Writers craft – Critique: What it is, why I want it, and why I offer it.

When I took my first tentative steps away from simply pouring out words into various notebooks and towards the possibility of sharing my work with other people, I signed up for a creative writing course with the Open University (back before the costs for anything but the really basic modules became prohibitive). As well as being forcing by the syllabus to write outside the very narrow comfort zone I had at the time, I was also required to provide critique of others work on the course forums, receive critique from them in return, and also to have my tutor tear all my offerings to shreds.

I found, at first, the idea of offering critique daunting and the thought of receiving it even more so. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I wasn’t sure my shaky self-confidence could take what I would receive in return. So I loitered on the forums, reading other people’s critiques, and I got a surprise:

“Oh I loved that.”
“Very nice.”
“Like your style.”

Every single comment in the thread for my tutor group was of that ilk; generic personal opinions that, other than being nice for the writer who had written the piece being comment on, didn’t add anything at all. They were exactly like the majority of the comments I was used to seeing on the fan fiction I read, where fandom etiquette dictated nothing more than general praise was to be left unless the author specifically requested it. Except even the fan fic comments were often more specific that those I was seeing because I (alongside many others) would pick out something specific that I particularly enjoyed to highlight in the comment, be it a turn of phrase, a specific scene, or a particular characterisation. However I wasn’t about to complain and, heaving a sigh of relief, I posted my own piece and set about saying generically nice things to everyone else.

Then we all got an email from our tutor, in which she elucidated, incredibly clearly and concisely, that what we were all doing was very sweet but did not help anyone in the slightest. I wish I could now find that email, because I’d just copy and paste it here, but since I can’t I’ll do my best to reproduce what I can:

Critiquing fiction, also known as offering constructive criticism, first and foremost requires both the person offering the critique and the person requesting it to leave their egos at the door. This is not about personalities, but about the text. Any critique should include both the good points and the not so good points and should be carefully worded. Insults have no place in critique, neither does woolly praise.

The person doing the critiquing is not judging the theme of the story but the quality of the telling. They are offering their thoughts on the phrasing, pacing, characterisation and delivery. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like science fiction or romance, that is irrelevant, but it matters very much if you are confused by what is going on or you can’t tell who is speaking. It also doesn’t matter if you, personally, wouldn’t write it in this way. What matters is whether it works in the way it has been written. It is as important to say, specifically, which parts of the piece you think work well AND which parts don’t but no critique is useful if you don’t say WHY. And that is hard, sometimes, when all you’ve got is a vague sense of joy or discomfort. But you’ve got to push through that because in really examining the reasons you, for example, like/don’t like the wording of a particular sentence, you will not only help the person you’re offering the critique too but help yourself to become a better writer too.

The person receiving the critique needs to remember that they have asked to receive it. More than that, they have asked because they want to produce the best piece they can and hearing which parts work and which parts still need work will allow them to do that. They may know what they meant but if the reader doesn’t then the piece still needs work. They need to be open, to be receptive to what is being said and to realise that, although writing it was incredibly personal, that the critique is not of them, but of the words on the page. Also, whilst they are under no obligation to act on every single point that is noted, if they are not taking a suggestion on board or dismissing a criticism they need to be able to articulate, if only to themselves, why not. And “I don’t want to” isn’t good enough on its own.

These words not only cemented in my head what critiquing should be but taking the how and the why on board is the reason I now make sure I offer and receive critique on a regular basis. I am the regular beta of several people within the Sherlock fandom and I also have two fandom friends who beta all my work. With my original fiction, I’ve been lucky enough to meet people through a local library that hosts writing workshops and retreat weekends who are willing to share their work with me and review mine in return. I still find offering critique hard work but, like anything worth doing, it is also very rewarding and I am very aware of just how much I owe to the people who critique my work, as their words have helped me grow and improve as a writer.

So, do you agree with the above? Do you give or receive critique? Do you value it? Can you offer any tips for phrasing critique or how to handle your emotions when receiving it?

Originally written for a writing group I belong to, I thought I’d share it on here too.

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