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Five C's: Critiquing
This article is the third in a series of five dealing with the Five 'C's of writing:
Conception, Composition, Critiquing, Completion and Commercialization
It is sad but true that in life, raw talent can get you only so far. Athletes cannot meet their full potentials without coaches, who scold and nitpick and criticize them until near-perfection is achieved. In much the same way, a writer can go only so far without skilled critique.
The art of literary critiquing probably goes back nearly as far as the writing of stories itself. Generally speaking, successful critiquing is done either on an in-person basis, or else through the exchange of manuscripts at a distance. Today, this is usually done over the Internet.
In-person critique groups have both powerful advantages in their favor and major drawbacks working against them. We humans communicate with each other in many ways, not merely through words. Actually meeting in person someone who's read your stuff can be a most unforgettable experience. Sometimes the critiquer's facial expression or posture can tell you as much or even more than the words they've written on your manuscript. You can tell, for example, if they are stretching to find good things about your prose. Similarly, genuine enthusiasm is easily recognized and almost impossible to fake. In an ideal world, I'd like to work with all of my critiquers in person, one-on-one. It's not always easy to find such a group to work with, however, especially outside of the big cities. Competent writers are not all that common a critter, and very often the number is reduced even further by the fact that most work only within one or two literary genres. There's nothing more frustrating than being the sole SF writer at a gathering of mainstream fiction types! Even worse, in-person writer's groups tend to be very stable, often lasting for decades. While this seems like good news on the surface, in practice it means that the more successful groups are rarely seeking new members at any given time.
For some reason, writers seem to attract, for lack of a better word, "wannabees". There's nothing whatsoever wrong with desiring to become a writer, or with joining a writing group in order to further one's own ambitions. However, in a working critique group it is essential that everyone write, preferably at about the same rate of speed. Otherwise, the human dynamics simply do not seem to work. Non-writers become interested in converting critique sessions into normal conversations, for example, and work is soon forgotten. If one writer is much more prolific than the rest, he or she will very likely offend the others by giving them too much critique work to do. It is essential to understand that frank, honest, and open critique is very difficult emotionally, especially in a face-to-face situation. If there are emotional fracture-lines to be found in a writers' group, the nature of the task at hand will surely cause them to widen. The best cure is for everyone involved to be equally serious about the art of writing, and not to ask too much of the others.
In many ways, by-mail critique groups can be considered as less-intense versions of the in-person group. Because there is no direct interpersonal contact, feelings are much less likely to enter into things. However, in exactly the same way the feedback you get from such a group is less valuable. Sheer logistics dictate that most writers will never join an in-person group. In-person critique requires that the writers all be present at a specific meeting time and place, while the members of by-mail groups may exchange manuscripts much more conveniently. The limitations of geography disappear, as do limits on the number of members who can join such a group. It is probably fair to say that in this Internet-connected world of today, a hundred manuscripts are critiqued at a distance for every one that is done in person.
Once you've located and joined a critique group, it is always good practice to critique someone else's work before submitting your own. Most groups have seen several new members join, submit a manuscript, be critiqued, and then leave without offering anything in exchange. (In turn, we writers are usually consoled by the fact that those who resort to such practices usually can't write worth a damn anyway.) In critiquing, the overriding, number-one rule is honesty. Tell the writer what you see as the truth, and expect to hear the truth about your own work in return. Be polite, be gentle when you can, and employ all the arts of diplomacy. Indeed, I know of one writer who begins and ends all critiques with positive comments, no matter how hard she has to dig to find them. But in the middle, she is brutally honest, as she simply must be if the writer is to learn and grow. After all, how far would an Olympic athlete get if their coach simply told them "Great job!" after each practice?
Another thing one should always keep in mind is that all writers are not created equal, and thus all opinions are not created equal. I read once that an author should never listen to the advice of anyone he considers to be a significantly poorer writer than himself. I have taken this advice very much to heart, after adding "almost" in front of "never". If several people agree that I have a problem with a manuscript, then clearly I am failing to communicate with a large segment of my audience. Whether they are poorer writers than I am does not matter in this case. In much the same vein, I tend not to listen closely to writers whose styles differ widely from my own, or who write in genres I do not enjoy reading. While I continue to respect them fully as writers and as people, of course, I tend to question their competence outside their own field. Indeed, I feel that any advice I might have for them would probably be nearly useless, as well.
It is my firm and fixed belief that no writer can grow their craft without outside evaluation, even if said evaluation exists only in the form of rejection slips. I know that feedback from my fellow authors has done more to improve my skill as a writer than any other single factor, and I remain most grateful to those whose words were the harshest. Thank you again, all of you! I still can't write nearly as well as I'd like, but without you my work would be even less readable and marketable than it is!