Monday, May 24, 2010

More on Critiquing Etiquette

By Ali Cross

A friend of mine, and member of my critique group, recently brought a concern to my attention—she feels my critique comments, and those of several other group members, is out of line.

She writes LDS contemporary youth/crossover fiction. No one else in our group writes in her genre, and none of us even read it, so we are definitely not knowledgeable about the demands and expectations of her specific genre. Oftentimes, she finds, we criticize her character’s motivations unfairly because her characters would not behave like the characters in our historical LDS fiction or YA fantasy/dystopian stories.

And she’s not wrong.

You really can’t criticize a genre you know nothing about. Which has led our little group to examine how we can best serve our group members even when we don’t read/know their specific genre. It turns out the solution may be something as simple as word choice—and a healthy dose of humility.

How we speak to one another during a critique session can make all the difference in how our comments are perceived—and determine their helpfulness. Rather than say, “Your character would never act that way,” we should instead say, “I don’t understand why your character is behaving that way.”

The first example is judgmental and isn’t open to discussion. The second example reserves judgment and allows for differing opinions.

And that’s where humility comes in.

If you don’t know a genre, you can’t speak definitively on the subject. You have to allow that perhaps you don’t know how that LDS boy would act in a specific situation because he’s not the vampire boy you’re accustomed to writing, and reading, about.

Perhaps you have the good fortune to belong to a critique group consisting of members who all write and read the same genre—but most of us are not that lucky. Usually a group consists of a variety of genres so humility and care are necessary as we work together.

This week my critique group will be meeting and we’ll have the chance to practice choosing our words more carefully as we edit each others' work. I have a feeling this approach will do all of us a lot of good.


Amanda said...

I was going back and forth on whether or not I should keep our critique group a fantasy only group, or open up to other genres. I finally chose to keep it to fantasy writers only for the exact reason you just wrote about. Two women's fiction writers had inquired about the group and I felt really bad not including them. I just thought the group would not benefit them the way they needed.

Keith Fisher said...


I understand what you are saying, and you too Amanda. However, if something is written in a way that can't be understood by anyone, then it needs to be criticized.

there are are genre specific formulas and world building techniques. but those things are the same if you are writing about high school or the world on the fourth planet in the delnar system. Its just setting.

Characters should be true to the way they are written. if they suddenly act differently there needs to be a reason for it and that needs to be shown. I usually know a lot about a character by the fifth chapter, (enough to say that character wouldn't do that).

If your critique group partners are having trouble with it, you can bet a publisher will too, no matter what the genre.

Therefore I recommend partners from all genres. Just because I don't read vampires, doesn't mean I can't see good writtng, or bad.

I agree, though, that being tactful is the best way to say it. Even then, you might have a member of your group who just doesn't do criticism well.

There are times when I feel lambasted in my group, but I know they love me and I respect their opinions. Perhaps, that's the secret. give your opinions with love and recieve them that way as well. I believe that's what you were saying.

Writng is writing, no matter what genre. Thanks for this post. you are one of my heros.

Keith Fisher said...

Okay, after talking about with my critique group, I think there are advantages to having your group reading your genre. I'm writing women's fiction and it helps to have a group full of women. but if I were a woman writig women's fiction, I would already know how a woman would act.