Thursday, April 12, 2012

Critiquing Can be Weird

First of all, critiquing can be valuable! In fact, not "can be," but is. I belong to a face-to-face critique group that's been meeting for at least 16 years, maybe longer; I'm not quite sure. And I've been critiqued in other situations: conferences, one-time manuscript exchanges, even in a second crit group (online) for a short time. Besides critiquing for my long-time partners, I do a whale of a lot of critiquing as an ICL instructor, I've served on critique faculties for conferences, and I even run a fairly frequent critique contest on this blog. But, sometimes, critiquing can be weird.

For one thing, it's so subjective. One person's "Ugh" is another person's "Couldn't put it down till 4am." A personal rule of thumb I've come up with is this: If TWO people say something is wrong at a certain spot, something is wrong at that spot. They may or may not agree on how to fix it, and you may or may not take either or both suggestions. But you have to find a way to answer the objection.

For another thing, it's the critiques that make you feel worst at the time you receive them that often turn out to be the most helpful. I've found that it's sometimes best to put the raw, torn-to-shreds thing to bed for three days or so while you kvetch, and then take it out and look at it. By then, I usually "know that I know that I know" which parts really do need to be overhauled, and which advice I'm going to decline and why. And specific ideas for solving the problems are usually beginning to form.

Then there's the irony that a critique group may not always help all that much. Sometimes, frankly, if all the members are newbies they are the blind leading the blind, and I know some agents advise their clients to get out of critique groups that are "holding them back." It's often best to join a group that has a mix of newer and more seasoned writers, and/or to be sure the people in the group are seriously working to improve craft, have studied and written long enough to have gained at least basic knowledge, read widely, and know something about the field in which you write.

Here's one more thing I find a tad strange: critiquing is the process of identifying what is and isn't working in a piece of writing, and there is "always" something that can be improved. Except ---certainly there are times when writing that is actually ready to be marketed is submitted for critique. We, as critiquers, feel duty-bound to find something "wrong," but there have to be times that nothing is wrong, because the piece is in fact ready to send out. We submit our work knowing that an agent or editor will have revision notes for us, but the work is still the best we can make it at the moment, or we wouldn't send it out. Yet if we were to take that ready-to-go work to a critique group, they'd be "supposed" to find something wrong with it.

Maybe I'm just getting silly here, or maybe I'm easily tied in knots. :) How have you found critiquing either frustrating, helpful, or both?

21 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

This is such a great question. After belonging to Critique Circle for a few years I've done hundreds of critiques and received hundreds. I always look at where that person is. yes, sometimes they're hard to take but lately I've relied more on beta readers than chapter to chapter critiques. And I've almost always taken their advice and rewritten because I have smart friends!

Barbara Watson said...

Your advice about 'if two people find a certain area a problem' is solid, otherwise the critique is simply one person's opinion. Your last paragraph is great too -- and a push I needed right now.

Annie McMahon said...

I wouldn't be where I am today without my critique group. They've helped me tremendously! I learned something from every review I've received. And I learned just as much by reading and critiquing others, by identifying what works or what doesn't work in a novel. Priceless. Great post, Marcia! And thanks for the 500-word critique you did for me recently. I still have to reply.

TC Avey said...

I haven't found an actual critic group yet and honestly at the moment I don't have time to devote to such a group. However, the limited experience I have had with having friends read my work has been pretty good. They were brutally honest at times and it helped give me perspective. I hope someday soon to join and actual group.

Faith said...

I feel similarly convinced that critiques are necessary and confused about the extent to which they are necessary. I'm blessed to share critiques with some wonderful writers; we know each other well enough now to be able to critique more effectively, and we also know that it's okay to say, "Don't change anything!"

Faith E. Hough said...

(Sorry, left a comment with the wrong account there...it's really me. :)

Mirka Breen said...

You hit all the spots I would have, only better. You are much more experienced at this, so what I say here may have little weight. But here are the three points I remind myself of before writing feedback to a requested critique: 1. it’s not my story, it’s the other writer’s. 2. It should not be the way I’d write it. No fussing over ‘voice,’ because it’s theirs. And 3. It doesn’t matter if I like it, or if it’s even the sort of story I would ever like. I say something if I see something that could improve it on its own terms.
All of it amounts to ‘it’s not about me.’

inluvwithwords said...

So true, critiques are tricky on so many levels. But they are invaluable, so I guess we have to keep feeling our way along. I often submit work to my critique group that I feel is ready to submit. To me that seems like the best time for feedback. While it's still in process too much outside input can sidetrack me.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Critiquing can be weird. So many elements have to work well and work well together. I was a member of a critique group that turned out to be more of a social gathering. Fun, but not great for the manuscripts and time consuming. Now I exchange work with trusted writer friends.

Marcia said...

Laura -- I do think beta readers can be of more help than a crit group when you write novels, because you need people who can see the big picture.

