I am currently in a critique group that I love. It totally works for me. And it’s only me and one other person. I’d love to have more people in the group, but it’s not that easy to find someone who is on the same schedule as you, and who looks at critique groups the same way you do. My time and my writing are precious, and to spend a couple of hours giving good feedback, offering constructive criticism, and getting back, “yeah, I liked it,” or “that didn’t work for me,” is just not good enough for me these days.
Many years ago, when I rediscovered my passion for writing, I was lucky enough to live near Denis Ledoux, the author of Turning Memories Into Memoirs. I took a local class that he taught at the Lewiston Public Library every Tuesday, which just happened to be my day off from my medical practice. Coincidence? I think not.
One of the many gifts that Denis gave me during those classes was the ability to critique other people’s writing and the ability to hear my own work critiqued without taking it personally (at least, not very often!)
All of the writers in the group were writing about different periods in their own lives. We did not have a fictional character to hide behind. To this day, whenever I am asked to critique someone’s work, I use the format Denis gave me.
First, I say what I liked about the piece. I give concrete examples: I liked this word, this phrase, that sentence. I thought this metaphor worked well or that this last line is perfect, “because it brings us full circle,” for example.
Then, I say: “If this were my piece, I might change this phrase…because…” Again, I give concrete examples, and I give a reason. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this phrase…” that’s just personal opinion and every other reader may have a different opinion. To say “This phrase didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story–I was trying to figure out who was speaking,” is a more concrete, helpful example.
The three years I spent with Denis and a small group of memoir writers many years ago and the lessons I learned there have stayed with me. I have been in multiple critique groups since, most in person but I’ve also tried on-line critique groups, and I always come back to those basic phrases: I liked this… and: If it were my piece, I might change…x, y, or z.
Denis taught me to critique the writing, not the writer.
I was in a critique group once that fell apart because one writer was writing a novel that took place in Hungary. Another participant was from Hungary and didn’t like the way her countrymen and women were being portrayed. She took it very personally.
Another time I was in a critique group and shared a story about a difficult time in my life with one of my sisters (I am lucky enough to have three). Another participant in the group told me I was “giving away my power.” She was right, but since the story was about my 14-year-old self, I didn’t find the comment very helpful.
So here are the rules of my critique group (currently two members, but open to more!)
- Critique the writing, not the writer
- State what you like about the piece. Give concrete examples.
- State what you might change about the piece if it was yours. Give concrete examples.
- Be respectful of word count limits and time limits.
In other words, obey the Golden Rule. Give the critique you wish you could get for your piece.
What has your experience been with critique groups? Have you found them helpful?
Diane MacKinnon, MD, is currently a full-time mother, part-time life coach, part-time writer. She is a Master Certifiied Life Coach, trained by Martha Beck, among others. She is passionate about her son, her writing and using her mind to create a wonderful present moment. Find her life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.