Monday, September 2, 2013

Getting a Useful Critique...and then Using It


Today's guest is Donna Leahey, a fellow writer from my very own critique group. She's awesome, and she is also proof positive that you can find a critique group that works. Here, Donna shares great advice for how to get the critique you want and need from your group, and how to use what they give you in the most constructive fashion. Enjoy!

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There may be no shortage of advice offered at your critique group, but how much of it is useful? It's important to remember that not all critique is created equal, and some of it should be ignored utterly. But which advice should you ignore and which should you carefully consider?

In order to get the most out of your group, you have to learn to ask for what you want, as well as separate the good advice from the bad.

Help your group give you the critique you need:

Tell the group what type of advice you're looking for.

Before you take your work to the group, figure out for yourself what kind of advice you're seeking – proofreading? plot? characterization? dialogue? If you point out the specifics of what you're concerned about, then your group can focus on that. If there's something you're not concerned about, let them know as well so they're not wasting their time or yours.

Say something like, “This is a rough draft and I know there are still a lot of typos, but I'm not concerned about that right now. I want to know if Rick's grief feels real and if you believe that it would provoke his next action.

On the other hand, if you want technical help, say something like, “I'm not comfortable with how to punctuate dialogue, so please let me know if you see something wrong there.” 

Set up the scene.

Unless your group has a fixed membership who always attend, you will find yourself reading a scene to some member who isn't familiar with your work. Therefore, be sure you give the information they need to understand the significance of what you're reading.

Example: “Billy is confronting Rick, who he believes killed his father. There is a red bird in this scene, and every time we've seen a red bird, violence has followed.”

This will help prevent non-helpful comments like “Why is Billy being so mean?” and “Why did you spend so much time describing the bird outside the window?”

Provide printed copies.

When you hand out printed copies of the work you're about to read, it enhances understanding of your reading and provides a place to make comments in the moment they occur to members of your group. This can make all the difference between “Somewhere there in the middle there was an awkward sentence, something about Rick and his father... I don't remember exactly what, but you might want to reword that,” and “There in the first sentence of the third paragraph on the second page, you've got a dangling participle that makes it sound like Billy is rolling in his grave instead of his father.”

Evaluating your critique:

Perhaps the worst mistake you can make is to comply with every suggested change from your group. Carefully consider the source of each comment and decide if it works for you and what you're trying to say with your writing. Some advice can and should be ignored! 

Damning with faint praise.

We all love to hear that our writing is just perfect – but that's not terribly helpful because it's almost certainly not true. People want to be nice, and that will sometimes prevent them from saying they don't like something. They may offer non-specific praise because they weren't paying attention, and people rarely press for more information on a compliment.

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Don't be afraid to ask for specifics. Often if you say something like, “Did the description of the red bird work?” then you'll get more helpful answers.

Be thankful for the negative.

Would you rather hear the criticism from a group of friends or from a publisher rejecting your work in a form letter? Someone responds to your writing with, “You went on about the bird for half a page, and then it just flew away! I got bored with the description and then I felt cheated because it seemed to be an unimportant waste of my time!” It would be easy to focus on “bored” “cheated” “unimportant” and “waste of my time” and either get angry or depressed, but instead, look at what he's saying. Is the bird important? If it is, then you failed to communicate that adequately. This is an opportunity to find a way to make it clear how important that is, or, if you have to admit that it's not that important, to maybe cut it down to a few sentences and then get on with your action.

Beware of the personal preference.

If one of your group prefers cozy mysteries and historical romances, they will probably not love your dark and gritty post-apocalyptic tale of revenge. Hopefully, your reader will understand the problem is the genre, but if not, they may inadvertently offer advice that could drastically change the tone you're striving to set, like “I think he should be able to save the girl!” or “Did you have to describe all the bodies at the pillaged farm? I thought it was just too much.”

Also beware of the “expert” on publisher preferences.

Unless the person in question is an actual publisher, they can't speak for the entirety of the publishing industry. And if they are a publisher, they can only speak to their own preferences. Watch out for comments like, “Publishers don't like flashbacks!” and “Publishers are tired of dark stuff and want happy!” 

Never pay attention to statements that start with the word “never!”

Never open with a discussion of the weather. Never open with waking up. Never open with looking in the mirror. Never open with a flashback. Never use the words “suddenly, almost, or seemed.” Never open with a prologue. Never, never, never...

If your story is about tornadoes, opening with weather is probably appropriate. If your protagonist suffers from a sleep disorder, then starting with waking up may work for you. Most of the items on the writing “never” list are more appropriately on a “you should be careful with” list or a “use sparingly” list. While these things got on the “never” list for a reason, if that “never” is appropriate for your writing, then ignore the never and do what's right for you. 

You'll need to handle conflicting advice.

“I love symbolism of the red bird!”

“I hate that red bird and think you should get rid of it!”

This is real life. No matter how wonderful or terrible your work is, someone will love it and someone will hate it. This is where it falls most squarely on you. Do you love the red bird, or is it not that important to you? If you believe in it, keep it! 

I don't understand why...

         “I didn't get why Billy blamed Rick.”
            “I don't understand what happened to the girl.”
            “I don't believe Rick would just accept the blame.”
            “I'm sorry, but what's the deal with the red bird?”

Always pay attention to “I don't get” and “I don't understand.” These kinds of comments tell you one of two things – your group wasn't paying attention (which begs the question: why aren't you holding their attention?) or you failed to adequately express your point. As writers, we walk a careful line between making things too obvious and making them too obscure. Sometimes, the confusion comes from someone missing an earlier scene, but if not, you need to address that problem. 

What is the importance of this scene to your story?

            “Where is the conflict?”
            “How does this scene advance your story?”
           
Perhaps the biggest red flag of any comment, questions about the importance of a scene to your story should make you look hard at what you've just read. Does the scene progress your story? Does the scene have conflict? Is it important for establishing character, setting, or plot? How would the story be changed if this scene were removed entirely? If you can't answer those questions, you should consider removing it or heavily editing it. 

Or, maybe it is you.

            “I am SO tired of hearing about that red bird!”

If you keep getting the same comment, over and over, from different people, take the time to carefully consider that advice. No matter how much you love the symbolism of the red bird, if it's just distracting your readers, it either has to be fixed or it has to go – or you have to accept that you're going to keep hearing criticism for it.


That is the challenge:  When you have something in your work that you love, but you consistently receive negative feedback on it, it is time to make that hard decision.

Taking it home:

Once you've asked for the critique you need and then sorted out the wheat from the chaff of the critique you got, you just have to take it home and make the changes. Be thoughtful and remain true to yourself and what you have to say. Remember, it's your work, it's your voice, and in the end, it's going to be your name on that cover page.

Happy writing!


As a child in school, Donna Leahey turned her vocabulary homework into short stories. Years later, she is still crafting stories. Now a practicing veterinarian, Donna is the mother of one son and currently shares her home with a very well loved mutt, Sammy. To paraphrase one of her favorite authors, Anne McCaffrey, she has green eyes and curly hair – the rest is subject to change without notice. Donna has a both a professional (At Home Mobile Vet) and a personal blog (So, what happens now) which have been sadly neglected of late, but she is frequently promising herself and anyone who will listen that she will post more soon! Also, after writing this post, she has a strong urge to write a story featuring a symbolic red bird.

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