Des Moines Writers’ Workshop Format for Critique Group Meetings:
Our group format is similar to other writing workshops and critique groups:
1. The first portion of the critique is spent giving the writer positive feedback about her/his submission.
It is very important for writers to know what others liked about their writing. Positive feedback gives writers some encouragement to keep writing (the writing world can be brutal at times), and if writers know what they are doing well, they can continue to build on those strengths.
2. The second portion of the critique is spent giving some suggestions/critiques/ideas that might make the writer’s submission stronger.
Please hold off on giving any suggestions until all of the positive feedback is given. Once a critique/suggestion is given, the group naturally shifts in that direction, so it’s important to hold off on the critiques until all positive feedback has been given.
Guidelines for Critiquing Other Members:
1. Say something positive about the piece.
Even if a piece of writing needs a lot of work, there is usually something good that can be pointed out – the nugget of a great idea, a particularly well-turned phrase, the beginnings of a good organizational structure, or a thorough understanding of the material.
2. Critique the writing, not the writer.
A writer’s work is very personal and it takes a lot of courage to put a piece of writing out there for others to critique. Offer honest, nonjudgmental, tactful feedback. Put-downs and attacks are not tolerated. Everyone should feel safe sharing their work. Instead of saying, “You aren’t very good at conclusions,” say, “This conclusion didn’t really work for me.” Then state why you didn’t think it worked.
3. Be respectful of genres outside of your own.
You may not particularly enjoy reading romance or crime novels, but do not let that factor into your critique. Critique the writing, not the genre.
4. Speak from your own perspective.
Use phrases like, “My reaction to this was …” or “I found this to be …” rather than “this part of the paper is …” Acknowledge that there may be a variety of opinions about the piece of writing.
Remember that you are in a writing group to help one another improve. It does not help the writer if you see problems with his/her writing but don’t mention them because you’re afraid of hurting his/her feelings. Usually a writer would rather hear about a problem from the friendly, supportive members of his/her writing group.
5. Be specific.
Instead of just saying, “The characterization needs work,” try to figure out where and how the writer can improve on the story’s character.
6. Whatever you say, imagine yourself on the receiving end of the comment.
If this were your work, what would be helpful to you? How would you want people to provide you with criticism?
7. Write out key points that you want to share with the writer.
This will help you remember them and also provide a written record of your feedback.
8. Do not insist that others adopt your style, morals, or values.
Avoid the temptation to impose your writing style, morals or values onto others. The goal of the critique is to help the author be the best that he/she can be using their own unique style, drawing from their own very personal ethics and life experience.
Receiving Feedback From Group Members
1. Remember that your writing group is trying to help you become a better writer.
Anything the group members say about your work is designed to help you make it stronger, more readable, and more effective.
These are just other people’s opinions. If you think a suggestion is helpful, use it. If you feel strongly about not changing something…don’t. It’s your writing. Take all critiques into consideration, but follow your gut about what you should and should not change.
2. Be quiet while you are receiving your critiques.
It’s difficult to do when you want to defend your work, but you’ll get more out of it if you just listen. Critique processes can easily get derailed by explaining and defending, which can then lead to arguing.
Try not to be defensive. It’s easy to think, “What do they know?” or “They just didn’t get it,” but keep in mind that while one reader’s response may be the result of that reader’s own misunderstanding, if several readers agree that a scene or stanza is confusing or implies something you didn’t intend, the problem probably lies with the writing and not with the readers.
Once the critiques are finished, you’ll have time to make comments, ask questions and get clarification.
3. Put yourself in the critique members’ shoes.
Remember when you’ve struggled to respond to someone else’s work without hurting their feelings or being “too nice.” Understand that this process is sometimes hard for both the reader and the writer.
4. Keep in mind that every reader is different.
What one reader finds confusing another might find crystal clear. It is ultimately your writing and you will have to decide which bits of feedback to act upon and which to ignore.
Remember that a critique of one piece of writing is not an indictment of you as a writer or scholar more generally, nor is it a critique of your worth as a person. It is simply a response to words that you wrote on one occasion.
5. Listen to praise with the same intensity that you listen to criticism.
Often, writers can obsess over critical comments and fail to hear all of the good things said about their writing. We can be our own worst critics and harshest detractors – shut off that filter that says, “They don’t really mean that,” and accept sincere praise at face value.
6. Keep track of the kinds of feedback that you receive again and again.
Do readers often suggest changes in plot or imagery? Do the endings of your poems or stories usually seem to need work? Do people frequently tell you that they don’t understand words that you use? Do readers praise your clarity? Do they regularly tell you that your introductions are interesting? Use these observations to identify patterns of problems and strengths in your writing.
Remember: 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).