My mentor Art Arthur, a successful Hollywood screenwriter for five decades, once told me, “There are four kinds of Hollywood producers: the ones that say, ‘Here’s what I don’t like about your script,’ the ones that say, ‘Here’s what I don’t like, and here’s why,’ and the ones that say, ‘Here’s what I don’t like, here’s why, and here’s what I suggest you do instead.’ This third group is very rare, but those are the ones you most want to work with.
“But the worst of all,” he continued, “are those who skip over the what they don’t like and why, and just tell you what you should change.”
After hearing stories from countless writers about advice they’ve been given, critique groups seem also to fall into four basic categories: the “any excuse not to write” group (which at least gets you out of the house and among people, but has no effect on your writing one way over the other), the “just make you feel good” group (which will bolster your spirits and avoid hurting your feelings, but prevent you from doing the hard work of facing your weaknesses and improving your craft); and the “I don’t know much about story but I love to criticize” group (which is filled with people who want to stroke their own egos by giving lots of advice and suggesting all sorts of changes that are neither well founded nor consistent with your vision for your own story).
And finally, there’s the group that actually helps you make your writing better. Here is how the writers in those groups behave….
1. Great critique groups ask questions.
It took me a long time to realize, but my best coaching always occurs when I listen. I used to simply do critiques for writers – lay out my comments and suggestions for how to make their novel or screenplay better. This wasn’t bad, because my advice was based on solid story principles exhibited by countless successful books and movies. But then I realized that the changes I suggested were always about making the story into what I thought it should be. It wasn’t based on my client’s vision for his or her project, because I never tried to find out exactly what that vision was.
So before either slamming or praising a member’s writing, outstanding critique groups want to know how the writer sees her own story. “Tell us about this character,” they’ll ask. “Do you like him? Would you want to hang out with him? Why does your heroine love him? Why is he her destiny? How do you want your hero to change in the course of the story? Why did you set the story in this particular time and place? How will it relate to the lives of your readers? And how is this story reflective of you and your own values or struggles or fears?”
2. Great critique groups listen – carefully – to the writer’s answer.
After each question, the group will try to glean what might lie underneath the answer. They will press the writer to dig deeper into her subconscious to explain his choices.
3. Great critique groups point out where the writer’s vision and what he’s written on the page don’t connect.
These might be instances where what the group read or heard in the writer’s selected pages seems inconsistent with what the writer is saying he tried to do. Or there might be elements in the writing that simply diminished the group’s own emotional involvement in the story. Perhaps one of the group members was confused, or disbelieving, or bored. Or maybe a member simply didn’t like or empathize with a character. But members of the group always make clear that they are saying, “This is how I felt when I read this, and here’s why.” This is where a deep understanding of story isn’t necessary for a group to be helpful. Because an emotional response to anything is always legitimate, whether the reader can explain it or not.
4. Only THEN does a great critique group offer suggestions.
When the group has listened to the writer’s goals and vision, and pointed out their emotional reactions, they can now help the writer brainstorm possible ways of addressing these issues – always making certain that suggestions are simply that, and that other options might also improve the story and heighten its emotional impact. They might refer to past successful novels or films, and how those stories approached similar situations or characters. Or they might simply offer a “What if…?” and see where the group and the writer take that idea – keeping in mind that this is not a popularity contest, or a democracy. The best advice doesn’t win, because there is no “winning” – only a search for the idea that the writer feels is best for the story she wants to tell.
One more quality of a great critique group remains, but this one depends on you, when you’re on the receiving end of all this discussion:
5. In a great critique group, the author of the work being discussed ALSO listens carefully and responds.
All the great advice in the world does you no good if your goal is simply to defend everything you’ve written. Trust that your critique group is there to help and support you – not to debate with you. Allow yourself to take in all that is said. Record it if you possibly can, and if not, ask someone else in the group to take copious notes for you. When you’re not clear about someone’s comment, ask that member to explain it. And if you think they missed something in your work, say, “I thought I was addressing that issue when I wrote _______ . Do you know why that didn’t work for you? Did anyone else in the group have the same reaction?”
Even though challenging every comment and suggestion is unproductive, neither should you meekly withdraw without any reactions at all. Clarify what you don’t understand, and then join in the brainstorming. And when you hear suggestions you don’t like, say “That change doesn’t really work for me because _______. But what if I try_______ instead?”
Even if you’re happy with your critique group, suggest some of these changes at your next meeting. If they don’t work, your group can always go back to what it did before. (Or if the members of your group are so rigid they won’t consider changing, and they’re not really making you a better writer anyway, find another group.)
Just be aware that the critique groups that follow these guidelines are the ones that get thanked profusely whenever a writer comes to a podium to accept an award.
*** If you haven’t already, go to www.StoryMastery.com and sign up to be on my mailing list. When you do, we’ll send you a free list of Key Questions for Novelists or for Screenwriters. These can also be a good jumping off point for your critique group. And please let me know what happens when you trying implementing this process.
Michael has been one of Hollywood’s top script consultants, story experts, and speakers for more than 30 years, and is the author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and Writing Screenplays That Sell. Find out more about Michael here, check into his articles and coaching packages at Story Mastery, and catch up with him on social media.
YOUR TURN: What was your best critique group experience, and why? Alternatively, what was your worst experience? Let us know in the comments!