The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
15 April 2009
At the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop I’m attending this summer, each participant will critique seventeen story manuscripts each of the six weeks. We should all be experts in critiquing by the end.
It seems a fun exercise to blog now about critiquing and then do it again after Clarion, when my ideas may be quite different. (Farrah Rochon and Rae Ann Parker helped refine the ideas below.)
How to set up a critique group
The most practical group is four to five people who meet regularly at scheduled intervals. Manuscripts should be passed out before the meeting so that people have time to read, ponder, and comment thoughtfully.
A larger group can work, particularly if it sometimes breaks down into subgroups; the members then get the benefits of both a large group and a small group. A group smaller than four has one big advantage: more time devoted at each meeting to each person’s work.
Reading manuscripts aloud at a meeting wastes time, and comments made off the cuff afterward are less valuable than ones made after reading the manuscript at home.
It’s useful for critique group members to differ in talents, skills, and backgrounds. It’s also helpful if members have some familiarity with the genres the others write in.
The group benefits if it devises guidelines that specify how often to meet, what happens at meetings, how many pages a person can submit per meeting, how often a person must submit pages, and other procedural matters.
How to be critiqued
•You are not your manuscript. A flaw in your story does not diminish you as a person. Accept criticism as a gift that may help your story or book get published.
•You are not on trial. Don’t mentally prepare a defense as people point out problems. Instead, listen carefully to make sure you understand what each person is saying.
•Wait until a person finishes her critique before responding.
•Thank each person for her comments.
•Take it seriously if everyone has a problem with the same section. That section or a previous one needs at minimum a tweak. If only one of five people has a problem, that’s still 20% of readers. Don’t dismiss the comment without taking another look.
•Sleep overnight before deciding what to do with the critiques you receive. Your subconscious will separate the wheat from the chaff, and your temper will cool so that you can evaluate the critiques calmly.
•Consider each comment independently of who made it. Beginner writers can make useful comments, and experienced writers can be way off base.
•Remember that just because your critique group has discovered a problem doesn’t mean they’ve discovered the solution. Use suggested fixes as springboards for coming up with better ideas.
•Update your manuscript after each critique session while the number of changes is manageable. If you save critiques until after the book is done, making changes will be a monumental task.
How to critique
•Write all your comments, corrections, and suggestions down, either on the manuscript or on a separate paper. Otherwise, the writer is likely to forget some.
•Make time to read each manuscript twice.
•Remember that you can be both honest and kind.
•Write clearly and firmly with large letters in colored ink or pencil. It's frustrating and annoying for the writer to have to scan each page slowly searching for tiny, faint pencil marks.
•It’s both nice and encouraging to point out things the writer did well. (I wish I remembered to do so more often.)
•Don’t pick apart every sentence and quibble about every word choice. The writer is entitled to develop her own style at her own pace.
•Tailor your comments to the level of the writer. Focus on basics with beginners instead of overwhelming them with advanced concepts they’re not ready to use yet.
•Set jealousy aside. Each critique group member’s successes are also your own. If someone surpasses you in writing quality or becomes published, then she becomes even more valuable to you as a critique group member.
•In critique group, comment only on important matters. Don’t waste group time pointing out spelling mistakes, grammar errors, minor POV problems, minor inconsistencies, and other piddling problems you’ve marked on the manuscript.
•Direct criticisms at the manuscript, not the writer, and keep comments unemotional. For example, say, “Page 14, line 6, confused me,” rather than “You really screwed up on page 14. You don’t make any sense at all.”
•If you can make an intelligent suggestion for fixing a problem, take the time to do so.
•Remember that your opinion is just that, an opinion. It’s the writer’s choice whether to agree with it and whether to take your suggestions.
How you critique and receive critiques
Agree with my guidelines? Disagree? Have other comments to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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I'm going to refer my current critique group to this post. We're quite a bit too large as a group but we do get some stuff done. We could be much more efficient, though.
"You are not your manuscript." I need to remind myself of this from time to time (replacing "manuscript" with "painting," of course.) Good advice.
CHARLES, I'm glad you found something useful in this post.
LANA, it's so easy to get wrapped up in your work. I have a tough skin, and even so, I still occasionally get hot under the collar when my work is criticized.
Another great post at just the right time for me. Being critiqued, my little internal mantra is, "I'm hear to listen. I'm hear to listen."
Good, sound advice; it corresponds pretty well with my own experience. My own critique group was online, which made the interaction a bit spotty, but we followed pretty much the procedures you lay out. (Except that one or two couldn't resist doing line-edits in minor points.)
I especially endorse the view that identical problems identified by many members of the group are like striking gold. Each time I have had an experience like that, acting on it has led to a quantum-leap improvement in the manuscript. (My Clarion application story was one of those.)
The Milford method used at Clarion, so I understand it, implies that that the author doesn't respond until all crits have been made. So you respond at the end, rather than responding to each critter. But I may have been misreading.
I had some really great critiquing experiences in the three 8-week novel workshops I did last year and/or the year before. Very recently, my writing school had a great post about the point of the workshop. The embedded article is excellent.
I commented there, but the best thing about the workshop for me was actually doing very detailed critiques. Based on what you do for a living, that's probably less what you need, but for me, learning to critique well made me a better writer.
Shauna, I look forward to reading your post-Clarion comments. And I also like the comment "You can be honest and kind." So true.
This was a great post, with some really good info and ideas. Thanks!
At least four folks from my critique group thanked me for sending them the link to your blog.
How's life in Riverside these days? I grew up there eons ago, and did 9 years at UCR. I'm also an alum of James Gunn's Workshops in SF, Clarion West 2003, and Odyssey 2008. And, yes, it will be very interesting to read your post Clarion blog comments.
There is a great short piece by James Gunn entitled "How to be a Good Critiquer and Still Remain Friends." It is aimed at oral critiquing in the tradition of the Clarion method. See the link:
As a brief final comment, just about all the major organized "workshops" of necessity have critique groups of between about 12 and 20 out of sheer economic necessity. It can work and work well, but it does depend on human dynamics in addition to "critiquing theory." I hope you encounter a good mix of people.
STEVE MALLEY, here, here! ;-)
KEN, that's interesting that the person being critiqued doesn't respond until everyone has spoken. I'm curious how that will work. My memory is so bad I'll probably only be able to respond to the last commenter or two.
LISA, I'm sure I'll still learn something from critiquing. The structures of fiction and nonfiction are different enough that my editing experience isn't as much an advantage as you might guess.
RAE ANN, I plan to keep a journal while at Clarion so everything I learn doesn't dissipate in the sleep deprivation–induced haze.
SCOTT, I'm glad you found it useful.
CHARLES, I hope your group is able to make use of my comments.
BOB, thanks for stopping by! Riverside is probably much as you last saw it, except that most of the orange groves have been torn down to make way for developments of jammed-together look-alike houses. In an odd synchronicity, only an hour before I came home last night, someone mentioned the very article by James Gunn you mention, which I had never seen before. I think we'll have a good group dynamic at Clarion; so far, at least, no one has revealed any glee over tearing our stories to pieces.
First of all, congratulations for Clarion! I would love to try for that workshop but I don't have the time. Maybe when I retire? I think your comments were right on. I'm getting more involved in a critique group and the effect on my writing has been very positive
Thanks for dropping by, GRIOT. I know what you mean about time. This was the first year I had the time, partly thanks to my cutting back on paying work to write fiction and partly due to the economy's effect on the amount of paying work I have. I hope your critique group continues to be a positive experience.
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