On Critiques

This is not critiquing

Over a year ago I joined a writer’s critique group. I already knew one member from a separate writing group (he was the one that invited me) but didn’t know the others. Each month we would (separately) read and critique a submitted piece from each member so that everyone got some benefit.

I was working my way through my first novel at that point, and figured that additional eyes could only help. I’d only yet had an alpha reader looking at my stuff, and while she gave encouragement and general feedback it wasn’t a full-fledged critique.

I decided to give it a go.

The other members came from varied backgrounds. The one who invited me was a world traveler who had spent many years as an English teacher. Another was an ex-journalist who was now selling lifestyle articles to various magazines. Others had completed short stories or novels already. All had been published in one form or another, so I was clearly low man on the totem pole.

The first thing I learned in Critique Group was to thicken my skin. No matter how masterful I thought my writing was, there is always room to improve it. I remember being “somewhat less receptive” to some suggestions early on, but after a while came to realize that they were all intended to help me improve the work.

This was a hard lesson to internalize, and here’s why.

Years ago when my company was being acquired and shut down, they arranged for the employees to attend a resume-writing workshop. We were cycled through in small groups, and our resumes were picked apart and improved. I was one of the last to attend, and having talked with others that had gone through the process I tailored mine to follow the lessons they’d learned.

When my turn came, I brought my new and improved resume to the workshop. The first instructor liked it very much. (She should have – it did everything she taught us it should do!) She even asked if she could use a copy as an example in her future classes. I was pleased.

The second instructor conducted resume reviews. When she got to mine, she found a bunch of stuff that wanted me to change. When I reasoned through her suggestions, however, I found they were either minor points or flat out wrong. Seemingly, she took her job as critic to mean she had to criticize, whether there was something wrong or not.

The Critique Group was not that kind of criticism. They were actually trying to help. They pointed out issues with character motivation, with the flow of the narrative, with details that I’d glossed over or omitted. Of course they pointed out typos and grammar issues and the like, but their focus was on making the overall story stronger.

My own critiques of their work, sadly, weren’t nearly as good. I’ve always been a good proofreader, but I was learning that good critique is much more. It didn’t take me long to realize I was getting better feedback than I was giving, and I needed to up my game.

It’s been quite a while since that first meeting, and I think my contributions have gotten more helpful. I can tell by the feedback I get now vs then that my writing craft has likewise improved.

So…

If you’re out there struggling with your articles, short stories, or the next great novel, take heart. Find yourself a critique group. Listen to what they have to say, and try your damndest to help their storytelling improve.

P.S. Much thanks to my critique group. I know I haven’t helped you nearly as much as you’ve helped me, but I’m trying!

2 thoughts on “On Critiques”

  1. So true, every word! An editor once told me I should change my entire 150,000-word manuscript from multiple-narration chapters to single-narration chapters. It took months to dissect and rearrange dialogue and settings, but it made the book so much better.

    1. That kind of wholesale change is what most distresses me about the editing process – finding out there’s a fundamental problem with my approach to the story.

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