Critique Group Checklist

If you're like me, you read Donna's post on Monday and panicked.  I hate to admit it, but there were more than a few descriptions of critique partners from hell that hit a little close to home.  I think at one point or another I've been all of those people.  I'd like to think I've gotten better, and certainly I've learned some things along the way, but I think I could be an even better critique partner.  So my post is going to focus on things you can do to make yourself a highly sought after and helpful member of any critique group.

 1.  FIND THE RIGHT PARTNERS.  This is one of the most important parts of any critique group.  Who are the other members?  Do they write in your genre?  Are they writing at your level or above?  Do you like their work?  Do you value their opinions?  Do you trust them with your fragile ego? Do they help you improve your work? Ask all of these questions and more.  Sometimes it takes a while to find the right chemistry, but the right mix of people is critical to getting the most out of a critique group. Some of these factors might be less important to you than others, but above all, you must trust the people in your group.    

2.  LOOK FOR TWO GREAT THINGS AND TWO THINGS THAT NEED WORK.  As your partners share their work, look for two positive things and two things that need work.  I say two, because chances are, other members of your critique group will pick up on some of the same things, and having two gives you the option of talking about something different.  Here's a list of things to keep in mind as you are reading:

Concept/plot.  Do you love the concept or is there something off about it?  Is there a plot hole?  Does the scene have a beginning middle and end?  Does the scene stay in the moment or veer off to other places and memories.
Setting.  Are there rich period details that make the book come alive?  Is there so much detail that the story drags.  Is there not enough details to picture the scene?  Are the setting details integral to the story?

Characters.  Are the characters multi-dimensional and easy to relate too?  Do they have flaws?  Is there a balance between flaws and redeeming qualities?  Is the character likable? Does the character act in believable ways? Is the character proactive or reactive? Are there sufficient emotional reactions? (This is especially critical for the character whose POV is featured).  

Voice.  Does the work have a voice?  Is it lyrical and smooth?  Quick and snappy?  Simple yet gorgeous?  Does the piece have a personality, a voice of its own?  (NOTE: unless the voice is very good, this is a difficult area to critique.)  Good voice is like pornography, hard to describe but you know it when you see it.  It's also the most personal part of any writer's work.  The writer's voice is essentially the way the writer writes.  If you find yourself critiquing voice as something that needs work, be prepared to back it up with something more concrete, such as "The lack of emotional reactions is keeping me at a distance,"  or "the detailed descriptive passages are too long for my attention span."  Notice that these criticisms have been couched in subjective terms for how the work is resonating with the person giving the critique.  It is important to remember that this is just one person's opinion.  You might not like it, but you might be in the minority.

Conflict.  Is there sufficient conflict in the scene?  Do the characters have goals?  Are their obstacles in their way?  Do they get out of the situation too easily? Does the resolution of the conflict make things better or worse?

Pacing.  Does the scene drag?  Does it move too quickly?  Does the pacing fit with the overall structure of the story? (i.e. important scenes and events that are critical to the plot shouldn't be summarized in a few sentences- the reader deserves to see them play out).  Pacing is often dragged down by too much description or lots of flashbacks.  Conversely, a story that moves too fast almost always suffers from not enough sensory detail or emotional reactions.

Themes.  What is the story about?  This goes beyond plot and character and reaches the heart of the story.  Are there places in the scene to emphasize certain themes?

Suggested Edits.  Sometimes the biggest problem with a piece of writing isn't plot or character or setting, rather the story just needs some judicious editing.  Are the sentences too laden with adjectives and adverbs?  Does the writer have any tics (i.e. using the same word over and over)?  Granted, in most critique groups, there won't be time to line edit the piece of work.  But sometimes its helpful to point out an issue that stood out to you, so the writer can go back over the piece (and later the book) with a watchful eye.

Areas of confusion.  Are there places where you lost sight of what was happening?  Did you understand waht was going on?  Were there places where you felt like things were explained that were already obvious?  Conversely, is a very complex scene easy to read and easy to follow?  This for me is one of the most valuable aspects of a critique.  As a writer, I know my characters intimately.  I know exactly what is motivating them, and what is happening in the scene.  The problem is I can't always tell if I've gotten what's in my head on to the page.  It's great to know where things get confusing or overexplain.
Unique qualities in the work.  Is there something special about this piece of writing?  SHARE IT!  We all love to hear that you loved something about our writing.  Plus, it helps us as writers if we understand our strengths just as much as if we understand our weaknesses.  On the other hand, if there is something uniquely troubling about the work (main character that you loathe, graphic sex, mistreatment of animals), do let the writer know that you had a negative reaction.  The writer may not change the work, but its important for the writer to know that some people may be offended.

3.  ONLY TALK ABOUT ONE OF EACH.  You've read the piece.  You've found two things you loved and two things that need work.  Now only talk about one of each.  In most cases you will have five minutes or less to express your points.  More than two is too much for a writer to take in.  One is better, but it is important for you to have something positive to say as well.  You have two points in case someone else has covered the other point and you have nothing to add to it. 

4.  KEEP IT SHORT AND FOCUSED.  Stay within the time parameters imposed by the group.  Stay on topic.  Make your two points and only your two points.  Yes you will notice other things and want to tell the writer everything.  RESIST.  Under no circumstances should you ever bring the focus back to your own work.  Give your critique partner the same respect you would expect them to give you.

5.  START POSITIVE AND END POSITIVE.  The infamous "sandwich" technique is a cliche for a reason.  Writers are for the most part fragile creatures.  We pour our subconscious, perhaps our soul onto the page.  Every work has merit, even if its just the courage that went into sitting down at and putting some words on paper, then sharing them with others.  Start your critique with a positive and end with that same (remember only talking about one) positive message.  Encourage the writer to attack the work with renewed energy.  Because that is why we attend critique groups.


This is a great post! I'm saving it for my next critting assignment, though I hope by now I already pay attention to all these points. But you never know. :)

Such a great post! Helpful, too, since I may want to start up a critque group once I finish my MFA program. :)

I'm still chuckling about the voice is like pornography comment!

I've been thinking of a few more things to add to the list of what to watch for. Dialogue is a big one. Is it natural sounding? Does it move the story forward? Does it sound like something the character would say?

The more I think about it, the more out of control this list could get!

J. Ro, I can't take credit for the pornography line, Justice Potter Stewart used it in an obscenity case before the 1964 Supreme Court.

This is great advice... I particularly like #4 keep it foccused. It's so easy to get off track.

W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

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