The Power and Poverty in Critique Groups
by Rudri Patel
Writers can spend days, months, even years crafting a story or poem. At the end of the process, some writers believe that every sentence they’ve typed is essential and that every word will resonate with readers. But do those words really grab a reader’s attention the way the writer had hoped? If you’re curious about how your own writing comes across, a critique group can be a fantastic resource.
To get the most from the process, though, you’ll need to determine whether your critique group experience is giving you power or poverty as a writer, whether critiquing is helping you make sound editing choices, or leaving you short-changed in the bargain.
There are certain universal guidelines that all critique groups should follow:
Show up: Belonging to a writers’ critique group is a commitment. If other time constraints prevent you from attending, you may want to postpone joining a group.
Be respectful: This may seem like a common sense rule, but artists tend to gravitate toward the intense and sometimes discussions become heated. Everyone is present to get constructive criticism about his or her work. Insulting a person never manifests into meaningful feedback.
Adhere to page limits: If your group sets a page limit of 5 pages, honor that requirement. By submitting more pages than the stipulated amount, you are taking advantage of another writer’s time.
Attend meetings and submit work on time: Do not do your critiquing at the last minute. Give each writer’s work the attention it deserves. On the flip side, submit your pages promptly so that you receive a fair assessment of your own work.
Keep work confidential: Before any critiquing begins, emphasize that all work is confidential and will not be shared or copied.\
To evaluate the effectiveness of you as a critique member and your critique group as a whole, consider these five questions:
1) Is your work critique ready?
Power: If your work is in the fourth or later draft stages, the feedback you receive will assist in tweaking more substantive issues in the writing you presented, like character development, plot twists, foreshadowing, beats of a scene or emotional resonance.
Poverty: Did you submit your work too soon? If it is a very early draft, the critique you receive might not be as helpful because at rudimentary stages your work is still developing and any feedback may be too premature. The negative criticism may influence the momentum of your work and you may second-guess your writing even before you flesh out your work.
2) Do you have a rubric for your critiques?
Power: An established template on how to formulate a critique is a tool that can save time and offer effective ways to revise an individual’s work. Integrate the following information in your critique: a) a few sentences on what the piece is about; b) cite a few positive notes and examples of what resonated about the piece; c) offer possible places of improvements and opportunities to improve the piece; and d) end with a takeaway that highlights an overall strength.
Poverty: If your group does not have established guidelines on how to critique a piece of work, the feedback might seem undirected and could lack focus. “I like this or I don’t like that” is not enough information for a writer to make sound revision decisions. The feedback is just as important as the work and the critique needs to reflect that purpose.
3) How do you respond to a critique?
Power: Are you listening while your colleague offers his or her critique? Or are you jotting down notes and formulating answers to refute points? The writer who listens to the critique and allows it to sink in will benefit the most from the process. Its a good idea to reserve questions for the end, so that the reviewer can fully address a piece.
Poverty: Do you keep interrupting the critique with interjections, trying to defend your piece? This approach will hinder the revision process because it puts the reviewer on the defensive. You are in a critique session to receive criticism and unless you are willing to hear it, then you likely will not receive any benefit from the give-and-take environment of a writer’s group.
4) How do you handle conflicting advice for your work?
Power: People generally possess differing opinions in life. That same rule applies to critique groups. One person may love how a particular scene contains dialogue, while another may deem the banter between the characters superfluous and want compelling narrative summary instead. A writer faces choices on what feedback to integrate into his or her work. It is impossible to accept all criticism and integrate it into your work. The person writing the story knows it best. Rely on your gut and the opinions of those that you trust when revising your work.
Poverty: You are offered various pieces of advice on setting. You consider ALL opinions and, in an effort to satisfy differing points of view, you try to include each of them in your work. This is a slippery-slope approach to revisions. Not all feedback is worthy of a revision and through experience you learn what criticism will elevate your work and what suggestions to ignore. Don’t pander to the audience with your arms outstretched because it will only undermine your work.
5) You are in a critique group, but it doesn’t feel like a good fit. What do you do?
Power: In a few instances, a critique group may not gel because of personality conflicts, poor feedback, or lack of commitment. Recognizing these issues is key in deciding whether or not you want to continue in this particular group. If it fails to work for you, muster the courage and explain the reasons why the group dynamic isn’t working. Emphasize that your decision to leave is not personal, thank the members, and move on to find a different group.
Poverty: You keep meeting with a group even though you derive very little benefit from it. While you work diligently on critiques, in exchange, you fail to receive the feedback that you need. Because of this, you hamper your own progress. Do not stay in a critique group for the wrong reasons. Ultimately you are sacrificing your own writing and editing time.
Writers need to have a process that works for their writing and their rewriting. A critique group can provide a chance to make your solitary writing world less lonely, assist in the revisions, and push your work to next level. But don’t take the critique experience lightly. A poor critique session is a waste of your time. Think about your goals, your personality, and your expectations when it comes to your critique group and make any changes that are necessary. Choose power over poverty, and get feedback that will help you grow as a writer.
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former attorney turned writer and editor. Prior to attending law school, she graduated with an M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is the managing editor for The First Day and her work has appeared in Brain, Child, The Huffington Post , Mamalode as well as other publications. She writes her personal musings on her blog, Being Rudri, and is currently working on a memoir that explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.