Critique: How to Judge It, and Does it Help?
Figuring out the process of critique
A reader asks:
Everyone says to join a writers group for crits. How in the hell do I meet other writers? How do I know they are giving me good advice? Does it really help?
This question crossed the column I wrote on finding writer communities when it came in. So that was the first part of this question — how to meet other writers, which can indeed be frustrating!
But the other parts of this question I think are very useful to dig into. Let’s examine them in reverse order:
Does critique really help?
…depending on the critiquer. Not all critiquers are created equal, and though almost all the ones I’ve worked with have been excellent, I do know of cases where a beta was more unhelpful than helpful. Sometimes this is well-intentioned, and happens because the critiquer simply didn’t understand what the writer was trying to do, or was a mismatch for the genre or style, and tried to push the piece in a direction that made the writer second-guess things that other people would love. In rare cases this can have an uglier side, like an arrogant critiquer who thinks they know all, or someone who makes comments from a place of bigotry about editing characters of particular races, cultures, sexual orientations, or gender identities.
But in general, critiques are useful for many of the following things:
Pointing out weaknesses in your writing you’re too close to see
Flagging places that are confusing or where a reader is losing interest
Letting you know whether the emotional resonances you’re going for are working
Giving you a broader perspective on the ways people might react to characters or situations you’ve written
and much more. For a lot of this stuff, most writers have difficulty seeing it themselves because we know what we’re trying to do, so it’s hard to notice if we’ve accidentally left something off the page.
But in my opinion, equally useful to receiving critique is giving it! Giving critique is, bar none, the most effective thing I’ve done to strengthen my own writing. The reason for this is that when I started reading and commenting on other people’s fiction critically, I started to be much more aware of the mechanics of what was making something work. In turn, I noticed a drastic level-up in what I was able to notice and fix in my own writing.
Every writer is different, of course. But I think giving and receiving critique is one of the steps in developing writing craft that, rather than many different writers having different opinions on its efficacy, is pretty universally seen as helpful and necessary. It can be difficult and a lot of hard work — both learning how to give it and learning how to receive and process it — but the time and effort is well worth the return.
And it won’t only help your craft. Learning to receive critiques and revise off them helps you learn process — which is vital once you start working with an editor.
How Can I Tell If a Crit Is Helpful?
It can be hard! Even your best critiquers may sometimes miss the mark, and it’s a difficult learning process to sort through what crits resonate with you and are important to fix, which ones you can address in a different way, and which are ones you think aren’t the book or story you’re trying to write.
My rule of thumb is that if a critique resonates me — if I read it and think, “oh, shoot, I see that!” — then it’s definitely something I want to fix. If more than one person brings it up, it’s also something I definitely want to address. And I also weight things more heavily if it’s something like reader confusion rather than a style suggestion.
Here are some more general tips:
Choose your critiquers well. Most of my regular betas are people I saw critique in public first on a site like Absolute Write, and where I was impressed by their perspicacious opinions. Try to choose people whose opinions and abilities you respect, and you’ll be getting crits you can trust.
Learn to sort through what you want to fix. This is one of the things that critique is most useful for — learning the thinking and sorting process of which crits to address and how to revise to strengthen things. You can start with rules of thumb like the ones I listed as using myself above, but receiving and revising off crit is a skill like any other, and don’t feel overwhelmed if it takes you some time to learn. And this is the skill that will stand you in very good stead if you go into traditional publishing.
Use more than one critiquer, especially if you’re still questioning your ability to differentiate helpful versus not helpful. That way you can use the trick of seeing if more than one person is reacting the same way, or you can ask a second critiquer if they had a similar reaction to the first if you’re vacillating over taking a crit.
You can still disagree. In the beginning, it’s easy to feel like one shouldn’t ever disagree with one’s critiquers, that it’s somehow arrogant and a refusal to learn. This probably stems from the fact that there are overly-entitled writers out there who absolutely refuse to learn from critique, argue with their critiquers (don’t do that!), and always think they know best. But it actually is fine to make a carefully-considered opinion that you disagree and that you’re not going to take a crit. Just don’t go and rub it in your critiquer’s face or something — after all, they’re still doing you a big favor, and these things are subjective. Thank them sincerely and then do what you decide is right for your manuscript.
People often think it’s easy to write a smashing novel on the first try right out of the gate — for most people, it isn’t. For most of us, it’s a skill that takes a lot of effort and practice to get to that point. And giving and receiving critique is absolutely one of the things that can be a very helpful part of that effort and practice. I highly recommend it!