Thursday, October 04, 2012

What kind of critique works for you?

Over on my other blog at, I did a series of posts a while ago about how to critique different kinds of writing - picture books, fiction, poetry etc. It seems that the picture book critique post is really popular! It got me wondering though - when writers ask for a critique, what do they hope for?

I'm pretty tough with my critiques. Tough but fair, I hope. But more importantly, I try to give the work some distance and thinking time, and come up with some suggestions or examples of where the work might go. Not "Write it this way" or "This is what you should do" but "Have you thought about setting it somewhere different? Or trying a different POV? Or cutting the first three pages?"

I've been in one writing group for more than 20 years. Sometimes we acknowledge that we are good friends, and that we are sometimes too used to each other's work. It's a challenge to get beyond that. Any critique group is going to have a range of opinions and different levels of experience. But paid critiques are a whole different thing.

I've been teaching writing for a very long time, and workshopping and commenting on student writing all along. If I have learned one thing, it is this - not everyone can or wants to hear feedback. Not wanting to is normal. We all feel like that. Writers who have books accepted for publication often express shock at their editor's letter. The finely detailed feedback can sink you into depression for days! But it's all designed to make your book better, so it pays to listen.

But what about "can"? We assume that if a writer puts their work out there for comment (in a group, a class or even a paid critique) that they will take it all on board and use it. Not so. Sometimes it all seems too hard. Easier to move onto another book or story, especially if you've done five drafts already. Sometimes a writer puts their work out way too early. Honestly, raw first draft writing shouldn't be critiqued. Especially if you haven't finished the whole thing. Some critical feedback on your first chapter can be enough to derail the entire novel. And your confidence.

My feeling is that being able to hear feedback and make good use of it requires a few things:

* Being able to put aside your ego
* Being willing to do major revision if it's needed
* Knowing enough about the craft to put the comments to good use
* Knowing enough about the craft to understand the comments!
* Being willing to let go of what isn't working
* Being open to radical shifts if it will energise the story and give it a big lift
* Being willing to shut and and just listen instead of defending or arguing

What works for you in a good critique?


Kirstie said...

I want an honest critique. That is the most important thing to me. I want to be told what you felt were my weak points and if you loved anything. But I also want the critiquer to be aware that is their opinion and if I do not agree I may not change anything. I'm talking about writer's group and friends critiques here, I've yet to do a paid critique but hope to soon.
I do accept that I may need to make major changes when I receive a critique. For example the first piece I submitted to my writer's group. It was unanimous that my main character was not the most likeable girl, so 12,000 words later (a lot more words than just what I submitted) she has made a better first impression. I loved who she was originally, but I love her even more now.
I love feedback. It's a chance to grow both as a writer and a person.

Sherryl said...

I agree - a critique can also help us see the story with different eyes. Sometimes we write things and think they are one way, and then find other readers see it entirely differently. Your unlikeable character is a great example!

paul's pen n paint said...

All writers want feedback. But new writers need “feeding”, being shown the way without having their egos crushed, and their work abandoned. The way to being a better writer is a willingness to listen to good constructive feedback. The newbie writer must have an open mind, to accept that a steep learning curve is needed, and not expect their first draft to be ready for publishing.

Sherryl said...

Yes, you definitely want different kinds of critiques, depending on where you are with your writing. Confidence is a fragile thing.

Unknown said...

I want a critique who knows what he's talking about. Honest but in due respect with my works. I want a critique who contemplates on the work rather than the author.
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