The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) runs a winter and summer writing ‘challenge’ programme. This is an opportunity for small groups of members (3-4) to meet online once a week to read and offer support and feedback on current works in progress. The aim is to produce a first draft manuscript over a 3-5 month period. Currently we have an 80% completion rate and interest in the ‘Challenges’ continues to grow.
For those of you who have never been a member of a critique group, what kinds of things should you consider before taking the plunge, either with ARWA or with your own writing group?
Being a member of a critique group involves both Giving and Receiving.
1) Tread with care. It seems to be human nature for us to remember the negative things people say about us rather than the positive. There’s a line in the movie You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” She responds with, “It’s PERSONAL to ME.” Writers who offer their work up to peers for review are putting themselves on the line. If you flat out say ‘I don’t like it,’ that’s as good as telling someone their baby is ugly. If something doesn’t work for you, try and figure out why.
2) Focus on the positive. My personal creed is to preface my feedback with at least 2-3 things I liked about the manuscript and also end on a positive note.
3) Ensure your comments will help the writer tell the story s/he wants to tell, not how you would write it.
4) Try to find out what the writer wants from a critique. If they ask for something specific – eg I think my hero might be too unsympathetic – then focus on instances where a little tweaking of a word/action could turn that around.
5) If you feel the writer has a lot to learn, don’t try and overwhelm them with feedback. Concentrate on the one thing you feel is most important to address in that week’s particular submission – eg POV, passive voice etc.
6) Try to give at least one checkmark or ‘nice’ on each page – eg. for a piece of dialogue/description etc.
7) On a personal note, if I’m critiquing a hard copy of a manuscript, I prefer to use a pencil rather than a pen. If I’m commenting digitally, I will use a grey font colour rather than a coloured one. (Never use red – too much like school!)
1) Make sure you take note of the positive things people say about your manuscript. Sometimes we only hear the bad things, so be very careful you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if/when you decide to do a rewrite based on the feedback you receive.
2) Most feedback is subjective. (Remember the dozen or so editors who turned down Harry Potter?) However, if you have two or more people saying the same thing – eg POV/weak characterisation – then that’s maybe something you should look at. However, you might also get into a situation where 2 people like something and 2 people don’t. Who is right and who is wrong? It’s up to you to decide. It’s your story.
3) Don’t defend your manuscript or get into an argument over it. If someone doesn’t get what you’ve written, they don’t get it.
4) A discussion is not the same thing as an arguement. Discussions can be very useful. For example, going back to the unsympathetic hero, I might make a suggestion which the writer doesn’t like – eg what if he helps an old lady across the street – but that might trigger a comment from someone else which does work for the writer, or at least sets the writer on the path to find his or her own solution.
5) Remember, this is YOUR story. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to use the feedback you’ve been given.