May 12, 2023

Critique Circles

Critique Circles

Ready, Fire, Aim!        

A boon (first time I’ve used that word) to new writers, those without a quality writing partner or two, is the Critique Circle, a rough and ready proving ground for works in progress. I remember asking what WIP meant. I was so clueless back then about submitting and critiquing other writers’ works.

As for mine, the question was, at what point was it ready for other eyes to examine, slice, dice, and comment about? Yes, the early junk was properly formatted, spell-checked, and had what some might call proper punctuation. There were sentences and paragraphs full of words that could masquerade as a piece of fiction, a story, or at least the beginning of one. But was it good enough yet? Could it withstand an imagined arctic gale or tsunami scrub from far-off lands like California, where all the talented people play?

Critique Circles — A boon, but sometimes they might just as well be a wood chipper. Most are semi-anonymous. They come in all shapes and sizes; impromptu online groups, classmates, local writer groups, meet-ups, but it all comes down to I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… or something equally revealing of your naked attempt at being a writer and desire to be called one.

Don’t linger there too long or take everything that’s pushed your way too seriously. In most cases, you won’t know much about the other participants reading your work. Not their age, life experiences, education, biases, or writing habits. Someone in your social media critique circle might be ten years old, a mental patient, or Vladimir Putin’s brother-in-law.

When you get a critique, don’t explain or defend why you wrote something the way you did. And certainly, don’t argue a point you disagree with. That is not the purpose of a considered critique. Say thank you, and move along.

So, what’s the point?

The point is to not get comfortable. Wade out beyond the shallow water of the critique circle and fish for a few good writing partners, those you can create an agreement with to trade works on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule.

For the partnership to last, you should be equally yoked in writing goals, temperament, and skill. Other demographic qualities may apply.

  • Set the number of words you can realistically expect to critique in each cycle without busting your time schedule.
  • Determine how deep of a critique you and your partners want.
  • Stay within the critique focus limits set by each partner.
  • Don’t nitpick or overwhelm. The piece will go through re-writes, revisions, and edits before going to print. Not every comma needs to be evaluated at this point. The Work in Progress process is the same as sausage being made. The parts aren’t meant to resemble the final product.
  • Provide useful specific comments and suggestions about:
    1. Character
    2. Plot
    3. Setting
    4. Point of View
    5. Style
    6. Theme
    7. Literary devices

Don’t bleed red ink opinions/corrections all over their pages. Look for and point out where the writing bogs down, veers off course, or the big-picture gets lost. If there are none, move further into the piece and find the next-level areas that can be improved, made less confusing, or reworded for clarity and added punch. And don’t forget to tell your partner where their writing takes off and zings through the reader’s imagination.


The best bait is you

To catch a suitable partner, you must prove you’re a fit candidate for them. Do this by showing you’re mature, serious, conscientious, and able to produce a critique that has value, can write fairly well, take criticism, and can stay out of online disagreements and arguments. Flame wars have killed thousands of well-meaning social media groups.

Finding the big fish

Fish in the deepest waters. Who in the group provides helpful critiques? Who consistently takes part at a level you can sustain? Who maintains a positive influence and attitude? Whose writing style do you admire? You’re shopping, so take your time to not waste it in the future.

Establish a writer’s relationship as you would with any acquaintance and future friend. Talk beyond the circle. Use emails, phone calls, and video chats to get to know one another. Writers love to talk about writing. It helps keep the creative juices flowing.