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I'm considering opening up my current work in progress to critique. In the past I haven't had very much luck with the local writer's group, but I'm willing to try again. Maybe not with them, but definitely with some writer's support forum, somewhere.

The writer's group I used to associate with would normally take an excerpt from another member's novel, short story or what have you and then promptly proceed to beat the living hell out of it.

I think that model might be flawed and what should be critiqued is not the individual excerpts but the overall cohesiveness of the plot. Almost anyone can make a bunch of pretty words, but that doesn't fix a broken story.

Then again, the best story in the world wouldn't be worth reading if it's full of bad writing and grammatical errors.

So, is it more important in a writer's group (or other similar writer's support forum) to focus on critiquing plots for problems and improvements or to continue to focus on critiquing excerpts in order to improve the quality of writing?

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I don't see why this should be a binary decision. Both types of critiques are extremely helpful; I see no reason why they should be mutually exclusive (indeed, they work best when complementing one another). Bring a summary or a query one week and an excerpt a different week, or both together. –  Standback May 9 '12 at 8:30
    
@Standback - I agree, but I think the value in this question is showing when each type of critique is appropriate, and what their strengths are. –  Neil Fein May 11 '12 at 2:50
    
@NeilFein: Then I'm afraid I don't understand the question. Except in extreme cases, both types of critique are always beneficial. A structure critique is for structure; a style critique for style. As well to ask "should I have the even-numbered pages of my story critiqued, or the odd?". –  Standback May 11 '12 at 6:54
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Critiquing specific text is important, but you can always improve the writing. If the book has structural problems, weak characters, or sections that don't mesh with each other, then these larger issues need to be addressed before you worry about the language.

It sounds like you don't have a clear idea where (or if) your manuscript is weak. That being the case, can you specifically ask your group to critique the structure only? Rightly or not, writers' groups have a rep for being overconcerned with language. However, groups that concern themselves with plot and structure do exist. I suggest you make certain the structure is sound either through such a group, or have a beta reader you trust (and who will be brutal) evaluate the manuscript/outline.

If you're really stuck, you can always hire an editor to go through the manuscript/outline and give you feedback. Look for someone who specializes in developmental editing.

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This makes really good sense. What's the point of getting the style and details of an excerpt right (from the perspective of getting the project done) if the structure is wrong and that excerpt may have to be thrown out or largely rewritten anyway? (I understand that you can always learn from a critique of your work.) In a way, this whole discussion sounds just like top down design verses bottom up design in software. They're fundamentally different points of view, but they can be used together when it makes sense. –  Joe May 13 '12 at 19:11
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I agree with Neil. It doesn't matter how pretty it sounds if the plot is weak. Present your plot first, in outline, bullets, summary, however it makes sense, and have them beat the crap out of that first. Once you have a solid plot, then you can worry about getting down on paper.

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It is very much about where you think you can gain most from. You may have a brilliant plot, but find that you write it with the fluency of a plank of wood, or you may have the writing style of Iain Banks*, but such a loose and implausible plot that it makes no difference**.

From what you have said, a critique of the plot might, at this point, be more productive for you, and if you can include some more finished written work, to give an idea of how it might look, they can be done together. But get the plot sorted first, write some of the story on a good quality plot, and then see whether you need the same sort of critique of that, or whether something different would work for you.

*Well, I like his style, at least.

** OK, he gets away without a plot sometimes. But then, he is pretty unique.

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I am not a great fan of Writer Groups. I don't think a story should be submitted for critique until it is completed. Otherwise just a single critism will cause the writer to lose heart to a degree. Of all the successful published writers I don't know any who show their developing works for critique.

If you have identified a problem and want a solution then that is a different matter. State the problem, and seek the solutions.

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I would qualify that Writer Groups for finished work are fine - that's useful feedback on (what should be) a ready piece. But yeah, dissecting rough works-in-progress has little value (except maybe motivation...), and is likely to confuse your writing mid-process. –  Standback May 11 '12 at 7:02
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It's two sides of the same coin; it's two different kinds of reviews. A plot with too many holes and weak points will make a crummy book, but shoddy writing will spoil even the keenest of plots.

Which is "more important" to review? That would depend on the author. Proficient writers may need help with plot; strong storytellers might need help with writing. Odds are, however, that most writers would derive benefits from both kinds of review, particularly if the reviewers are skilled and constructive.

Trying to decide which is "more important" makes for an interesting academic exercise, but, ideally, both plot and writing would be thoroughly examined over the course of time. It depends on where you are in the writing, and what needs to be reviewed at that stage. The review process is very different for each.

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