I’ve been attending writing critique groups for a few years now, most notably the North Seattle SciFi and Fantasy Writers group, and another less formal group at the Couth Buzzard bookstore. While this by no means makes me an expert in critiquing, my observations may be valuable to at least some people.
A number of good articles are floating around out there on getting critiques (Get a Good Critique: 8 Tips for Prepared, Receptive Writers) and giving critiques (Give a Good Critique: 10 Tips for Helpful Writing Feedback.) I recommend reading them.
(Warning: this may be a little ranty.)
Don’t Point Out Every Flaw
One nice thing I learned is that I don’t need to find every flaw or issue in someones piece. A critique group ‘croudsources’ feedback. If I don’t find something, someone else will, and ultimately, the writer will get a wide range of comments.
Not that I don’t try to be thorough. I do…to a point. If I were to point out too many issues, I run the risk of nitpicking, which is certainly rough on the author.
Of course, if your group is small, especially if you have only one critique partner, it’s important to be thorough. It’s also important to have a strong relationship that can weather criticism.
The Deadly Memoir
I’ll be blunt. If you’re writing a memoir, don’t take part in critique groups. Just don’t. It’s nearly impossible to separate the writing from the author when critiquing a memoir. The authors often write these pieces as a form of self-therapy. They lay themselves bare. Emotional armor is torn down. Boundaries fade. And any feedback can cut right through someone’s very identity.
In one of my earlier critique groups, about 60% of the works were memoirs, or strayed awfully close to memoir. This had a significant impact on the usefulness of the group over time; feedback on core plot, characterization, and structure faded, even for those pieces that were not memoir. People simply weren’t willing to give or take feedback for fear that it might be taken personally.
The group eventually died.
A critique group is not an emotional support group, and your peers are not your therapists.
Assumptions Grind My Gears
Okay, maybe “Grind My Gears” is a bit strong, but I do cringe a bit when someone makes assumptions about why I did something. Those assumptions more often than not are about what I know or don’t know, or what experience I have. And they’re often wrong.
What the hell am I talking about?
Please…don’t assume someone’s a junior writer and treat them as such. Typos, misspellings, bad habits, stylistic choices, and creative liberties with convention don’t automatically mean someone is junior.
Those things ONLY mean that the given piece may be an early draft, or the author has a different, very valid style.
Unless they’ve told you their level of experience, you risk awkward encounters if you make those assumptions. Case in point: I saw someone assume an award-winning, published author was a beginner. Cringe.
Being told you’re junior can indicate a lack of respect for your experience. Ouch.
Also, don’t assume level of knowledge about a given subject matter. I recently had someone educate me on the physics of electricity based on some liberties I took. (I was relying on suspension of disbelief due to magic.) In reality, I’ve a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon. I know something about the physics of electricity. (Thank you to said person for being gracious enough to let me use this as an example.)
Remember, the goal is to critique the piece, not to critique the author.
If you do want to provide educational material, do it with humility. Say “This is my understanding of how x is” and not “You’re wrong, this is how x is.”
This said, I’ve found critique groups incredibly valuable. The current one I attend, NSSFFW has been fantastic. I’ve had my bad habits laid out before me, and I’ve honed my strengths.