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CORBS: 5 Letters That Can Keep the Drama on the Page and Out of Your Critique Group

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“That’s an offensive question. You have the bedside manner of pink slime. I wouldn’t talk to you about sex if you were the last doctor on Earth.”

In medical school, it’s common for students to practice clinical skills within small groups. They interview a professional actor who’s been coached in a particular role, then receive feedback from their peers, instructors, and the so-called “patient.”

I taught Human Sexuality. Each year, as a fresh crop of students filed into my room – some puffing out their chests in a display of bravado, some slinking to their chairs and staring longingly at the door – it was clear they anticipated feedback like the dialogue above.

Scary, wouldn’t you agree? Particularly in such a personal realm.

Fortunately, I had M. Therese Cave as a mentor, and she dialed down the emotionality by providing a critiquing framework. Once we established and modeled the ground rules, small groups became safe and valuable places to learn. (Not necessarily comfortable, you’ll note, but safe.)

So let me pass the model on to you, shifted subtly to reflect the writing world.

You might find the CORBS model helpful if you’re:

I’d suggest you discuss the principles in your critique group first, before doing actual work on manuscripts. Seek adoption through consensus.

One final note: CORBS doesn’t fix everything, of course. We had actors who gave inappropriate feedback, and participants who delighted in carrying personal grudges into the group, but that’s what facilitators are for, right?

*cracks knuckles*
*allows self to indulge in momentary nostalgia for her ball-busting days*

For similar reasons, some critique groups choose to establish a moderator – a goodwill-code enforcer, if you will pardon a touch of irony.

CORBS Model of Critique

CORBS = Clear, Owned, Regular, Balanced, Specific

Clear

Many groups rely upon oral, real-time feedback for the bulk of critique, with written notes provided as an afterthought. Trouble is, between the sheer quantity of information, and the emotionality of a critique experience, writers can become overwhelmed. They miss valuable insights.

In addition, it might be days or months before an individual is able to edit. When they’re ready, it’s a gift to be able to turn to clear, comprehensive notes.

Written records are particularly important for groups that call for silence on the part of the critique-recipient – one strategy to limit defensiveness, though not my personal favorite.

For all these reasons, I’m a big fan of providing a clear, written record.

Owned

Though it can be challenging to remember, your feedback is only your opinion, and right-fighting – that is, arguing to establish who is right, and who must therefore be deeply, deeply wrong – is one of the most frequent poisons to infiltrate the critiquing-well.

Keep on the right track by using “I/ me/ my” statements, rather than “you.” You get bonus points for showing genuine humility.

Example: “Maybe it’s just me, but I thought she was in love with him, so I find this statement confusing. I interpret it to mean she’s after revenge.”

Regular

If you’ve agreed to a critiquing schedule it, honor it, explain it, or renegotiate.

Timeliness is important. If a writer submits a chapter for critique, then waits for feedback to trickle in, it’s harder to learn and discern patterns, harder to commit to that rewrite.

In addition, in case you haven’t noticed, writers are sensitive creatures. If you disappear shortly after they proffer work for critique, their imaginations will go into overdrive. (Generally to supply an ominous explanation, like the idea you hate their piece so much, you’d rather hide than render a verdict.)

It’s hard for a group to feel safe when participation is constantly in flux.

Balanced

Specific

In my opinion, specificity is the quality that leaves a writer feeling energized after critique rather than defeated. Even if the to-revise list is long, it’s concrete and actionable.

As you construct your feedback, try to point out the passages or points which you’d like to see them:

It’s helpful to provide a rationale, too, so the recipient can judge the value of your feedback against their particular goals.

The more specific you can be, the more likely the recipient will learn their personal strengths and vulnerabilities, the faster they’ll become self-correcting.

Better to say, “I think you have a knack for nailing the absurd, as shown by this phrase,” for instance, than, “You are so funny.”

Ready to look for a critique group? Check out these places, as supplied by the very helpful participants on WU’s Community Facebook Page.

If you’ve had a positive critiquing experience, what principles or policies are responsible? Please share in the comments! 

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About Jan O'Hara [8]

A former family physician who once provided birth-to-death healthcare, Jan O'Hara [9] has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. (See? Win-win scenarios really do exist.) She lives in Alberta, Canada and is hard at work on the successor to her debut novel, Opposite of Frozen [10].