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Writer Wednesday: What's in a Critique?

Good morning authors and welcome to another Writer Wednesday. Today we are going to touch on a subject that has been circulating recently around the internet writing community. Have you ever received a critique that stopped you from writing a while? Responses to such a topic varied, but a disheartening number of authors admitted they'd received the sort of harsh critique that knocked the wind out of them. Critique that came from fellow authors, from educators, even from friends.

Writing is a tough business on many fields. Querying is rife with rejection and uncertainty. Going on submission is sitting in a void of holding. Submitting books for review is an unending well of anxiety. The entire foundation of writing is subjective. Reviewers can be absolutely brutal, a mindset of product over person. There is rarely a call for kindness when the book has been published. But before that point in a book's lifespan, it is vital for authors to learn to recognize critique versus 'cruelty' and that goes both ways.

What's In A Good Critique

Writing is a series of small acts of bravery. Putting yourself out there through a critique is one of them. A good critique partner is worth their weight in good, and a bad match...could put you off writing for a bit. A critique is not meant to simply shred a manuscript (that's an editor's job) but serves to point out possible flaws and structural weakness in a manuscript that an author can tackle before querying.

  1. Context- A critique needs context. What I mean by this is 'this element is not working in the story, this is why'. It is one thing to point out flaws in a manuscript but without any context or example to work from, how can an author course correct? It is one thing to say 'I hate this character' versus 'This character's actions here seem unnecessary and undermine their development.'

  2. The Vibe- What do I mean by this? I said a good critique partner is priceless. If your partner enjoys the genre or concept presented, it often changes their critical eye in comparison to a partner reading a genre they don't like and don't know well. You want a partner who can still point out flaws even if they enjoy the story, who will pick up on points that disrupt the flow of reading. This vibe goes both ways. It's important to recognize in yourself as a critique partner if you are not a good fit for someone's manuscript. If you find that you can't enjoy the story or concept, it could skew your subjectivity of elements that need to be tweaked and elements you don't like. A critique partner familiar with your genre will also have an eye for tropes and genre elements. There are some upsides to having a partner in a vastly different genre, but think of it in terms of a reader reviewing a story they don't like. Their subjectivity tips to preferences.

  3. It's Okay to Praise- Criticism, good or bad, can be hard to swallow. You pour so much of yourself in a piece of writing that is your vision. I am here to tell you, if you are in the position of Critique Partner, it's okay to put in pieces of praise. Stumble on an absolute gem of a sentence or a passage so good you read it twice? Leave a comment to let your partner know it was banging. Having a balance of criticism and praise in your critique is good practice and you want a partner who can offer the same. This isn't about self serving praise. This is about encouragement in a field that offers so little. A critique is not grading a paper, and there is still a level of subjectivity even if you do enjoy your partner's story (and vice versa).

Where is the line between Critique and Cruelty?

Where does the line fall? Sometimes a critique is harsher than it should be because the person did not enjoy the piece they were critiquing. This happens. It's not necessarily cruelty as it is a bad match. However, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed or tip over into the side of cruel vs harsh. If the critique slips from the writing to the writer behind the words, that's a big flag. Calling the writing juvenile or bad serves no purpose. That is subjective. What one person feels is juvenile in style another feels is accessible and easier to follow. Is the writing being called bad because of the structure? The character interactions? Are a character's actions unbelievable or is the world view of the critique partner vastly different? What is bad writing in context? What is bad writing when drafts are a constant work in progress? No writer starts out perfect. Or even necessarily good. We grow and learn with each story, each draft, that we write. Writing takes practice, it takes learning the basics of craft, and it's important to remember your own subjectivity in the formula. It's okay to step away and say 'I don't think I am the right person to critique this piece' if possible. (It is okay to vet stories and partners before putting in all the work.)

Is it necessary to build a 'thick skin' in this industry? Absolutely. Publishing requires a great deal of persistence and resilience. It requires us to brush off and not to dwell on the hundreds of rejections and subjectivity we encounter on the many levels of publishing. But when it comes to the practice of writing, because in critiques we are practicing the craft, there is space to encourage. This industry has a bad habit of pitting authors against one another, for lists, and shelf space, when the reality is readers read more than one book. They read more than one book in a genre. They like various tropes, writing styles, and character interactions. Every story has an audience, and when it comes to critiques, it is okay to take them with a grain of salt and remember even fellow authors are subjective. It's a matter of separating out the critique of craft elements from the subjective view of piece.

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