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:
- settling into a new critique relationship
- hoping to revive a stagnant, too-polite group
- still see potential in an acrimonious one
- are avoiding a valuable opportunity, not by choice, but because you believe you have to feel crucified to learn.
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?
*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 expectations: Are you certain about what a colleague wants discussed in critique, and what’s off the table? If not, ask. Feedback is always more productive if it falls on receptive ground.
- Clear communication: You might be thinking, Duh, Jan, but it’s common for people to speak because they have the floor, not a considered opinion. Take time to gain clarity.
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.
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.”
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.
- Balance within a particular session: Most people have heard of the “shit sandwich” – namely, that feedback about what can be improved should be nestled between doses of what the writer already does well. Begin and end your critique-contribution on an up-note.
- Balance in quality: With safety and time, some authors can get to an almost egoless state, where they seek high-level critique and can act without delay or devastation, even if they have a lot of work ahead. This is not true of most writers, at least not at the beginning, and not within every project.Therefore, if you see room for improvement, triage. Address only the points that can be changed or modified, and only at the level to which the critique-receiver is receptive. Don’t overwhelm the individual. You can always go deeper later.
Remember that point about right-fighting above? If you cannot produce solid content on what you think they’re doing well, chances are you’re operating with a personal agenda. Be cautious.
- Balance within the arc of the group: If you have an issue with the world-building, character, or a significant plot element from the beginning of a manuscript, better to flag it early than wait until meeting ten and drop a huge bombshell.
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:
- replicate, because it’s masterful
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.
- The WU Community Facebook page  (!) Click on the link > go to the top of the page > Files > Critique Partnership.
- Ladies Who Critique 
- Meetup 
- Absolute Write Forums 
- Zoetrope 
- If you write for children, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 
If you’ve had a positive critiquing experience, what principles or policies are responsible? Please share in the comments!