Seeking Critique

Celestine Chua (CC/Flickr)

The story is now as good as I can get it on my own. It’s not as good as it can be. I’ve been through it so many times that I can’t tell the difference between what I was trying to say and what I wrote. I can’t judge whether those beautiful images are actually blindingly purple prose. I need someone else’s perspective, which is where critiquing comes in.

Critiques come from other writers. It’s not because writers are the best critiquers, although many are excellent. It’s because the only reason someone will take the time to read and critique an unfinished manuscript is because they want the favour returned. The drawback to getting critques from writers is that our idea of what we’re trying to write ourselves becomes our standard of quality, and we tend to critique through that filter. A single critique is a dangerous thing. Progress comes through having several critques and picking and choosing the suggestions that fit what you’re trying to do.

You won’t get any critiques without giving them. I’m not going to digress to the process of critiquing, but I’d recommend reading what Rich Hamper and Victory Crayne have to say on the subject before critiquing anyone.

Online or face to face?

Phil Hilfiker (CC/Flickr)

My first stop for exchanging critiques is the online Critters workshop. It covers all genres of writing, and has a program for dedicated novel critiquing as well as short stories. The only requirement is that you send three critiques every four weeks, which is hardly onerous. Having my work read for the first time and being told what’s wrong with it is not a particularly pleasant experience, and it was even harder when I was starting out. It’s much easier to take it from people I don’t know and never need to interact with again unless I want to. Having said that, I have kept up lengthy correspondences with people I started by exchanging critiques with.

Through Critters, I typically get 10-20 critiques on any short story I submit. They don’t all drip pearls of wisdom but the majority are good and a few are excellent. Critters has its detractors, but most people who run it down seem to give too much attention to the occasional prats (if you’re across the Pond, that’s jerks) who slip in. There aren’t many of them and they give themselves away quickly enough, so they can be ignored or better still, laughed at.

Alternatively, there may be a face to face writers’ group in your area. The social interaction in a face to face group is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that in a good group, it can take away the sense of being the only person in the world with that personality disorder of sitting on your bedroom throwing words on a page. The disadvantage is that it can be hard to give or take an honest critique while looking someone in the eye. Sometimes the writer gets upset or the critiquer backs off from making comments the writer needs to hear.

Assessing a writers’ group

Most of us have to fit our writing around work, study and/or family commitments, so spending an evening at a writers’ group is a significant investment of writing time. In my experience, writers’ groups range from the brilliant to the abysmal. Some groups have given constructive criticism, encouragement and lasting friendships. I have particularly fond memories of the Adamastor Writers’ Guild in Cape Town. Other groups were a waste of time. Once, I was the only person to turn up. I’ve heard horror stories of groups where members delight in ripping each other to shreds and demolishing one others’ confidence, though usually through a ‘friend of a friend’ so I doubt that sort of thing is as common as it’s sometimes made out.

As critiquing is always available from Critters, the wrong writers’ group is worse than no writers’ group at all. Before I commit to a group, I go along to a session or two to decide whether it’s worth it. No worthwhile group expects a first time member to bring a manuscript, so there’s time for a bit of observation from the sidelines. The following questions are worth asking:


Is the group doing what I’m doing?     I’m writing short stories in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and crime. If the group is full of people writing romance novels or short stories for the literary journals then they may be superb writers and wonderful people, but they’re not going to give me any useful comments.

Hayley Total Heliski (CC/Flickr)

What is the level of the group?     Most healthy groups have people at a range of levels, with a few fairly experienced writers, a lot of beginners and some in between. In that case, there’s room for a new member whatever their level is.

If a group has a more homogeneous experience level, it’s unlikely to be very helpful if you’re out of step with it. If you’re a beginner, being surrounded by experienced writers can feel like being the baby seal in the shark tank even if they have the best of intentions. If you feel like that, don’t go back. If you feel you’re operating at a level above anyone else in the group, it’s probably not helpful either.

What is the group dynamic?       In a healthy group, discussion and critiques flow freely irrespective of the level of experience of the critiquer and the writer. The more experienced writers share what they’ve learned with the beginners, but a beginner writer can be an insightful reader so the experienced writers listen to what they have to say.

It’s a bad sign if one member is treated as some sort of guru, and placed at the apex of a one-way flow of wisdom. It’s an even worse sign if they charge for the privilege of their company. Asking for a contribution to the cost of a venue is one thing, but anyone who thinks their presence is worth your money had better have a list of writers they have mentored to success, and I don’t mean they once trapped them at a convention bar and lectured them on how to write for an hour.

Are the critiques useful?     If critiques are not thorough and incisive, they are not helpful. For all the tales of over-aggressive critiquing, the opposite problem is far more prevalent. If nobody wants to say anything negative, a writer who submits a flawed story can leave the session thinking she’s going to win the Pushcart Prize. After five years spent wondering why nobody will publish her masterpiece instead of developing her skills, she gives up writing in despair. It’s much easier to assess how good the critiques are when it’s someone else’s work being critiqued, which is another reason for taking a couple of sessions of observation.

benjamin sTone (CC/Flickr)

Do they consider the whole story?     Every group I’ve found helpful has a system for ensuring that the commentary is offered on a whole story, or at least a substantial excerpt from a novel. I’ve run across groups that ask people to read an excerpt aloud as the subject for critique. Reading time is usually limited to a few minutes, so only the first few hundred words get critiqued. It’s possible to work a lot of flaws into the first few hundred words, in which case it can be useful. It’s also possible to get them just right and still have structural problems that arise later which such an approach will miss. I know some people who swear by the read-aloud approach so I’m won’t dismiss it out of hand, but I would suggest thinking about whether it’s what you really want.

Another advantage of making sure the stories get passed around before the critiquing starts is that everyone has time to form their own opinion. When the discussion comes immediately after the reading, it tends to revolve around the first point mentioned and never moves beyond that.


Wherever you decide to go for your feedback, make sure you see how the process works from the perspective of a critiquer before your own work comes up for critique. Then take a deep breath and throw your own story into the ring.


Exercise:

Find a critique group. The default option is Critters, which takes about five minutes to sign up for. If you think a face to face group might be for you, see if you can find out what’s in your area. If Google doesn’t turn anything up, it can be worth asking local libraries and looking at Meetup. Go to a couple of sessions and see if it’s worth going back. Whether you’re online or face to face, offer up a couple of critiques and try to get a feel for how it works. It’s your turn next.

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