by Deb Brammer
You finish a short story or article and read it through. Wow! This is powerful! You set it aside and read it the next day, but by then it seems like a load of rubbish. Who do you think you are? A writer? Might as well give up.
What you really need is another viewpoint. Not just from your mom who thinks it’s lovely or your spouse who always tries to make you feel good. You need the honest opinion of another writer. A critique group is great for this.
But first you have to get past the name. “Critique” sounds so negative. This group is going to take your precious baby, words from your very heart and criticize it? Tear it to shreds? No way.
Actually a critique group should be a helpful bunch of writers who bring out the best in you. The other members will read your work with a fresh pair of eyes and make helpful suggestions about it. This group should be encouraging, not competitive.
In 30 years of writing for publication, I have done most of my writing alone. My husband has always been happy to read my work and give his opinions. But most of the time I had no writer friends to give me input. I’ve spent most of those years in far flung places like Taichung, Taiwan and Invercargill, New Zealand. Yet in both of those places, at some point, I was able to be a part of a writers’ critique group.
How can you locate a critique group? Check Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market Guide for groups in your state. Ask a writer in your area. Check with bookstores or libraries for area authors. Go to a writers’ conference and look for writers in your area that may know of groups. If nothing else, you may need to start your own group.
When you attend a critique group, be sure to go with a teachable spirit. Take suggestions and criticism graciously. The other members have spent time evaluating your piece. They can show you how your piece looks from another perspective. That is valuable for any writer. You may not agree with comments a person makes, but don’t dismiss the ideas too quickly. Most of the time it is better not to defend your work. Receive the comments with thankfulness, then go home and think about them. You don’t have to change your piece, but the comments will help you think about different ways of looking at your piece. That is the purpose of the group. When you take comments graciously, that puts members at ease and allows them to give suggestions. If you become defensive, others may not feel free to be honest and give you a genuine critique.
When you are critiquing others, make sure your comments are helpful and encouraging. False praise is not helpful but look for something good that you can genuinely say about the piece. Take into account the experience level of the writer. Sense how much help the writer is ready to receive and suggest possible changes that you think will improve the piece.
Right now I belong to the Southern Scribes, a critique group in the southern tip of New Zealand. We email our work to one central person who emails things to the rest of the group. Members read and evaluate the work. Then we come together and discuss the different pieces. We go around the room and give a few positive comments on a given piece first. Then we each talk about ways it could be improved.
We use the following format for our group. You may feel free to copy this for your own group.
List the following information with your work:
Kind of Piece (short story, vignette, article, poem, etc.)
Target Audience if it’s not for general adults.
The title of your piece, your name, and the word count. Give target word count if you are aiming at a specific length.
Purpose of your piece (contest, article in publication, just for fun, etc.)
What kind of help would you like from our group? (“I want to submit this for a contest and want all the help I can get.” OR “I’m just writing this for fun and want a general idea of what you think.” OR “I know this still needs a lot of work but wonder what you think of the ending.” Etc.)
Things to remember when you are critiquing:
1. Keep your comments kind and constructive. (“I think the article would be more effective if you did this,” is helpful. “The article is stupid and not worth reading,” is not.)
2. Remember you are critiquing the writing style of the piece. You may not agree with the ideas which are presented, but your job is to help the person write his viewpoint more effectively, not change his ideas. (“I think paragraph 10 may put off your reader and it would be more effective without it,” is helpful. “I don’t agree with your premise, but it’s your story. You could make your point better in this way,” is acceptable. “Your story is stupid and wrong and destructive,” is not helpful.)
3. Mark things which show wrong grammar, spelling, or punctuation. You don’t have to share this with the entire group, but it will help the writer if you mark them.
4. Give your opinion on ways to make the piece better. You don’t need to mention everything you would do to change the piece, but list several things that you think would improve the piece. Consider what kind of help the writer is looking for and critique accordingly.
Things to remember when you are being critiqued:
1. Our group is critiquing your piece, not you. Don’t take the comments personally. The group can offer you objective viewpoints and show you haow your piece comes across to different people. Every writers needs this. Don’t dismiss the comments too easily without giving them thought. We are trying to help you, not put you down.
2. The critique group’s job is to look for ways to make your piece better. It’s still your piece. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to. You don’t need to defend what you have written. You will benefit most from the critique if you take time to evaluate the comments made and consider making changes, but what you do with the critique is up to you.
3. The members have taken time and thought to evaluate your piece. You may not agree with their commments, but you can accept them with thanks because they help you see a fresh perspective and possible problems.
4. The group will assume the piece represents your best effort so members are willing to put their best effort into critiquing it. If your piece is not ready to send, consider submitting it later. Or if your piece is not finished but you are looking for input on a particular aspect, state that clearly so the group doesn’t waste time correcting things that you already know need to be changed.