Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 22, 2010

Getting the Most out of a Group Critique Session

In New Jersey we encourage writers to join a critique group.  We try to bring together our members at various workshops, conferences to help make connections for our authors.  If you live in NJ, you’ll find information on two new groups forming at the bottom of this post. 

I don’t know why it is, but it is very difficult to see where your own manuscript falls short.  So finding a group of your peers is an important thing to do.  On Friday night after dinner at the June conference held in Princeton, we are arranging small critique groups for the attendees who want to work on their manuscripts.  

Because of this, I thought I would share Anita Nolan’s article on Getting the Most Out of A  Critique Session.  This article first appeared in Sprouts Magazine.    Here is her advice:

  • Read all manuscripts before you arrive at the meeting.
  • Mark up the manuscript, commenting on what you see that you like as well as the things that didn’t work for you.  If you find your mind wandering as you read, or you’re pulled out of the story, mark where that happens. 
  • You’ll be returning the manuscripts, so make sure your writing is legible and write you name on it. 
  • Come prepared with notes, not just hand written comments on the chapter pages, but one or two pages of prepared comments to refer to.  The notes should include the major points you want to make.  You’ll be able to quickly make your points if you don’t have to flip through the pages trying to decipher your handwriting. 
  • Start with something positive, both in your written and verbal comments.  Mention the things that are well done.
  • When giving verbal comments, don’t worry about the minor things, like typos.  The writer will see them later, when you return the pages.
  • Focus your verbal comments on the larger issues:  Pacing, POV, conflict, characterization, if you were unable to suspend disbelief, etc.
  • Be specific.  Don’t just say “the dialogue is weak,” or “the POV switches are confusing.”  Mark specific examples and use them in the discussion to explain your opinion.
  • Give first reactions.  Did the story hold your interest?  Was the main character sympathetic?  One of the most precious things you can give is your first impression, because you only have the chance to do that once. 
  • Don’t dominate the session.  If the group has 30 minutes and six members, you have only five minutes per person for comments, and you’ll need to take less time than that so that there is a little time for discussion.  You’ll learn a lot from others, so don’t spend all the time talking. 

When You’re on the Receiving End 

  • Submit your best quality work.  If the submission is sloppy, the comments will be focused on simple errors and waste valuable time on easily corrected mistakes.
  • Don’t expect everyone to love your work.  No matter how wonderful it is, that will never happen. 
  • Take criticism gracefully.  Refrain from being defensive.  Keep your emotions in check.
  • Let the others know what areas you feel need work, and ask if they have suggestions or understand what you were trying to achieve.
  • Thank everyone for their comments.
  • Remember, the comments you receive are just opinions.  You don’t have to incorporate all suggestions into your manuscript.  On the other hand, if you get more than one comment about the same point, it likely needs to be addressed, perhaps not in the way suggested, but it is probably a spot that needs work. 

Things to Consider when Critiquing: 

Start with the basics:  Spelling, grammar, punctuation, unneeded words, adverbs.  Point these out on the manuscript, but don’t bother mentioning in the critique session unless they are a recurring problem. 

Story:

  • Are there opening hooks (for both the start of the manuscript and the beginning of each chapter,) as well as hooks at the end of chapters?
  • Is the conflict strong, or is it contrived and something a conversation could resolve?
  • Setting?  Does it seem real?
  • Are the senses involved?  (description of smell, touch, taste, etc.)
  • Does the story hold your interest?  If not, where did you lose interest?
  • Accuracy and consistency:  Do the facts seem accurate, (no cell phones in the 1700s, for example) and are they consistent (blue eyes don’t turn green somewhere along the way.)
  • Were you able to suspend disbelief?
  • Does the story work?  Do you want to read more?
  • With characters, ask yourself:  Are the main characters three-dimensional?  Sympathetic?  Are other characters well drawn?  Are motivations strong and clear? 

Writing Style 

  • Voice:  Strong?  Too passive?
  • Any problems with point of view?  If there are multiple points of view, are the POV changes handled well?
  • Does the dialogue sound natural?  Is the dialogue of each character distinct, or does everyone sound the same?
  • Does the dialogue move the story forward?
  • Were there too many “he said” dialogue tags, or awkward substitutes for “said?” (snarled, hissed.)
  • As to back story:  Is it woven into the story, or are there any info dumps or “As you know, Bob”s (use of dialogue to dump information into the story.)
  • Is there too much narrative?  Too many flashbacks?
  • Are the sentences clear, or do they need to be reworded to improve clarity?
  • Is the story well-paced, or does it slow in places?
  • Is there plenty of white space, or is the writing dense? (In other words, are the paragraphs short and interspersed with dialogue, or are they long blocks of type running a half page—or more.) 

Synopsis: 

  • Is there enough conflict to carry the story?
  • Are the main plot points included?
  • Is there too much detail?
  • Are characters’ goals/motivations/conflicts clear?
  • Does the feel of the story (humorous, suspenseful, etc.) come through in the synopsis?

www.anitanolan.com  www.anitanolan.wordpress.com

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Tired of the lonely writing life?  If you’re looking for a congenial, supportive, knowledgeable children’s lit critique group and if you live within commuting distance of Madison, N.J., we may have your solution. The paperwait bloggers/critiquers are searching for new members. In the last year or so, we’ve lost some people due to changes in their lives. We’d like to welcome a couple of committed writers. 

We meet on the first and third Fridays from 10:00 to 12:00 in the Madison Public Library. Our sessions have helped members produce prize-winning manuscripts, secure agents, and develop published books. Yes, we work hard, but our atmosphere is jovial and we love celebrating writing milestones. 

If you e-mail us at thepaperwait@gmail.com, we’ll reply with more information.

________________________________________________________________

Are you interested in meeting other people in central New Jersey who are serious about writing for children and teens? Looking for a fun and supportive environment to share your work, information, and thoughts on writing and publication? The Children’s Writer’s Workshop is a new group that will be meeting once a month at Nighthawk’s Bookstore in Highland Park. The first meeting will be held on Sunday, April 25th at 4PM. If this sounds like the group for you, they’d love you to join them at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ChildrensWritersWorkshop

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There are even online critique groups, if your schedule doesn’t allow you to physically meet with a group.  Feel free to share your experiences with critique groups.

Kathy


Responses

  1. Don’t forget to check the NJ SCBWI website for a listing of more than 30 critique groups in New Jersey.
    http://www.newjerseyscbwi.com/critiquegroups2.shtml
    Laurie

    Like

  2. I have to say…I belong to two separate writing workshops. All of Ania Nolan’s suggestion are strong. I employ them in my critiques…but it’s nice to be reminded.

    Like

    • Henya,

      You would be surprised how much this information is needed. We’re all on the same road, just some of us have travel further. Hopefully this type of information will help smooth the way for others.

      Kathy

      Like

  3. Great post! I like how you’ve broken this down into sections and made the evaluation more formal. I’ve worked with several critique groups but didn’t even think of using a more structured evaluation format until after I judged a writing competition earlier this year and had to fill out the evaluation forms. This is almost a short version of that process, and I think it would work very well! Thanks for sharing this.

    Like

  4. Marissa,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. We do so many workshops where members get together and critiwque each others writing, that it was important to not assume everyone would know how to do critiques. This has really helped.

    Kathy

    Like

  5. thanks for the mention, Kathy!

    anita

    Like


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