Critique Groups: The Case (Okay, MY Case) for Reading Ahead

When I started writing The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I knew I wanted to include some of the basics about how to actually run a strong group—the mechanics of it. If you’ve read my blog for a while, or if you know me in person, you may have figured out that I have some strong opinions. As much as I worked to achieve balance, I’m sure some of that shows up in the book.

Let’s just be nice to me for today, and call that voice. 🙂

Anyway, one of the steps I write about in The Survival Guide is critiquing a manuscript before the actual critique meeting. As I researched the book, and as I talked to more and more writers about their groups, I realized that many groups don’t do this. And most, if not all of those groups, are filled with happy critique partners who make progress with their manuscripts and grow their writing skills. Some groups just started out that way and have continued the pattern; others have thought things out and, because of busy lives and crowded schedules, need to contain their critiquing time to the hours alloted to the group’s meetings. “Extra” hours in the week need to be for writing. This all makes sense.

Still…

I’d like to make my case today for doing it the other way.

Here’s what I think you gain by reading submissions and preparing critiques ahead of time.

  • Time. Yes, it’s a trade-off; if you don’t use meeting time to read the submissions, you’ve got to find those minutes (hours!) some other place in your week. However, you get to spend more of the meeting time presenting those critiques to authors, brainstorming stories, and having idea-sparking discussions. Also, I’m a big advocate of writing up a thorough, detailed overview critique, and this is much harder to fit into the limited time you have at a meeting.
  • Focus. When you’re sharing a table with other critiquers, all shuffling pages and scribbling away, it can be awfully distracting.  I know many groups have someone read the piece out loud, often the author, but–again–I think it’s harder to look closely at the work when it’s being read to you. As someone pointed out once, a strong reader can make anything sound pretty good!
  • Depth. A strong critique takes thought. I know there are many readers who have great insight to a story as they read and who are capable of putting together helpful feedback quickly. I believe, though, that we can all do a better job of that if we have the leisure to sit with what we’re reading, to turn back pages and remind ourselves of what has come before, to look carefully for examples of strengths nad weaknesses in the text, to contemplate the best way to present an idea. If you’re trying to get in two or three reading and critiquing sessions during a meeting, I think that cuts short how much constructive feedback you can develop.
  • Simmering. I’m not sure what else to call this one, but it’s today’s word for that kind of thinking we all do after we’re finished reading a manuscript, or even a published book. The story or the characters or the theme stay with us after we turn the last page, and thoughts & ideas come to us in the hours and days afterward—as we cook dinner, while we take a shower, or—as one of my critique partner says—in the car on the way to the meeting. A critique improves with age, with a gap between the process of developing feedback and the act of delivering it.

Okay. There you have it. I’ve piled my arguments on one side of the scale. If you’re in a group that does it differently, try and look at this as a critique itself. Don’t dismiss my feedback out of hand. Take some time and think about it, bounce the idea around in your head for a while. If it sounds good, see what your group thinks–maybe they’ve all been wondering how to get a bit more time at the meetings, or maybe someone’s been feeling rushed trying to read as fast as everybody else.

And see what you think. 🙂

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15 thoughts on “Critique Groups: The Case (Okay, MY Case) for Reading Ahead

  1. Claudine says:

    I’m going to hold onto the vision that the group I eventually find/form will do that. It sounds like a great way to do it!
    Thanks for these convincing specifics.
    Claudine

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  2. We always read in advance in my critique group. There’s no way critiquing on the spot would work better. I know I couldn’t do a decent job without the simmer time. I usually read the pages twice. First time to get the overall impression. Then I set the pages aside to give the trouble spots time to nibble at my brain. Then when I read the second time, I’m better able to zero in on the mechanical causes of all those niggling sensations. Reading in advance of the meeting also allows more time to find the strengths in writing when the subject matter is further away from my personal tastes.

    This method does mean I am giving up more of my own writing time, but so are my critique partners. If they spot a lot of issues I need to address in my writing, their critiques save me time in the long run. Of course it helps that there are only three of us in the group right now. I suppose if we had a lot more members, we could split up critiquing duties along genre lines.

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    • beckylevine says:

      That’s it, Jeanie–the time savings comes with getting ideas for revision, with having others help us focus in on WHAT to do next! It’s one of the reason I’m not a fan of huge groups–4-6 always seems a good size to me.

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  3. Love this post, and am totally in favor of reading and critiquing ahead. Of course for me, the ideal scenario would be to critique ahead of time AND read aloud some of the MS (by someone other than the author) at the meeting. This never quite worked out in my group because of time constraints, though.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I hadn’t thought of that possibility, Jama. I wonder–IF there were time, of course–if some groups could schedule a dedicated meeting for reading-aloud. It is good for the author to hear their own story in a different way.

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  4. Great advice, Becky! I especially like the “simmering” part. I find that pretty crucial myself, both in giving and receiving critiques.

    (And yes, I’d definitely call that voice.)

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Amy! 🙂

      Yes, the simmering is so important. It’s tricky, because real reading often does happen with immediacy, but we’re trying to push ourselves past that, I think, for a critique.

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  5. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I always try to read a piece beforehand, and to say much more in my written crit than I can say during the meeting. Unless a piece is very short, I don’t like giving on-the-spot critique.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know just how you feel, Jenn. I’ve had to do that before, even with a short piece, and it’s doable, but it’s not going to be as good.

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  6. It boggles my mind how people DON’T read pages beforehand! I have ALWAYS done this, and love it. It just makes sense to me to do it this way. For one thing, you can do longer segments then. For another…well, we’re all writers. We work better (or at least *I* work better) with the written word–so I read it, write on the pages, and then discuss. Which allows time for simmering, but also time to experience it as a written document, the way it should be done.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Beth, I know there are lots of readers who “read” through hearing–all those audio books. But there’s something about working with the written word & having time to think it all through. And the simmering!

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  7. It seems to me there is something very validating about reading ones work to the group but I agree that a good reader can make almost anything sound good. At least she can make it sound how she wants it to sound and the reader might not read it that way at all.

    What I realize from reading your post is just how much committment there is to being in a group like this. I’ve never had that experience.

    My groups have always been of the “show up and read and give off the cuff feedback” variety.

    And now, I do mostly email critiquing for friends and I hand my manuscript to others via email or hardcopy for feedback. I’m going to blog about my “critique group” one of these days.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I think there is a validation in reading out loud to others. For me, though, I know that it’s very hard to take in content that way. (Then again, I also can’t listen to/follow audio books very well, so I think my brain works in one grooved path, not the other!) I’d love to read a blog about your group. 🙂

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