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Writers' Group Etiquette

Guidelines for Readers in Critique Groups...
by Susan Wade

BEFORE YOU PICK UP A MANUSCRIPT, remember, no story can survive a hostile read. If you read with the intention of going for blood, even a masterpiece can be decimated. In reality, none of us are in competition with each other; the quality of your work does not affect the quality of mine. Nor does it much affect the marketability of my work. If the same editor reads three beautifully crafted stories on themes of interest to her readers, odds are that she will buy all three.

So take a deep breath before you pick up that manuscript. Try to read it as you would if it were published in your favorite magazine. What did this writer do well? Could s/he have done better. And, most importantly what can you learn from how this was written?


Guidelines for Group Critiques of Fiction...
by Jennifer Evans

These guidelines evolved from a discussion of critique among members of the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Study Group of the Austin Writers’ League, aka the SlugTribe.

1.  Stay on the subject.
And the subject is evaluating the story now at hand. Telling about an interesting anecdote, a similar story, or a similar film often uses up the writer’s valuable critique time. It’s also rude to change the subject before the critique is over. 

2.  Say it once. Don’t hog discussion.
If others have already made the points you think are important, then briefly say so and let someone else speak. Don’t dwell for five minutes on one picky thing. The ideal is to give the writer ten different critique responses rather than everyone pound one idea ten times. Don’t let arguing over one point use up the entire critique time.  If you have a lot to say, save part for later so that everyone can take a turn.

3.  Comment on major points.
Trivial points, such as most word choices, should be held back and discussed last of all, if there’s time. Focus instead on questions like:

  • What confused me in this story?
  • Where did I lose interest?  When did my interest return?
  • What are the strengths of the story?  What kept me interested?
  • What was my main emotional reaction to the story?
  • How can I help this writer sell this story?

4.  Be of help. Critique the manuscript, not the person.
Passion’s okay, abrasion is not. No sarcasm. No psychoanalyzing the writer. No speculating on the motives for writing the story. The role of the critiquer is to convey reactions that will help the writer write better stories. Try your best to give the help that the writer directly asked for. Don’t let others’ opinions sway you or silence you. In your critique speak like one friend to another, honestly but tactfully.

5.  Watch the time.
When the session begins, it’s good to have a plan on division of time and to designate a timekeeper. If everyone has agreed to spend 20 minutes per story, help everyone keep that agreement because the others are counting on it. One polite way is to occasionally ask the timekeeper, “How are we doing on time?”

6.  If the story is set on Mars, and you hate all stories set on Mars, you can be excused from commenting.
Personal dislikes frequently interfere with useful critique. It is definitely out-of-line to spend a person’s critique time running down his vampire-elf western because you hate vampire-elf westerns. Learn to button your lip when you know you aren’t the audience for the story.

7.  Don’t ask questions about the story (except).
Don’t ask a question that will tempt the anxious writer to spend 10 minutes retelling and justifying the story. Questions are acceptable, however, after the main critique is over, to find out the intent of the writer and help her accomplish that better. Don’t ask what really happened in a story. Tell what you think happened; that’s far more useful to the writer. It’s important to the writer to learn when the audience misunderstands.


8. Learn how to keep equilibrium.
Critique comments can make you angry, upset, or confused, so it’s important to learn how to react effectively to them. Getting adjusted may take a year or so of regular critiques, or may happen sooner. It helps to keep in mind:  You are not your story. The manuscript is not even your story; it’s a tool to relay your story to the reader. Tools can be improved. Plus, a lot of criticism is wrong. Even wrong criticism can be useful, however. Stories that some people dislike may sell precisely because of the elements that they disliked. An intense story will nearly always bring out disapproval from someone. Also keep in mind that critiquers can take a masterpiece and rip it up. In fact, some of the best stories generate the most energetic critiques. These people are trying to help you, and they’re entitled to their reactions.

9.  Say what kind of critique you want.
You know better than anyone else what feedback will help you. If you want encouragement, ask for that. If you want the toughest critique, ask for that. Certain questions you may want to state before the reading, and others after. You have the option of inviting people to write their comments for you rather than giving you oral criticism. Plan to get the most from your critiquers.

10.     Don’t defend your story.
You are here for pain and gain, not to explain. Let your story stand on its own. When it’s your manuscript being critiqued, don’t spend your precious critique time arguing, justifying, or explaining. During critique, your job is to listen. Listen for what might be useful to you, write notes, and ask a few questions. The reactions and responses you can get from this group are priceless. Later you can sort the gems from the phony baloney.
Do not spent your critique time explaining why someone misunderstood your story, why you wrote it that way, what the plot line really is, what’s going to happen next, or why the story is really better than you wrote it. Come on!

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