Tell Me What You Really Think

A report on the January 9 Critique Circle by Amanda Le Rougetel

A critique circle offers more than just the chance to get or to give feedback on a piece of writing. It gives us a deadline to meet with our writing. It offers community for a craft that is often a very solo affair. And it encourages a commitment to the writing process and, thus, to the writing life. When feedback from readers is both critical and friendly, it can change a writer’s perspective about their work. The more open the writer is to that honest feedback, the more impact it can have. It’s a delicate dance that can be fun. 

So it was at the MWG’s Critique Circle on January 9th. Seven writers shared their work and nine friendly readers offered honest comments. Writers attend for many different reasons, including because they want to read their work aloud to a group of appreciative listeners; or they need an assessment from discerning readers as they revise their work before submitting it to a writing contest; or they are actively struggling with an element in their current work and want to pick the collective brains of their writing peers.

I joined as participant and reporter, without having a piece of writing to share. Even without any direct skin in the game, I learned plenty and enjoyed myself, too. 

Critique Circle basics: 

  • Participation: Most often, every participant submits a piece of writing for critique; however, observers and interested first timers are welcome to see how a Critique Circle works.
  • Any genre is welcome: At the January 9th session, we had memoir, short story fiction, an excerpt from a novel, prose poetry, and an excerpt from a utopian tragedy series. Some pieces were serious, others humorous. 
  • Process: The Circle coordinator manages the sign-up and reminds writers to send out their work in advance so it can be read and duly considered. The Circle is moderated by two volunteers to keep the meeting moving smoothly. Each writer reads their piece or excerpt, then the readers respond. Depending on how many people are present, each writer may get 20 minutes or more for their reading and response. 
  • Ask for specific feedback: It’s ideal when the writer includes their questions to the readers when they send out their piece. The more specific the questions, the more productive will be the exchange with the readers.
  • Offer content warning: If the subject matter is possibly contentious or explicit language is used, it is good practice to offer a content or trigger warning for the readers. This ensures they are not caught off guard by what they come across in the piece. 

The value of a Critique Circle is illustrated by the breadth of give and take between the writers and readers at this particular session:

The questions asked by the writers included these (paraphrased by me) — 

  • Does my story grab you or do you lose interest? If so, where does it lose you? 
  • Did you connect emotionally with the story and the characters?  
  • Is the balance between internal reflection and external action right? 
  • Does the character come through in the narrative?
  • How might I sharpen the content while keeping the softness of tone I’m going for?
  • Is something missing from the piece? 
  • Does the situation unfolding in the piece seem authentic? 
  • Do the characters react in a realistic way?
  • How could I deepen the authenticity of the piece without resorting to foul language? 
  • How does my piece land with you as I read it aloud? 
  • What is your immediate (gut) response to this piece?  

Response from the readers’ comments included these comments (paraphrased by me):  

  • You capture the sense of place very well in the narrative, but I would like more sensory details.
  • I love the humour you incorporate.
  • Vary the sentence pattern (structure) more.
  • Hearing you read your piece changed my response to it. 
  • Your title is boring.
  • I loved your title. 
  • The local Winnipeg setting is appealing to me. 
  • The descriptive details you include bring the character to life. 
  • You use dialogue very effectively; your characters are alive to me. 
  • There’s too much background in the opening of the piece; get right to the action. You could cut the beginning and pull me right in. 
  • You capture the tone of a child really well. He is believable to me. 
  • Sometimes it’s enough to say simply, I liked it. I appreciated it. I loved it! Writers heard plenty of all three responses in this session. 

I liked two particular things about this session: the wide range of genres presented, and the openness with which the writers received the readers’ comments. If I were to name a quibble, though, it would be this: That some of us set poetry on a bar out of our own reach, saying ‘I don’t know how to critique poetry.’ To that I say, Bah! Poetry may have its own special qualities (to which we may not be attuned), but we can still respond to it as a willing reader. My motto is, Don’t let genre boundaries fence you in!  

This session was so lively that we could have easily gone over the allotted Zoom time. The moderators used a ‘round robin’ approach when requesting the feedback, ensuring that every reader was able to respond to each writer if they wanted to, which worked well. 

If you haven’t yet attended a Critique Circle as either writer or reader, consider this your invitation. Go for it. Take the leap. Sign up for the next one. You’re guaranteed to land in a friendly crowd of MWG writers and readers.  

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