When it comes to receiving critique, I’ve found that the more you put into the process, the more you get out of it. Here are some tips to help you make the most of a critique before, during and after the process.
Before You Submit:
Proofread and eliminate typos.
If your submission is as tight and clean as possible, then you will allow your critique team to focus on more important issues like character development or plot arc. On the other hand, if the copy you submit is littered with typos and grammatical errors, you run the risk of getting a critique that just covers those things which you could just as easily correct yourself.
Follow the ground rules.
What’s fair game for critique? It depends on the critique group and the way it operates. My critique team will read just about anything, in any genre, including: short stories, chapters of novels & memoirs, poems, flash fiction, book proposals, how-to articles outlines, book synopses, query letters, and pitches for conferences. But not all critique groups will read such a wide variety so it’s important to figure out the ground rules for the group when you first join.
Follow the guidelines determined by the workshop teacher or the critique group. If there are no guidelines, use standard formatting (12pt font, Times New Roman, and double-spaced). Also, don’t forget page numbers. Tip: It’s a good idea to include your name and title of your piece in the header for each page.
Submit on time.
When you submit your work late, you’re not hurting your critique partners, you’re just hurting yourself. Give your critique team the time they need to devote to your piece and you’ll get a much more thorough and useful critique.
During the Critique:
Don’t preface your work with excuses and don’t apologize for it.
If you’re submitting a rough draft, that’s fine. No need to make excuses or apologize. It is what it is. And, for the love of all that is literary, don’t tell your critique team that you wrote it at the last minute (even if it’s true). Not only does last-minute writing not justify the rough state of your work, it will also make your critique team feel like you’re wasting their time and not taking the critique process seriously.
Keep your mouth shut.
While your critique team is discussing your work, don’t try to defend or justify it. Don’t say anything. Just listen. Remember: every minute you spend talking is a minute that your team isn’t giving you critique. Don’t waste valuable critique time getting defensive or trying to explain your work.
Keep your brain busy by keeping your hand moving across the page. I often bring an extra copy of my own work for myself, just so I can take margin notes while the critique team discusses it. Tip: If you have a small recorder, bring it and record the discussion (always ask the group if it’s OK with them first, of course). This way if you miss something in your notes, you can go back and listen to the comments.
Ask questions at the end.
When the discussion starts winding down, take a few moments to ask questions about any comments of critique points you did not understand. This is also a good time to ask for suggestions on aspects of the piece that have you struggling. DO NOT, under any circumstances, use your question time sneak in excuses about your work or argue about a critique point. That’s cheating.
After the Critique:
Collect the written comments from your team.
If anyone wrote comments or notes on your piece, make sure you collect them at the end so you have their notes when you revise.
Resist the urge to read through the comments as soon as you get home.
Getting feedback on your work will always be challenging, whether the feedback is positive or negative. Give yourself at least a few days to step away from the piece and gain some perspective. Note: Longer pieces or pieces that received an especially brutal critique may require more time to ease the sting.
Compile the critique notes.
Every writer has a unique revision system but it always comes down to this: once you’ve read through the notes, you need to find a way to compile that information so it’s not cumbersome when you revise. My system: if the piece in question is short, I’ll copy all the margin notes onto one clean copy, color-coding the comments so I know which members of my critique team said what. This way, I can see all the comments side-by-side and see where the team agreed or disagreed on various critique points. Of course, this only works for short stories, essays, flash fiction and such. This process is much too laborious for longer pieces. You need to find a system that works for you.
This is especially important if you plan to resubmit that piece to your critique team. Nothing smacks more of writerly arrogance than submitting the same piece over and over, not bothering to consider or apply the comments received. Of course, you may not agree with certain critique points and decide not to use them. That is fine; in fact, it’s your right as the author. But if you find yourself refusing to apply any suggestions you receive on the piece, don’t disrespect your critique team’s time by resubmitting it without revision.