The information below is excerpted from Don't Forget to Write!, our book about building and maintaining writers' groups.
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- Critiquing the work of others requires balance. Being too nice will not help your fellow writers develop their work; being too harsh can crush a writer’s ego (particularly new writers, who tend to be shy about sharing their work). How can you achieve the right balance? Here are some tips:
- Take care to point out both what works, and what doesn’t. If you’re new to critiquing, a good hint would be to point out one thing you like (a phrase, a description, an idea) for each thing that bothered you.
- Whenever possible, be specific when pointing out things that you didn’t like (don’t just say “I didn’t like this part” or “I’d cut that,” say “I didn’t like this part because…” or “I’d cut that because…”).
- Try to offer suggestions when you think a change is needed. Suggestions, even to the point of an offered rewording, can be very helpful; even if the suggestion isn’t exactly right for the author to use, he or she may get a good idea from it, or at least a better understanding of the point you are trying to make.
- Be honest and direct, but in a polite and caring way. Holding back your feelings about a piece because you’re afraid to share your thoughts isn’t going to help anyone. Just be mindful of how you share your opinions!
You can save time (and add value) by having members provide printed copies of the work to be critiqued. Then, rather than pointing out each typo, the group can simply discuss larger issues, and the author can take the handouts back to check for line edits later. You can also make it your practice to avoid repetitious comments (if a member has already said what you were thinking, simply say “I agree with…” and continue to the next point). Having printed copies with members’ notes also reduces the author’s need to take notes as the critiques are received, allowing the author to listen more carefully and ask better follow-up questions.
- How you handle critiques you receive is just as important as how you give them to others. It’s perfectly natural to want to defend your work, but it isn’t a healthy thing to do in a writers’ group. When receiving a critique, here are a few things to bear in mind:
- Don’t argue with someone’s critique of your work. If you don’t like the changes he or she has suggested, just say “Thank you,” and move on. After all, a critique is an opinion, and we’re all entitled to our own opinions.
- Feel free to ask questions. Sometimes, asking a person to clarify what he or she has said in a critique will help you to see why that suggestion was made.
- You’re the author, and you have the final say. So, remember as you receive critiques that it is your prerogative to accept or reject any suggestions made. This is a useful tip to keep in mind when the group is pretty evenly divided on a particular point (which will likely be most of the time). Don’t feel like you have to change something just because someone in the group didn’t like it; but also don’t make any overly hasty judgments about critiques you receive (sometimes they make more sense when you go back and look at them later).
- If everyone in the group has the same comment, chances are they’re right. You may not agree, and it’s still your right to reject their opinion, but generally speaking, if everyone has the same reaction, there’s probably something to it.
You can also consider setting and enforcing a time limit on each person’s critique. This is helpful in large groups, and has the benefit of preventing anyone from monopolizing the critique time.
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