Give a Good Critique

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As a writer working in secret for decades, I’ve seldom shared my work with other authors. After a college writing class in which another student dismissed my work in one word, ‘boring,’ I walked away from further opportunities to share my stories. I walked away from writing altogether for a time. “If I’m boring,” I thought, “What am I doing this for?” Encouraging comments from my instructor were some comfort, but that student’s remark eroded my confidence. I wouldn’t commit ideas to paper again for over a year; I wouldn’t complete another story until my early 40s.

The greatest failing of the common writer’s group, this notion that a community of working writers will help one another polish and sell pieces, is that it doesn’t account for actual writers. Through friends who have invested in writers’ groups, authors’ clubs, expensive seminars, the occasional high-tone conference, I’ve heard the same refrain. Agony, a budding story torn to shreds, every grammar mistake debated, the writer’s dignity in tatters. Even worse, she might recount an evening spent talking about other members’ stories, while her own was passed over. “Nice try for a first draft,” someone might say, forgetting the hours the author has spent ideating, translating to the written word, sweating the details, urging characters and plots into life.

Why would one writer do this to another? Shouldn’t a fellow writer, more than anyone, be in tune with the emotions that accompany our craft? Don’t we remember how fragile we are when we first introduce our ‘babies,’ praying they will be seen for what they are, precious newborns in need of a creative ‘safe space’ in which to find their feet?

Many writers focus so much

on what they will receive,

they come unprepared for group meetings,

interested only in what they will hear

about their own pieces.

Too often, writers go into critique groups for one thing only: to receive quality critiques we can use to improve our work. Receive. Many writers focus so much on what they will receive, they come unprepared for group meetings, interested only in what they will hear about their own pieces. If they have thought about comments to give their fellow writers, it is only to correct punctuation. If they’ve thought a little harder, they might suggest the writer can improve her story by adopting the critic’s writing style. 

“Your story is dull. Your characters aren’t believable. I’ve marked the grammar mistakes (I used to be an English teacher).” Critique groups are rife with these responses. What happened to ‘constructive criticism?’ Where is the thoughtful response to the story’s content? Does anybody here know what ‘human kindness’ means? Many writers emerge from these experiences scarred, bitter and ready to quit–the exact opposite of the group’s intended function.

What’s missing is the willingness of every member to give a good critique. Writers come looking for what they will receive from the collected wisdom of the group. But who will give that insight if every member thinks only of his own work, when none of them have really read the pieces shared by others? It’s crucial to reopen what should be a two-way street. When a writer commits to a group, his concern should be the pieces of his fellow writers, treating each as if it were his own, responding with as much care and detail as he would like to receive when it’s his turn to hear comments.

What’s missing is the

willingness of every member to

give a good critique.

What if we stopped trying to change each other’s style? What if we realized that our own approaches to the process might only apply to ourselves, not the other writers we exchange stories with? What if we stopped picking on each other’s grammar? I’m talking to you, former English teacher (and every other nit-picker). Marking my missed commas and run-on sentences doesn’t help me at all; what do you think of my story?

After years spent writing alone, I found a writing partner. She’s more ambitious than I, writing full-length novels and keeping a busy schedule outside of writing. As a result, I scale back on how many pieces I send to her; I might go months without ever sending any of my stories. But I have hundreds of her pages backlogged in my files, whole novels she has sent chapter by chapter. I spend time every week looking at what she has shared, poring over the words she’s poured her heart into. Our styles couldn’t be more different, but it doesn’t stand in the way of reading her stories. And there’s a hidden benefit that I never expected.

When I engage with

[my writing partner’s] stories,

review them with intention,

look for ways I would like

to be helped if the piece were mine,

my own stories improve.

Though I rarely ask for my partner’s feedback on my own stories (wanting to be sensitive to her tight schedule and busy life), the responses I make to her work enlighten my own. “This is the way she does it,” I think. “This is how she builds a chapter, how she creates a story arc.” Her way is not my way. But it doesn’t matter. When I engage with her stories, review them with intention, look for ways I would like to be helped if the piece were mine, my own stories improve. They get picked up. They appear on websites and online journals. Without ever having asked my partner to look at the pieces, I know how to improve them from one draft to the next, having read what she has done with hers.

No process works for every writer. No method can give us a guarantee. It’s worth remembering who we are and what drives us. We’re seeking to be read, to have our stories shared and appreciated by people we haven’t met yet. We’re burning up with the stories we’re trying to get out, at the cost of losing them altogether through careless deconstruction, tone deaf responses, and reduction to so many punctuation mistakes. Writers write. Writers can’t live without writing. When we are fortunate enough to find a fellow writer willing to share, we must read with as much fire as we write, warming each other with praise and encouragement instead of pushing one another into the cold.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah Mehegan says:

    This insightful piece gets to the heart of the purpose and necessity of a really good critique for new writers while emphasizing that the right critique can impact all writers for improving their writing and give their readers what they crave – a really great read. Thanks Jennifer, for such a well stated and positive commentary on the process of creating legitimate and high quality work. I and my fellow readers today are starving for something great and memorable to read. It has become more and more difficult for us to find. You are definitely on the right track. Praying for your success.

    Like

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