Because I belong to a writer’s group that meets weekly, I both give and receive a lot of critiques. Our group has a few up-front rules, such as no attacking and no negative critiques that aren’t constructive. These basic rules work well to keep the group inviting and productive. That said, we still all have our unique styles as well as our good points and bad points.
First, a look at what makes for a good critique. Everyone has a unique perspective when reading. One of the biggest benefits in belonging to a critique group is that each member reads in their* own individual way. One of the challenges for a writer is to write in a way that appeals to the largest segment of their target audience, but that’s a whole other blog.
This difference in reading style is especially true when reading for review as opposed to just for enjoyment. I tend to be the proofreader: commas and typos and continuity. I sometimes miss larger plot issues. Another in our group is amazing at not only catching confusing elements in the plot but in explaining why it’s confusing. Yet another member has an excellent ability to analyze overall flow and point-of-view issues. It is a blessing to receive feedback from so many different viewpoints. Not only is my writing ultimately much better, but I’m also learning other things to watch for and correct or clarify before I even submit a chapter for review.
Good critiques also include a few “atta boys” as well. Pointing out especially great writing, or an awesome sentence, paragraph, or whole scene, not only helps balance the feedback (no one wants to hear about only what was wrong), it also helps a writer see where they are strongest and capitalize on that. Each member of our group has different strengths. One describes vivid worlds, another creates multi-dimensional characters, a third is a master with “I didn’t see that coming but it’s great” plot twists. It’s hard for most writers to be a master at every aspect of writing and we all strive to improve. That’s why we join critique groups in the first place.
I want to be clear that a “good” critique isn’t just a bunch of writers verbally patting each other on the back. The most valuable critique points out both the good and the bad. It leaves the writer with a feeling of moving in the right direction but still knowing where to consider making “course corrections” in the story. I love leaving our Thursday meeting already thinking about how to improve a character, modify an “out of character” behavior, or clarify a confusing plot point, before I’ve even started my car and headed for home.
What about “bad” critiques? What makes them bad (or at least not very good)? Obviously a critique isn’t an opportunity to stage an attack (e.g., “This chapter sucked.” or “I thought that was stupid.”), and I have no respect for the type of person who does that. Attacks don’t even have to be that blatant. Some people do the passive-aggressive critique, which is just as bad, both in how the recipient feels but also in the lack of value in the critique itself. For example, critiques that start with “I can’t believe you…” “Did you really think that…” “You obviously didn’t…” types of phrases are not being offered for their insight and help. They put the writer on the immediate defensive, reasonable communication shuts down, and the comment itself is likely pretty useless as far as helping the writer improve the chapter.
Every decent writer wants to know where there are issues, but feedback of the “that was stupid” variety aren’t helpful, they’re disheartening. Thankfully our current group includes no one who does this, but I’ve been in groups in the past that did. One particular group included a man who loved to be ugly. He would push and push until he made the recipient of his “helpful feedback” break down in tears. He wasn’t critiquing — he was bullying. Because the group organizers would never address his behavior I chose to leave the group.
Bad critiques can also sound positive but they ultimately are useless, which is where the “bad” part comes in. For example, if someone told me “I found one typo but other than that it’s perfect” I wouldn’t believe them. Chapters submitted for review are typically second or maybe third draft. I don’t for a minute believe I’ve already perfected the chapter and there’s no places that are confusing or where I could make improvements. I always get the sense that either the reviewer didn’t really take the time to read the chapter (Tammy Francis talks about his in her Everyone’s a Critic blog entry) or they’re lying for some reason (they hate it but don’t want to hurt my feelings, they love the idea of the story so are blind to the issues that remain, or they’re so lost they don’t even know where to begin).
I want to know where my issues are. I want my books to be the best they can be before I release them. I recently received one harsh comment about how frequently I’d apparently used one phrase. I got curious and counted. It was used 43 times in 70,000 words. Even more curious I searched for a similar phrase. It appeared over 200 times. Oops. Should have probably caught that (sometimes everyone in a critique group misses something). But what my experiment told me was that it wasn’t the frequency of the phrase, it was more likely that the reader didn’t personally like that phrase. If it would have been just about frequency the second phrase I searched for would have been a better target.
That’s one reason writers don’t always incorporate all suggestions. One person may hate a particular word or phrase but the writer chooses to use it anyway because it helps define a character or establish a sense of place. Most of us have a general rule of thumb that if one person doesn’t like something we may choose not to make any changes, but if two or three have the same issues with something then a change is probably called for.
Even writers who use traditional editors and publishers can benefit from a good critique group. A professional editor is certainly well worth the money and every writer should use one. Skilled editors catch more things than most people doing “casual” critiques (including other writers). It’s still one editor’s perspective, though, so a phrase that many readers will find confusing might seem fine to that editor. Or the editor may see a character as funny and eccentric but almost every reader will ultimately find annoying.
Have you read either of my novels — The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket or Born Rich? I’d love to hear your constructive feedback. I’m writing my next novel and lessons from earlier works only help improve on the new. I even want to know if you hated what you read, but honestly, only if you can tell me why you didn’t like it. No novel is for everyone so it’s natural for every writer to have people who don’t care for their writing. I have my own list of authors I’ll never read again. That’s just human nature. But if you hated it for a reason—you never could keep track of who was who; you never got any sense of place or time; you found the plot twists contrived or unbelievable; you wanted to know more about a location, plot element, or character and felt I dropped the ball; etc.—I really want to know. Both novels went through extensive edit and critique rounds and were as good as I could make them at the time. Could I improve on them? Probably. Any writer who believes that something they’ve written was so perfect it couldn’t be improved is either in deep denial or has a serious ego problem. That kind of attitude has killed more than one great series. I’d rather learn from past mistakes and grow than stagnate and ultimately fail.
* According to the Oxford dictionary, their is now an acceptable singular pronoun. I thought I’d best note that here before I got a bunch of feedback telling me how wrong I was.