s visual art) and respond to it in a constructive way. That’s literally all it takes.
Somehow though… people don’t get it… and then they still complain about the quality of the work and reviews they receive. You’re part of the problem, brorito.