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I’ve been in a critique group for a long time now.  I often think how blessed I am to have found a group of people who are so good at critiquing.   But then I realize the faces have shifted over the years. Their common qualification is simply being writers and being willing to participate in the process.

Being in a critique group may just be the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. There’s something inspiring about having a group of people telling you they like what you’ve written!  It’s also amazingly helpful to hear what didn’t work.

I have found that if more than one person makes a comment, there’s always something wrong. There have been times when someone in the group has helped me find just the right word I was searching for or shown me precisely what I was trying to say.  Other  times I’ve felt that what I said worked better. The comments received though, later on, have led me to take another look.  Whether I take their suggestion or find my own way there, the further attention makes the writing better, clearer, sharper than it was.

Our process is simple: We email 5 double-spaced pages ahead of our meeting date.  This gives us all time to read through and decide what we want to say.  At the meeting, we discuss our comments, giving the writer space to respond.

Critiquing though is an art. You can’t just go stomping in and say you didn’t like something.  The wrong comment delivered inarticulately can ruin a writer. At our core we are all sensitive artists. And we don’t like to hear that we’re bad at what we love to do.  You must be specific.  If you can, tell the writer exactly what went wrong, what didn’t work for you.  It helps if you can precede it with or couch it in as many compliments as you can.  Like a little sugar, the medicine goes down a lot easier.  You can talk about being unsure or not understanding.  Any feeling is okay to let the writer know if what she intended has worked.

Whatever rules may be set forth in your group, it’s good to stay within them.  At least at first.  But I believe the true Art of Critique is having respect for the person as a writer. Deliver your comments with this in mind – that the writer knows what he wants and is capable of making the necessary changes. That way your comments will be more about pointing out places that need more attention. Rather than corrections from a frustrated English teacher who always wanted to write a book but never did.  With respect you will be sure to acknowledge what you found interesting, while you’re making your suggestions. If you don’t have this attitude, your comments will fall on deaf ears at best.  You’ll crush the writer’s spirit at worst.

One of the toughest situations I have found myself in has been when someone has asked me to read their manuscript and it was horrible!  I would never say that to anyone who has made the attempt, crossed the line, gotten over themselves enough to commit their words to paper.  It is an act of faith to write something and give it to someone else to read.  There is certainly artfulness needed in this case.  You must find everything positive you can say.  Focus on those things.  Then, being kind and generous, if it feels right, point out one or two of the flaws you see.  Maybe offering suggestions for how to remedy them, if that seems appropriate. There’s no cause to point out all the problems.  If the person continues to write (if you or someone else doesn’t slam them down too soon) they will find out in due course what’s what.  The point is to have respect for what’s been written.

I have learned so much about writing from my group. Things like how to keep the reader in mind with everything I write. They’ve also taught me the art of critiquing.  I am deeply thankful for them for all they’ve given me.  Every writer needs a critique group.  No matter what you’re critiquing, make sure it’s done with respect and you’ll know just what to say.

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