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The Writer’s Toolbox: Critiques, love ’em or hate ’em, they’re valuable

Most critiques are the plague of writers and create a lot of internal and external tension. I don’t know that anyone is completely unbiased whether they’re giving or receiving a critique. What you want is for someone to be able to acknowledge their biases and look past them. For most the word “critique” is loaded and channels an immediate negative response. A critique comes with criticism but it doesn’t have to be viewed as negative. A good critique should show you where you’re doing things right and where you need to do more work. A good critiquer has experience delivering the good with the bad and lessens the sting whenever possible.

Like most, I have my own biases. The trick is to acknowledge them and put them aside so I can focus on the work at hand. If I’m reading, say, a contemporary glitz book I let the writer know those are not my favorite stories to read. That doesn’t mean I can’t examine a work and question story elements that seem improbable, characters whose motivations appear out of sync, and writing that is confused, illogical and clearly needs work. Storytelling is storytelling no matter the genre. Yes, there are peculiarities to each genre but good writing and great storytelling transcend all.

A good critique or edit requires a lot out of the person on the receiving end but the creative drain that is occurring in the one who is peering under the surface of a work in progress can be time-consuming and difficult, too. Some writers have great sentence skills and craft wonderful pages that can be deceptive to both the reader and the writer. If you can’t get past the shine on the page, you might miss the weak, even decayed structure underneath that barely holds the story together. Often these writers have a hard time taking critiques because they are so gifted or so learned in their craft but their storytelling skills need work. Less experienced critiquers might give them a pass and just respond to the surface. Maybe they have an inkling of something being wrong but they just can’t pin point the problem. An experienced writer will look for those signals and begin the excavation of their work on their own. They will double-check everything to be sure their idea is fully expressed on the page.

Critiques come at a writer from two angles: storytelling and writing. The early stages demand a look at the storytelling. A good line edit isn’t going to hold you long if your story is flabby, weak, ineffective, disorganized, confused, or unbelievable. Line edits are like polishing the apple once it’s been ripened and picked. By then the structure has been built and its strength tested and gone over and over to make sure it will withstand future tests. Both are needed and both have their particular time when they take precedence in the timeline of a work’s creation. Many writers polish a structure that is on the verge of collapse. Then, because of all their effort spiffying up the surface, they become resistant to critiques that imply major structural changes. Who wants to throw out complete chapters or beautifully wrought sentences that have taken up so much of the writer’s precious time and energy? It takes a courageous writer to be willing to thrash a project’s structure and rebuild after they’ve invested so much in achieving perfection.

Most writers eagerly seek out criticism. New writers, in particular, have a tendency to want too much, too fast. And truth tell, what they really want to hear is that their story is stellar, their writing wonderful, and they’re far on the road to perfection; but in fact their work is far from it. Writers form an attachment to their stories early on.  Getting a critique during the first blush of a relationship can be damaging to both the writer and the work. Most new writers, and even some more experienced ones, are too quick to write and polish. In their rush to get everything down they leap to the assumption that they’ve gathered everything there is to find. In fact they’ve usually only excavated the top layer; they have not gone deep.

Learning how to receive critiques is as much a skill as giving them. It takes time and practice for both. It takes listening to a lot of critiques and monitoring your reactions to hear the bell within that tells you the critique has made a hit. You have to be able to ignore the rush of emotions and the sudden urge to defend that rises when a negative is raised. Learn to focus on the principle that is being discussed. The reader doesn’t like your main protagonist: they’re weird, they’re stupid, and they’re not believable. It’s not that your main protagonist isn’t everything you envision, it’s that you have not brought that person living in your head to life on the page. That can result in a line by line look at every sentence tied to your character to see where you have slipped up. You have not provided what is needed in order for that person to capture the true essence of the character.

Your job is to craft each and every word in a way that makes whatever is in your head bloom in the reader’s mind. That is not easy and it takes more than the rush to capture the story in lines of words. Writers allow themselves—myself included—to become so wedded to their words that the smallest criticism can ignite a passionate defense. The criticism may include a suggestion to fix the problem. Often the writer is really caught up in reacting to the proposed solution and forgets that the identified problem really does exist. Forget the offered solution. Focus on discovering what works to fix the problem. A critique is a response to the words on the page and not to your vision. Problems indicate that you have simply not done your job.

Over the years I’ve learned what works best for me. I don’t get input from others until I’ve completed a first draft. Until then I’m not 100% sure of my vision so it makes it difficult to judge any critiques of my work whether they’re positive or negative. I’ve also learned that when I’m in that sweet state of discovery any kind of input but especially the negative kind can throw me into a tailspin and stall me out. So I wait.

Where do you find good critiquers? If possible, seek out experienced writers or teachers who understand story and know the writing craft. I took a creative writing class at the local college and the teacher offered my first dose of criticism. There are good and bad ways to offer critiques. Story critiques, brainstorming, and line edits are all different. It takes practice to give them and it takes practice to receive them. A lot depends on where you are and what you want. If your structure is weak, a line edit won’t give you the most value. You may need to rewrite and even re-vision your story. A content critique is best from people who have a sense of story whether it’s been developed through reading or through classes. A line edit requires someone who knows and understands the craft of writing.

What you want is someone with a fresh eye who can read your work and give you their impressions. You want to know where they’re engaged, where they’re bored, where they’re confused. What you do NOT want is your family or friends hopping on the bandwagon and offering you praise, damning or otherwise. It seems to strike more deeply, I think, and most don’t know how to offer criticism that really helps. And trust me, they will not be as excited as you about your project.

My first critique group arose out of the second class in creative writing that I attended at the local college. Three of us met weekly for six years and we learned the craft together. Each had different strengths so it worked. Find someone in a class or at a writer’s group who shares your enthusiasm for a particular genre. Ideally if two or more of you are working in the same genre, that can be a great way to have a support group with the same goals and intentions and would be an inexpensive way to start.

If you’re in the first throes of an idea, I wouldn’t get in too much of a hurry to have someone read and line edit your work. Many writers love to brainstorm with others at this stage. That’s different. If, after having completed many, many revisions, you resist the idea of having any input, you might want to revisit that notion. Having fresh eyes earlier in the process saves most writers a lot of time and all writers find time to be a precious commodity. Respect your vision and your process. Be willing to be in for the long haul–and realize that writing is a craft that takes practice and commitment.

Many thanks to Amy who inspired today’s post. To see Amy’s question, go to DWP’s Facebook page and check out the Box tab for the discussion thread: What do you want to read, know, or have me share? While you’re there, why not become a friend (fan) of the blog….


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