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Saturday, 13 September 2014 19:58

Critiquing Groups, part 2 - Giving and Receiving Feedback

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Following on from last time, this post deals with the inner dynamics of a successful crit group.

Once you’ve found partners you feel you can work with, your goal will be to keep everyone happy. Respect is the key and it’s a two-way street. Below are some things to consider when exchanging your work. 

On presenting your work to others: 

#1 Use correct formatting

If someone takes the time to critique your work you owe it to them to make it as easy to read as possible. Always use standard submission formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, 1.5-inch margins, pages numbered, title and author name in the header. Handwritten scrawl, single-spaced print, and work with no indents or punctuation is not only hard to read, it leaves little room for your partners to write their comments. If you aim to be published, it's good to get in the habit of formatting your work to industry standards. 

#2 Present work as error-free as possible

No-one expects your work to be perfect but to get the most from your partners always give them your best efforts. At the very least spell-check and read through your work to catch whatever typos you can. Never hand over something you know has mistakes in it as you’ll just be wasting everyone’s time.

The one exception is if you’re having trouble with some element of the writing and want your partners’ thoughts on how to fix it. In this case it’s best to mention the problem when you give them the piece so they know what to focus on when reading it.

Similarly, don’t hand over work you know you’re about to make major revisions to. Nothing is more frustrating than to spend hours thoughtfully considering someone’s work only to have them say, ‘Oh, I changed all that,’ when you give them your comments.

#3 Specify what feedback you want 

Wherever possible help your partners by giving them specific questions or points to focus on when reading your work. Examples might include: 

Are my characters behaving believably in this scene? 

Is my story’s main conflict enough to sustain it through 400 pages? 

Does my dialogue sound realistic?

How is the pacing in this chapter? Did I slow things down with too much backstory? 

Inexperienced critics and those less confident will find this helpful and you'll have a much better chance of getting what you need from them. 

#4  Consider all feedback 

If someone takes the time to review your work, show respect for their efforts by at least listening to their comments. If you instantly dismiss every point your partners make they could end up wondering why they bothered. 

Even if you don’t agree with a point your partner is making, listen, nod and acknowledge you’ll think about. Ask questions certainly but don’t argue or feel you need to justify your way of doing it. And even if you disagree with everything a partner says, always thank them for their time. 

Believing your partners are on your side and want only to help you improve your writing makes hearing negative feedback easier. However, sensing that someone is making a comment just to show they know more than you definitely puts a different slant on things. 

If you find yourself growing defensive or consistently dismissing everything your partners say about your work, you need to consider one of two things: (a) they aren’t the right partners for you, or (b) you aren’t ready to be critiqued.

#5 Don’t feel you have to make changes suggested

On the flip side of the above, never feel you have to make all, or even any, of the changes your partners suggest. With early drafts of a work your partners might not have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say. Allow yourself the freedom to explore a certain path before abandoning it and never feel pressured by others to do so. In any case it’s your story and if a suggestion doesn’t feel right, just don’t do it. 

On the other hand, if all your partners have the same criticism of the same point, you need to give some serious thought to why it isn’t working for them.

#6 Feedback on feedback 

Every now and then, tell your partners which of their comments and areas of focus proved most helpful to you in revising your work. Knowing the kind of feedback you find most valuable will help them become more efficient at their job.

#7 Going elsewhere

When your story is reaching its final revisions it sometimes helps to give it to someone outside your critiquing group. Seek feedback from non-writers especially. Writers can get hung up on craft and miss the big picture. A reader, especially one who reads in your genre, can tell you simply if the story is working. 

Notes on giving feedback to others: 

#1: Know when to leave someone else’s work alone

This has to be one of the hardest things about critiquing! As Oscar Wilde put it: ‘There is no energy so great as the urge to rewrite someone else’s work.’ 

If you value your partners as creative individuals avoid the temptation to tinker with their work simply to rephrase it in your own words. Most new and developing writers are still struggling to find their voice. Part of your role as their crit partner should be to encourage them to discover it. (i.e. - their voice, not yours.)

#2: Find something good on every page. 

This isn’t always easy and not because the writing’s awful, in fact it’s usually the opposite. Mistakes leap out at you and are easier to see, but when the writing’s good you simply become immersed in the story. 

If you find the latter happening it’s important to try and determine exactly how the author accomplished it. Writers learn as much, if not more, from knowing what they’re doing right as from hearing their mistakes. Plus it helps you as a writer to clearly identify the elements of effective writing in use.   

#3: Don’t overwhelm the author with comments. 

When I first started writing I once gave a short story to a writer friend whose work I respected. A week later she returned my pages absolutely covered in red ink. All her comments were sincere and valid yet I ended up shoving the piece in a drawer and never went back to it. As a beginner I just couldn’t get past all that red! 

No matter how encouraging you are and how positively you phrase your remarks, making too many corrections at once is discouraging for any writer. If you’re faced with a piece of writing that has so many things wrong with it you don’t know where to begin, the safest thing to do is a broad-strokes critique. At most choose one or two finer points to comment on and leave the rest for another time. 

#4: Vary your feedback according to what stage the work is at. 

This is mainly to save yourself time and effort. If someone hands you a rough first draft, stick to mainly broad-stroke comments: Is the conflict apparent? Are the characters well motivated? Is the point of view clear? There’s no point doing a detailed line edit on work that will likely be changed in revision. 

#5 Trust your judgment

If you’re new to critiquing and haven't a clue what to say to someone about their work, try getting hold of a judge’s score sheet from one of the many writing organizations that hold annual competitions. These sheets contain basic questions on plot, craft and style (much like the questions contained in this post) that help judges evaluate entries. 

But even if you don’t have a score sheet and know little about the craft of writing, if you read books you'll be able to give your partners valuable feedback purely from a reader's point of view: Does the story engage you? Do you like the characters? Were any parts confusing to you? 

Next time - part 3: Other fun things to do with your crit group.


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