VGW Critique Guidelines
Keep it Positive
Accepting criticism of something dear to us is almost never easy, no matter how much we think we’re ready for it. As such, building trust is a key part of offering critique that will be effectively received. Much of this trust is built through regular mutual exchange of work — a shared vulnerability, if you will — but in individual critique sessions, this is achieved by opening your critique with positive feedback. In a discussion format, it can be easy to jump into a group tear-down of someone’s work. It is imperative that someone recognize this trend (in the future absence of a facilitator) and bring it back to the positive for a moment.
Positive feedback still applies to criticism. The purpose of critique is to help the author improve their work. Being overly mean or derisive will not achieve this aim.
Bad: “The main character was a pathetic loser and nothing they ever did made sense.”
Better: “I had a hard time relating to the main character and couldn’t seem to figure out their motives for behaving the way they did.”
Note: If you find a submitted piece truly abhorrent, contact Mark and he will speak to the author about why it may not be appropriate for critique.
Critique is Not Copy Editing
We’re not here to proof read. We’re here to use our knowledge of craft to improve the fundamental elements of story. Ie: Character, Plot, and Setting.
A Practical Guide to Giving Critique
Read the piece deliberately, and preferably in one sitting. Not minor issues as you read so you don’t forget them later, but try to think about the piece from the top down. Does the chapter or story work as a whole? Do the characters work? Since we’re genre writers, setting is almost as important as character; does it make sense?
Does the main character feel like a well-rounded person? Are they relatable? (Are they supposed to be relatable?) Are their motivations believable? Do they seem too perfect? Do they have a distinct voice? Is the voice and character behaviour consistent throughout? If it shifts, is the change set up properly? Are supporting characters individuals or generic NPCs? Do any of the characters seem to exist solely to push the plot in a certain direction, or is their presence in the story believable?
Did the piece make sense? Was it satisfying? If it was a single chapter, was there forward momentum (even if it was a series of failures)? Did the plot seem transparent or firmly embedded in the story? Was there clearly identifiable conflict? Did the main character change in any way from when you first met them to when the piece ended?
If second world, are there rules? Internal consistency? Even if it’s modern day earth, does the character’s setting feel believable? (eg: military, relationship/friend/workplace dynamics?) Does the setting influence the story? Do the characters feel like citizens of their world? Does the setting provoke an emotional response? (eg: “I want to live there!” or “What a ghastly place, no wonder our heroes have to act to change things!”)
These are just a few big picture issues that can help a story reach its fullest potential. Picking apart one sentence changes nothing but that sentence. Identifying a big picture issue can potentially improve the entire piece.
Once you’ve identified high level concerns, it’s time to hunt down some positives. That is, if you haven’t already had a few things jump out at you. Don’t worry if this wasn’t the case. It’s not uncommon to focus on the negative when reading for critique. That’s why it’s sometimes necessary to do a second pass reading entirely for the positives. Even if you’ve found major fault with the character or plot, there are plenty of things to praise. Small moments. A well crafted moment. A relatable or admirable character trait. A charismatic secondary character or villain. Few pieces are entirely without redemptive qualities. Even if the piece is not your preferred genre or style, you should be able to find a bit of good writing craft or universally enjoyable element.
Work put up for critique should be shared via Google Docs. When you are critiquing someone else’s work, it is your choice whether you prefer to print it out or make digital notes. You are not obliged to do either on the document itself. If you choose to make digital suggestions on the doc itself, you must make a copy and share it back to the author alone. This is to prevent people from being influenced by other critical comments as they read for the first time. The sharing of marked up pieces should be done after the discussion.
On Receiving Critique
Hearing criticism isn’t always easy. It is important to remember that your fellow writers are critiquing your story, and not you or your creative abilities.
I once had a writing teacher (and successfully published author) tell me that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — a book she felt was one of the best to come out in that decade — would have been torn apart at your average critique group. The book is challenging and difficult in places, and the collective wisdom of many a well-meaning workshop member would likely dull it down to a neutral blandness. The anecdote also served as a reminder that any work will always be open to suggestion or criticism, no matter how many times it is revised. You can’t please everyone, nor should you try.
How does that apply to us? The most important thing when having your work critiqued, is to remember that you don’t have to listen to everyone. Let’s be clear in that I’m not suggesting you argue against the advice of others, but that you ignore their suggestions and move on. If you ask six people for feedback and only one tells you they think your main character is a bigot, you might be able to write that person off as having misread your work. If five of the six people mention the bigotry, you might want to consider that you’re not conveying what you think you are.
When your work is being discussed, your job is to listen and silently take notes on what is being said. After the discussion period is over, you will have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions. Under no circumstances will you be given time to “correct” anyone who may have misinterpreted your intentions.
Above all, remember that…
You are not your work.
Your work is a part of you, and it’s hard to have someone tell you that it’s no good, but it’s important to keep in mind that criticism of your work does not mean that YOU are a bad person or a failure as a writer. We all have bad days, and we all produce bad work. There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t had to grow and learn through gut-wrenching heart-breaking soul-crushing failure.
Try to put your best foot forward.
The work you present for critique should already have been thought about and revised to the point that you’re not sure what more you can do. Putting out first draft material without even attempting to work on it yourself is an invitation to have people rip you apart. No one wants to see that happen, and it doesn’t benefit anyone. More so, it’s disrespectful to people giving up valuable writing time to read something you’ve typed up without a second thought. Take your time between revisions. Resist the urge to modify your work and re-submit it to the next workshop. If someone in the group offers to do a follow-up read, do your best to polish it before sending it along.
Respect is Key
It doesn’t matter what side of the table you’re on. Respect that the work you are critiquing is very dear to the one who created it. Respect that the person who pointed out 86 grammatical mistakes or a major plot flaw has graciously given their time to help you because they want you to succeed. Without mutual respect, no meaningful advancement can be made.