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.