Types of Critiques
Groups and public readings take many forms. We arbitrarily have adopted names for the types of critique sessions. The following are forums you might attend as a writer or participant:
- Writers’ Groups: short samples read at meetings of writers
- Critique Circles: samples shared ahead, detailed critiques
- Author Readings: public reading by an author
- Script Readings: script read within a theatre organization
- Staged Readings: script-assisted staging of a play
Many writers assume critique groups and public readings are great forums in which to explore their works. Generally, they are not. You need to “shop” opportunities and know which to decline.
Consider public comment sessions. Beginning writers think every public reading is a great opportunity. We tend to disagree: public comments on a writer’s work tend to range from useless to harmful. If you want to gather and discuss writing, do it with other serious writers over drinks and avoid reviewing current projects.
Trust us, writing is such a solitary task that gathering for a drink or two helps. As for the warning against critique groups and public readings, allow us to clarify: a good “writers’ group” is hard to find. Good public comment sessions are rarer yet, as everyone thinks they can help a writer improve.
We have participated in a good groups, great groups, and complete disasters. Small groups of writers that include professionals offer a lot to new writers willing to listen and take notes. Public comment sessions, particularly common in poetry and playwriting, tend towards disaster.
Open Writers’ Groups
Open groups allow anyone interested to attend and participate. These groups tend to be larger and participants change frequently.
Critique circles are small, selective groups, usually attended by invitation only. To keep the groups small, new members are added when an existing member quits attending.
Author readings accompanied by discussions are increasingly popular, thanks to Book TV on C-SPAN.
Script readings occur in three forms: theatre boards, actor readings, and playwrights’ groups.
Staged readings can be thought of as plays with the actors carrying scripts. (That’s about the only way we could ever appear on stage — hugging scripts for dear life!)
What makes a good critique group? Opinions vary, but we have determined a few characteristic common among effective groups. Most of all, we think effective groups include professional writers willing to mentor others. Our other suggestions include:
- Effectively moderated.
- Limited membership.
- Consistent meetings.
- Discusses “longer” sections.
- Polite, yet frank.
Groups should be moderated by an experienced editor, who might or might not be a writer. Moderating is not an easy task. A moderator must keep discussions focused on matters of writing. If you know the moderator, consider his or her management skills. Running a critique group or discussion is like running a business meeting. If you don’t know the moderator, be sure to attend a session and learn how the moderator functions. Some moderators are strict and all-business, while others run loose discussions.
We offer tips for moderators later. Read those tips and compare our opinions to how the moderator deals with discussions. Never forget that rules are not carved in stone — use them only as guidelines.
Any writers” critique group of more than eight people seems to deteriorate into chaos. Small groups with invited participants tend to be among the best.
For public comment sessions, you can’t control the number of public attendees. Consider the location and arrangements. For example, some bookstores attract extremely literate audiences with valuable insights. For authors, independent stores tend to promote readings more than chain stores. For playwrights, make sure the theatre has a reputation for producing works that complement your efforts. Poets tend to read at cafés; attend a few readings to study the audiences and readers.
Meetings and communications should be consistent.
How can you effectively discuss three to five pages of a chapter or scene? You can’t. At best, a short sample can be analyzed for grammar and mechanics, but not character development or story structure — unless you’re dealing with truly short stories.
A discussion group or public reading is not the proper setting for in-depth political or philosophical debates. Questions should serve to illustrate issues of writing, such as weakness in a persuasive writing sample. We gather as writers, not social critics.
Opinions should be tested and examined; it makes for better writing when you know the opposing view. Voicing opposing views or playing Devil’s advocate need not be a rude process.
You, as the writer, should prepare before a critique or discussion. You prepare by reading your work carefully and developing a list of issues you hope to address. These should be specific issues, not open-ended topics for debate. If the moderator asks, you should leave your questions for after the reading.
