Cycle 4.2 Critique–Group Ears, Eyes, Voice, and Heart

Wizard altar 4 weblog

by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

We want to do good and help our sister writers. We join groups to do just that. When like minds come together with the same purpose—intent on trust, kindness, and truth—everyone benefits. How do critique groups produce virtuous rather than vicious circles?





Doing Good

· A good match between writer and group encourages writing. Thoughtful critique makes work stronger.

· Beyond the individual piece by the individual writer critique offers the entire group lessons in effective writing. What is good writing? How do we do it? How do we communicate beyond ourselves? Discerning critique opens our eyes to new ways of thinking and confirms what we’ve already intuited or believed.

Who are you as a group?

Know what kind of group you are. Here are a few possibilities.

1) Witnessing—Story Circles “encourage and facilitate story-sharing” without analysis or correction. Susan Albert in “Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story,” says: We are mutual presences, simply, and in that attentive being-with, that delicate, careful listening, we help one another bring forth—ourselves.” (p.12)

2) Listening Back is a term I coined as an alternative to “feedback”. How can you be useful and specific in your comments while creating a cozy, supportive environment? Clive Matson’s “syngenetic workshop” (having the same origin) illustrates a version of listening back.

Clive’s Crazy Child process is based on the writing itself. Group members take notes on the piece they’re hearing and reading in order to repeat memorable lines exactly; clearly and positively they say why these work. The author also takes notes and speaks only at the end. (Clive’s complete process is on Pp. 16-17 “Let the Crazy Child Write.”)

3) Craft-based or genre-based groups focus on developing writing skill in more detail. Such groups may be directed towards refining work to present to the marketplace.

How to Critique?

Be a Girl Scout: trustworthy, kind, and truthful.

Trust.  Act and speak so that each writer in the group feels that her work is respected.

Kindness. You would never say to a new mother “What an ugly baby!” Remember that the writer is showing you her literary baby.

Truth. If your group is one that gives feedback, make it specific, honest and respectful.

Kindergarten Rules: Structure

Choose someone to facilitate the group. You might choose to rotate this role. The facilitator keeps the critique on track and redirects unhelpful  feedback. A timekeeper is useful as well.

Set up levels of feedback. These levels provide ready made goals for each person’s turn. Ask the writer what she wants and address only that. For example, does she want her piece to be witnessed as she reads it? Does she have a specific question about craft (perhaps pacing or length)? Is she open for a broad band response? Grammar and nitpicking is off the board.

What did you like? The humor? Beautiful language? Skillful structure? The idea behind it? Specific passages? Be specific.

Follow up with concerns and suggestions. Is the writing clear? Is the language appropriate to the genre? Where and how can she improve her writing? Be specific.

Manuscripts at the ready. When we have the written words in front of us, we can more easily be helpful and specific. Small changes can be noted in the margins. These copies go back to the author at the end of the critique with names at the top.

Note it! In addition to individual notes on the manuscript, appoint a recorder to capture group responses and suggestions during the discussion.

Anything else? Have you addressed the writer’s questions? The writer may want to follow up on comments.

With practice and attention your critique group can, as Denise Levertov says, allow each woman “to say or sing all that she can, and to deal with as much of the world as becomes possible to  her in language”.

How does the writer contribute to a good critique? Tune in next month.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below.

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