1.) Identify What the Author is Trying to Do
In my first workshop at the University of Hartford ten years ago, Ben Grossberg dragged a desk into the center of the room, perched on top of it, and asked us how could we make this desk into a good chair. We gave him plenty of reasons. The desk lacked back support. The seat needed a cushion. It was so high off the ground so his feet were dangling.
Then Ben asked us how useful our feedback would be the person who made the desk.
The the rest of your feedback is built on the bedrock of identifying what it is that you’re talking about. The description of the squelching sound an eyeball makes when it splatters on the bottom of a boot fits perfectly within a horror story, but would send romance readers running. Your advice needs to be tailored to the piece your reading, or it’s useless.
2.) Explain It to the Author
Once you figure out what you’re reading, the next step is to tell the author. They know what they meant to do, not what they did. As Stephen King puts it in his excellent On Writing, when you write you “engage in an act of telepathy.” The person who wrote the piece is projecting out into the world. In a workshop, you’re an early receiver, and the most useful thing you can do for them is to tell them what you received. Whatever advice you have on how to make the narrative more taut, how to make the characters pop off the page, or how to imbue the symbols with the deepest of meanings won’t matter at all if you don’t first make sure your vision for what the author is trying to do matches their intent.
3.) Restrict Yourself to Talking About That
The role of a workshop isn’t to question what a writer wants to do. A good critique focuses on shaping what they’ve attempted into the best version of itself. Value judgements are the responsibility of gatekeepers (editors in traditional publishing; the author themselves in self publishing), not workshoppers.
You can respond to craft elements of any genre whether you particularly like that genre not. The question isn’t ever whether or not you like it, but how to make it the best version of itself.
4.) Be Honest and Kind
Being nice isn’t worth a damn in a critique. To be nice is to hold a punch, something that spares pain temporarily at the expense of the person you’re protecting. Anyone who’s submitting to a critique group is doing it to get their writing better.
Being kind is everything. To be kind is to tell someone how something isn’t working, to give them a specific page number or a quote that demonstrate a problem, and advice how you think it could be fixed. You don’t need to be mean to be honest, and specificity mitigates whatever pain that you might cause. It’s hard to be mad or hurt when someone is paying such close attention to your fiction.
5.) Don’t Forget Taste is What Brought You Here
Ira Glass has a great quote floating around the internet a few years ago about what it’s like to be a beginner. There’s a gap between your actual skill level and where you want to be, “But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.” And that taste, what makes you want to be a writer and go through the critique process in the first place, is still there. Turning it toward someone else’s work and thinking of how to make it the best version of itself possible, helps you more than them .
That’s the weird secret about critique groups. You aren’t going to get that much better hearing what other people say about your own work. You’re getting better as you respond to theirs. Talking about someone else’s work allows you to disconnect from it emotionally and eventually, you can apply the advice you give them and apply it to your own work.
Since that’s where the learning, the growth take place, make sure you’re allotting your energy accordingly.
6.) Remember that A Critique Group is a Community
You’re not paying anyone for their critique when you join a group. Everyone is in the same boat as you: they’re doing their damndest to make their writing the best it can be.
Every few years at my current critique group, a new member joins and railroads a novel through the critique process. They submit every week until the novels done and then we never see them again (or worse we see them at a Con and they awkwardly pretend they don’t see us). It’s self-defeating because it’s a misunderstanding of the process. The improvement comes from working on other people’s pieces. So does the community and the friendship, and those might just be the most valuable part.