Sunday, February 22, 2009

How We Do It...Critique, That Is

Our critique group meets in a library conference room, twice a month for two hours at a clip. Generally, we critique two submissions each meeting. The submissions are sent out at least a week in advance. Shorter subs are sent via email; longer submissions are delivered in hard copy, usually at a prior meeting.

Does this mean we spend more time critiquing each other’s work than groups who do not read submissions in advance of a meeting? Yup.

And is it worth it? Yup. Every minute.

I can’t even begin to count how much revision time I’ve been spared by the thoughtful comments of my crit-mates. I recently submitted the first 75-pages on my YA WIP. A subplot had threatened to take over my main story. I needed some feedback before I spent a few months on a train headed in the wrong direction.

The critiques I received were specific and grounded in what was positive about my work. Not only did they help me figure out what to do with that meddlesome subplot, (a couple hints here and there will do it -- the rest gets cut and pasted into the “maybe I’ll use this someday” folder) I now have a much clearer understanding of my MC’s emotional depth. I was so hung up on the physical plot, the emotional plot was lacking. I’ve forged on with my first draft with renewed focus. I look forward to revising that initial chunk knowing the answer to the age-old question: What does your character want?

Reading, marking up and analyzing 75-pages took a lot of time. And for that, I thank my fellow paperwaiters and their collective knives.

Some writers may feel differently than we do -- that spending so much time critiquing other people’s work takes too much time away from one’s own writing. I find, however, that by taking a critical look at other people’s work, I become a better writer. And by others taking a critical look at my work, I save a lot of sweat equity.

I’d love to hear from other writers about this. How does your critique group operate? Do you feel you get what you give?


  1. We're a weekly group of four who switch off between two members' works each week - one scene, up to 15 pages. Each of us has a specialty - character, plot, grammar and hook - it just worked out that way accidentally - so each of us benefits differently from the critique. I always end up adding 5 extra pages of layer/texture to my scene after a meetup with them. It's invaluable!

  2. Martha:

    I totally agree. My first drafts focus on plot, action and dialogue. After that, the layering begins.

    So did you finish you fast draft yet?

  3. I love that you give yourselves so much time to read ahead. My group reads ahead too, but a lot of times we only have a couple days to do so and that's not always so easy.

    Write on!

  4. I've been in a critique group that didn't read manuscripts in advance. Before long, some of us persuaded those afraid of "homework" that it was to everyone's benefit to distribute manuscripts in advance of the meeting.

    Yes, at times the critique homework can interfere with writing time, but when my critique turn comes around, I welcome the thorough critiques from colleagues who have had the time to read carefully. Wouldn't do it any other way.

  5. Suzanne:

    I try to read each submission as soon as I get my hands on it. If it's a short sub, I won't mark a thing on the pages. On a longer sub, I just mark areas that I think are really great, or areas that trouble me -- I don't try to explain why on the first read.

    After a few days, I read through again. I can usually articulate my thoughts better with a few days of simmering behind me.

    And Gale, I totally agree. While this is the only official critique group I've been in, I've taken plenty of workshops and classes that read off-the-cuff. It's not that first impressions aren't valuable -- they are. But by reading in advance you can give both first impressions and more measured, thoughtful responses.

  6. I know people who've been happy with online critique groups as well. I'm not sure how I would feel about that. I like having a hard copy both to critique and to review. The hieroglyphics that each member of the group leaves in the margins is as meaningful as the notes they've written up because I know it was most likely their gut that made them mark the page - good or bad.

  7. Thanks, BOWquet! Come back anytime!

  8. I've been in critique groups where mspp. were read aloud at the meeting--not in advance. During the reading, some member's minds' wandered. Others missed important details. Others forget what they'd heard in prior weeks, so there was no continuity. How could this method possibly help any writer who's serious about improving his or her work? For me, it was a complete waste of time. This group rocks! :-)

  9. I should add that I met plenty of terrific and talented writers in these groups--it's the setup that didn't work for me.