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.
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. 🙂