Friday, February 24, 2023

Critique Ground Rules

In offering: One perfect white rose from the bush in the front garden:

Critique situations have the potential to be fraught with emotional mines. You can make it harder on yourself or you can make it easier.

Hard: just join a group of people you don't know and who don't read the genre you write.
Easier: It helps to at least be familiar with your proposed critique partners. Not everyone has to write the same genre and subgenre, but if you write scifi or erotica, it sure helps to dodge groups full of people allergic to those genres. You'll be happier if you're reading stories you generally like to read and you'll be far more confident of the critiques you'll receive if the people reading you understand the conventions of your genre.

Hard: Mixing beginning writers with very seasoned writers. Not saying this to be a snob. This is about offering critique at a level someone can fully comprehend and *action*. My example: my first few RWA conferences, I had the option to attend Margie Lawson workshops. Went to one and left halfway through because it was so far ahead of where I was as a writer, I couldn't understand what was being presented. Now, after a few books under my belt and a critical eye toward how I put emotion on the page, I can and do grasp the concepts I once couldn't. Further, I can apply the teaching and see the immediate change in my craft. Mixing wildly different skill levels makes life hard for everyone.
Easier: Finding a group of writers who are about at the same level as you are - some are farther along the road and they'll pull you along. A few will be a little way back on the road and you'll help pull them along. It creates synergy.

Once you've found your group, you have to learn how to both accept and offer critique with grace and with humor. These are some hard won ground rules I'm about to lay on you. We won't talk about how I worked them out other than to say it wasn't pretty.

  • Leave your defensiveness at the door. Learn to listen with your mouth closed whether you agree or disagree with someone's critique (until it's your turn to talk.)
  • Assume the best intentions./Come with the best intentions. If anyone in the group hasn't come to help make books better, you have a problem. Don't be that problem.
  • Address the writing and only the writing. Zero personal attacks.
  • The words 'that's dumb' or 'that's stupid' may never leave your mouth in reference to another person's writing.
  • Ask questions. Rather than saying 'you have no point to this scene', ask 'what do you want the point of this scene to be'? This helps if the other writer is getting a little tense in the face of critique. It asks them to think which moves them out of emotion.
  • Suggest possible fixes for any issues you identify. I'm a stickler for this one - if I can't make a suggestion for something that bothers me, I'll mark the section in text and talk through why I'm bothered and then ask for input from the rest of the group for ideas on how to fix because I care enough about my crit partners that I don't want anyone left hanging.
  • Offer ideas and suggestions without ego. You're offering up ideas and suggestions, yes, but release any attachment to having someone use them. Your goal is to spark the other person's imagination, not get your way. If you feel really strongly about an idea, use it yourself. Let everyone else decide what's right for their stories.
  • What happens in critique, stays in critique. Your critique group needs to be a safe space to try new things, make mistakes, learn new technique, and air intellectual property that isn't ready for public consumption. Trust matters for and from all members.
  • Share the wealth of knowledge. Recommend classes that helped you. Share notes where it's ethically legit to do so. Remember a rising tide lifts all boats.

Critique is hard. There's a lot of emotion involved. Learning to navigate your own and everyone else's is no small task. Give yourself and one another grace. I've learned to couch suggestions in terms of opportunity. Ask anyone who's ever been critiqued by me about my favorite phrase: "I feel like you have an opportunity here to <insert plot point, emotional hit, etc>". It's served me well because it offers a writer choice without intimating that they've done something wrong in their book. I may feel that they *have* done something wrong, but I'm sure not going to say that. Maybe that's the last rule: Care about other people's feelings and remember that WIPs are fragile little birds. Gentle, honest handling strengthens them so that when they are released into the world, they're ready to fly.

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