Critique Group Best Practices by Guest Floyd Hyatt

This is the first of a half-dozen occasional posts sent me by the wonderful Floyd Hyatt. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Thanks, F. A.!

Reading Between The Lines

Ah, an old adage but a goodie. The basis, of course, is that editors use the margins and double spaces between lines, to write editorial and typesetting notes.

However, us untrained readers are sometimes not so pro at critiquing.

Reading between the lines, at this juncture, takes on its prosaic meaning. Did the Critiquer dislike that passage’s message, or was there something amiss technically with the structure of it? Was that word miss-spelled, or did it just connote, in the reader’s mind, something unintended? Was that character represented badly, or was its personality one the reader disliked?

Critiques walk a diverse path, both setting forth opinions, and pointing out technical errors. The tendency is to be less explicit than we should be, over all, which can lead to misinterpreted commentary.

To avoid this problem, it is sometimes best to tag comment as to type. Easy enough to do with, say, a spelling oversight or typo, but harder with structural errors, say, a miss-constructed sentence or paragraph, as opposed to something subjective, like cadence, logic, or our expectations within a piece.

Here are some “Best Practices” I have seen that avoid such misunderstandings:

Label clearly any Technical Problems:

  • Spelling problem (Sp)
  • Spacing error (Spc)
  • Sentence structure issue (Stuct)
  • Paragraph error – Formatting (fmt)
  • Paragraph error – Improper inclusions (Pgph, Multip-subj)*
  • Punctuation error- *
  • Label Opinions as such:
  • I Prefer this Punctuation*
  • I Prefer this Adjective*
  • I Prefer this Name, Pronoun*
  • I would prefer this alternate Description*

Suggestions:

  • Suggest a revision for cadence*
  • Suggest a description here*
  • Suggest an alternate wording*
  • Suggesting an Insert*
  • Suggest Deleting this (unneeded, seems redundant, )

*write out what you would have preferred, or the correction

General feelings, or appreciations:

Start such comments with I felt, I thought, I would like to have seen, I was most impressed with, My preference would have been, My own impression was

However you do it, whatever format you choose to use in a critique, it is most helpful to be explicit in separating out what kind of comment you are making. Everyone is entitled to their opinions on something written, and these will be (or should be) gathered by the writer to assess how a work might be received by the general audience for it, but such are not necessarily grammar, spelling, or format issues.

Carefully categorizing what kind of commentary is being tendered aids the author in grooming his work, prevents misunderstanding the readers intent, and requires little extra effort on the reader’s part.

F. A. Hyatt

WRITING PROMPT: Practice what F. A. preaches.

MA

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About

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Critique Group Best Practices by Guest Floyd Hyatt

  1. Karen Cote

    July 4, 2011 at 10:26am

    Wow…very helpful. I think a critique group is frequently made up without guidelines which can be disastrous for those doing the critique and those receiving it. Direction is necessary especially if giving advice or receiving it.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Author
  2. Bob Sanchez
    Twitter:

    July 4, 2011 at 12:00pm

    This post covers some important basics. I do think that just as there are different styles of writing, there are different styles of critiquing. The most important principle is the Golden Rule: Give the kind of critique you’d like to receive. Avoid negative judgments such as “This is bad writing” or “I hate this.” By the same token, avoid undue praise, which may be good for one’s ego but can blind a writer to the improvements she needs to make.

    By the way, sometimes a writer will ask our group to “be brutal” in their critiques. Don’t do it. The writer never really means it. What she really wants is honest, constructive comments.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      July 4, 2011 at 6:38pm

      Bob, the Golden Rule holds up to a point: Give a critique that’s respectful and helpful. But I might want a thorough critique, and Glenda might just want to know if the general idea works or not, and Ginny might want a technical edit, and Carl might just want to know if there’s too much banker-talk to hold a non-banker’s interest. You’re so right, though, that “I liked it” is no more useful than “I hated it”, and that unkindness has no place in constructive criticism.

      We do have a member who used to bring in his first draft and say, “Okay, make it bleed.” By that, he meant he wanted us to help him catch every bump and lump and oopsie, because he’d rather have us find them than have an editor find them.

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  3. Floyd Hyatt

    January 7, 2012 at 4:11pm

    I will freely admit, that I am not always prompt replying to posts, though I do try to review this column, if I can call it that, as often as practical. I thought I’d recap, as critique is an important issue for writing circles. Since this is an postmortem reply, I’ll keep the response general.

    It’s proper to point out the good, as well as the could-be-better in a critique, especially when an author is on to something. Also, a critique is not the place to practice one’s acerbic wit. However, most errors or problems pointed out in a line edit, or structural critique, will be , should be, specific. Due praise is overwhelmingly more general in nature, to be realistic about it. Sure, occasionally a line, term, word or turn of phrase may prompt a pleased reaction, and get documented, and these are nice to see in a critique, but such will likely not be very constructive in terms a writer really can often make use of. They largely serve to sugar the medicine. Nothing wrong with such courtesy, of course. The soul of it all is, that if the critique stays focused and specific enough, and pulls the author to looking at possible improvements rather than at disaffections, it will get the job done with less misunderstanding or misdirection. A critique is not a review, nor is it exactly an edit. It is an aid. There looms the word WORK, written large in them, for the submitter, and that simply must be accommodated by the author, to make use of the process at all. This does not preclude either courtesy or honesty on behalf of the critique giver. An opinion questioning who the audience might be for a piece, remains different from stating “nobody will read this.”–for an instance. Good advice would be, if a critique giver cannot specifically finger a discontent he may have with some aspect of a story, to bypass sloppy comment on that section or aspect. Usually, a work receives several critiques, and another might be better able to pin down the exact problem. Dishing remains the editors job, should the work enter a publication cycle. FH

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