Are you part of a writing critique group or plan to be part of one? Knowing how to critique another’s writing is always a bit tricky. You want to point out the writing’s weakness in order to help the writer improve at her craft. At the same time, you don’t want to hurt feelings. There’s a thin line, it seems, between constructive criticism and just plain criticism. This line becomes even thinner when the piece being discussed is memoir.
When it comes to memoir, we have a natural tendency to want to empathize (or judge) and are easily distracted by the life challenges described by the author; as a result, we can end up discussing her life, rather than her writing. A writing critique group should always be about the writing, not the writer, so if you find your discussions centering around emotional problems rather than how the writer portrays the problems on the page, you’ll know you’re off track.
How to Stay on Track When Offering Critique
- Limit your comments to the actual craft of writing and how the narrator’s life is represented on the page — to the art of description, narrative arc, and language. You are not there to discuss how to heal from emotional or physical trauma. Nor are you there to judge how the author or his family members reacted to the situation.
- Be honest. Don’t hold back for fear of hurting the author’s feelings.
- It’s good to consider how your words will land before you say them — kindness never hurts, but don’t sympathize with the author about his experiences or (horror!) feel sorry for him because of what he has been through. And don’t share your own personal stories in response to the author’s. It’s not a therapy session.
- Remove the personal from the person. When critiquing memoir, remember that the author’s character on the page is just that — a character. The narrator is a portrayal of the author, not the author herself. So talk about “the narrator,” not “you.” For example, “I’m confused by the statement the narrator makes at this point in the scene,” rather than “I’m confused by your statement here.” Or “I feel that the narrator’s response needs clarification,” vs. “Why did you respond that way?” Talk about pacing and sentence structure, and keep it impersonal. You would never confuse a fictional narrator with the author; avoid confusing the narrator of memoir with the author, as well.
How to Stay on Track When Receiving Critique
- Focus on the writing itself, and model the impersonal nature of the discussion by talking about “the narrator,” instead of “I” (unless you’re discussing the way you approached the writing itself). Talk about characters and pace and action, description and metaphor — not the choices you made in real life.
- Pay attention to positive comments about what’s working, and what keeps your readers interested in the story. Work on giving your readers more of the same.
- Keep an open mind. You are there to learn, after all. If three or more people mention the same issue, pay attention. For example, if they question the pace during a particular section, experiment with changing it up. Will slowing the pace down add to the suspense of the moment? Will speeding it up keep your readers turning the page? Think about your memoir as an experiment in communication and allow yourself to approach the craft of writing playfully.
- Consider all comments as advice and don’t feel compelled to make every change that is suggested. Make notes, take your piece home, and review all comments, paying careful attention to what resonates and what makes you feel defensive. (Hint: if you’re feeling defensive, take a closer look.)
The bottom line is that you want to give and take memoir critique the same way you give and take critique for fiction writing and poetry — thoughtfully, tactfully, and honestly. By focusing on the writing, not the writer, you’ll get the most out of your writing group.