Barbara -- Yes, the subjectivity of any one person's critique can really spook you. It's helpful to really know your people, so you have some sense of whether it's coming mainly from their taste, or if it's a more objective thing such as "This passage really does need to be shown, not told."

Annie -- I agree that you learn by critiquing as well as being critiqued. It's just another example of receiving through giving! And you're welcome. :)

TC -- It's true that belonging to a group takes a time commitment. My group meets monthly. I've heard of ones that meet weekly or even TWICE a week, and I'm not sure how they do it.

Faith -- I know -- we all have multiple accounts for everything these days, right? I knew it was you, though. :) I have to confess I published the majority of my work before I ever joined my group, just to add one more point of confusion.

Mirka -- Those are so right on. They all add up to "The story belongs to the author, and I have to figure out how to help while keeping that in mind."

Ruth -- Yes! I think critiques are the most valuable when we've already gotten the work to as high a level as we can at the moment. If we go into a crit KNOWING that x, y, and z have to be changed, and the critiquer points out x, y, and z, possibly we've wasted our time and theirs.

Cynthia -- My group has been together for so long that we spend a good hour chatting and catching up before we get down to business. But it's part of who we are now. I think I've struck a good balance between our group meetings and one-on-one ms. exchanges as needed.

Andrea Mack said...

Great post! I don't think I'd have learned as much about writing as I have without my critique group (and I haven't even met them all in person). It took me a while to find them, but they are my biggest supporters--and teachers.

cleemckenzie said...

I'm so fortunate to have three critiquing partners with keen eyes and honesty. They don't alway agree, but they definitely nudge me to reconsider things in my manuscript. Even if they are exact opposites in their comments, that gives me a chance to consider what those opinions mean. I often see a better way handling that scene, or character bit.

I love posts about critiquing, especially ones that go to the heart of this process.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

I've had that exact same thought about critiquing, both giving and receiving. Sometimes it's just, ready. When I start receiving critiques that have nothing but "splitting hairs" type feedback, I take that as a sign it's ready for my agent. He'll have thoughts, too.

Medeia Sharif said...

Great post, Marcia. My first face-to-face critique group was full of newbies and they were unhelpful. I left and joined a group that was mixed with newbies, agented, and published types. That group has made me grow as a writer.

My group is gentle and supportive, but sometimes it does feel like I'm barraged by changes I need to make. But those sessions are the most helpful ones. I need to know what to fix. For that I'm grateful.

It's all subjective, so I do use my gut instinct on what critiques I should use, since sometimes people come up with different suggestions.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- Yes, it can take some time to find crit partners that really fit you. It's great that we can exchange mss. online today!

Lee -- Sometimes it can be really helpful to have people with such varying tastes as crit partners. Gives you a better cross-section of what the public might think.

Jaye -- Yes -- when they start dotting i's and crossing t's, we know we're basically there.

Medeia -- It's helpful when the suggestions can really get you to "re-vision" the ms. Sometimes, a comment that's made on the particular chapter we brought can make us think, "Hmmm, I see a way to apply this to the whole."

Susan Fields said...

Critiquing can definitely be weird! I'm jealous about your long-time face-to-face group - that sounds awesome!

Vijaya said...

Oh, my envy spilleth over. How I miss my old critters from WA ... and although we still stay in touch, it's not the same. By the way, we were all newbies when we started, but now all of us are published, so sometimes the blind leading the blind can actually work, especially if we share the knowledge from classes/conferences, etc.

I have learned so much from giving and receiving critiques. And you are right -- sometimes a piece of work just needs to get out, but the author needs a nudge.

Alice said...

I can relate to so many things you said about critiquing. Sometimes I feel discouraged about my story after critique group and I have to let it sit for a day but when I go back to it, I see the problems pointed out aren't as bad as I thought and are sometimes simple to fix.

Marcia said...

Susan -- I'm not sure how unusual we are, and some of us have changed direction a bit over the years, but it's good. We've gotten very comfy but we can still critique, which I'd guess is as good as it gets.

Vijaya -- Yep, there are newbies and there are newbies. Those who are seriously pursuing the craft and the industry can help each other and grow together.

Alice -- Yes, I think we often need down time between the critique itself and going back to the story. I believe that's another period during which our writers' brains can work subconciously, and when we go back to the work we're already starting to see solutions.

Sara Hill said...

My two experiences with critique groups have not worked out very well. The first group was helpful--when they finally got around to actually dealing with manuscripts. Frustrating! The second group had writers with such dissimilar abilities and motivations that it was worse than unhelpful. Anybody need an online critique partner?

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This is a great post, Marcia. I'm sorry I'm so late commenting on it! I'm critiquing a friend's novel right now and honestly not finding anything wrong with it. I'm just correcting occasional grammar mistakes. I feel a little bad, but your post reminded me I shouldn't be TRYING to find something wrong. Thanks for that!