Asking questions after the reading means an audience responds without preconceptions. You want to listen and observe during the reading. You would be able to tell when people are most interested and when they are waiting for a section to end. You might notice a lack of laughter or tears at points you thought were extremely gripping. You cannot be insulted — the point of a reading is to learn what needs to be improved.
Never ask questions like, “Did you like the scene where…?” If your question is about how the readers or audience feel, then it is the wrong question. Participants reveal how they feel while answering specific questions. “Is there enough tension between John and Mary?” will generate plenty of emotion and indicate if the scene is working as you intended.
Moderators need to be strong. A moderator’s primary task is to protect authors and playwrights, while simultaneously helping the writer recognize valuable input from participants.
- Remind participants of the rules.
- Keep things moving.
- Take notes to help the writer.
- Focus questions and comments.
- Be politely strict.
At the start of any critique or public reading, remind participants of the rules. Keep it brief, but explain how the evening will work. Answer any questions, especially for newcomers.
Keep discussions moving. People want to know the evening will last two or three hours, not overnight. Allow everyone with a question or comment to speak at least once, then check the remaining time for more comments.
Take notes during the discussion. After the participants have left, you can discuss what you heard with the writer. Another option is to email the writer your observations. Regardless, it is a sure bet you heard and observed things from a different perspective.
Focus Questions and Comments
Sometimes questions and comments lack focus. As a moderator, try to determine what is useful and rephrase questions and statements for clarity.
A Polite Dictator
The greatest challenge for some people is to be a polite dictator. Learn to direct discussions without offending people. The best we can advise is smile and remain calm no matter what.
There are three categories of discussion killers: experts, fans, and jerks. These individuals are the reasons we don’t like most critique groups and public readings. Unless you have an effective moderator, these people will overpower the forum and ruin it.
The “know-it-all” and the “wannabe” can sound like experts to beginning writers, which is why they are so dangerous. The “know-it-all” spouts theories and quotes writers. Teachers sometimes fall into this category, even if they don’t mean to do so. Theories are important, but effective discussions address the writing. (It’s easy for most of us to get stuck on the technical aspects of writing. A good moderator helps you know when you’re doing this!)
Some people are “wannabe” writers. They know some of the theories, read a lot, and try again and again to complete a great work. We know this isn’t the popular view, but if you haven’t been paid for something, calling yourself a “writer” is an overstatement. (A surgeon who has never operated? A programmer without any software coded?) Listen to professional writers… take the rest with a grain of salt.
Another type of “expert” is more likely to bore you to death than improve your writing. This person is the “perfectionist” — a grammarian who will nitpick every detail of every sentence. By the time this person is done talking, everyone feels like they’ve endured a high school English class.
Some perfectionists will tell you when a detail is incorrect or when “continuity errors” exist. Continuity errors are moments when a detail is accidentally changed from one chapter or scene to another. A broken left arm becomes a broken right arm, for example. Yes, you should be alerted to these mistakes, but such things can be quickly noted. Once noted, the moderator needs to move things along. If someone has a list of errors, ask to receive the list after the discussion.
Fans of particular writers or genres are as deadly as experts — because they consider themselves experts on plot and story. These individuals will tell you why your work should resemble those of other authors. Nothing you do will be quite right.
There is an exception, which is as bad. Your own fans! Nothing you do is wrong — so they waste time congratulating you on another brilliant work. While we all love praise and admiration, it does nothing to improve a manuscript.
Jerks are jerks — there’s no other word for them and no better description (that we can include here). These people disagree with everyone else, ignore the moderator, and seem angry at the world. Nothing anyone says was right, your work is a mess, and the evening was a waste.
Everyone can spot the jerks — especially the other participants with their own issues. Jerks are offensive. A moderator has to have the fortitude to offer jerks a reason to leave.
Surviving a public reading of a manuscript requires self-control. Hopefully these tips will help.
- Relax. Seminars are not college courses.
- What others share is not yours to share.
- Defend your views without being defensive.
- Tolerate opposing views, even when challenging them.
- Be honest and open with yourself and the group.