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Critiquing: A Necessary Skill

August 21, 2011

OK, I’ve been silent for too long.  Sometimes posting a blog update can seem more like a chore than an outlet, and writing has been the last thing on my mind lately.  Busy, busy, busy.  Like a bee, even.  But I won’t bore you with the details.  The important thing is, I’m posting now.

So, awhile back I was part of this writing group that met monthly at a local diner.  We would bring in short stories or bits of longer projects and the group would read and critique them.  And by “we” I mean “everyone else.”  I only ever brought in my own work twice.  Both times I submitted half-finished short stories.

The first time I got some good feedback.  The second time was a disaster.  At this point, the writing group was well towards falling apart.  For this meeting in particular, only three people had shown up, including myself – a far cry from the ten to fifteen we used to boast.  So I had two people to critique my story, and their comments exactly contradicted each other.  What one liked, the other didn’t like, and vice versa.  When I went home I think I screamed into a pillow.

Long story short, I got useful feedback on my own submitted work once in the months and months that I attended.  Doesn’t sound like it was worth it, does it?

Joining that writing group was one of the best things I have ever done towards improving my writing.

Each meeting I would go in, sit down, and chat with the other members for awhile until everyone had ordered food and was settled and we had caught most of the stragglers.  Then someone would pass out copies of the latest installment of their current work-in-progress and in silence we would all read it, marking it up with our red pens (or black pens or blue pens or pencils or highlighters), making notes in the margins.  Then, when everyone was ready, we would discuss what we’d read and, as a group, give a critique for the author.

As a result, I received the following experience:

  1. The chance to critically look at a piece and then compare and contrast how other writers view the piece
  2. Listening to and participating in critiques that include advice that could apply to my own writing
  3. Developing the skill to take a step back and really think about a piece of writing, as a whole and in bits and pieces, and focus on what needs to be improved and how to go about it.  Learning to do this for someone else means taking one more step towards being able to do it for myself.

Sure, ok, yeah, that last one is something that English teachers have been trying to teach me for years, but unless your classes are very focused on creative writing, it’s not quite the same experience.   And if you’re like me and abandoned a degree in English (or never pursued it to begin with), then it’s valuable experience.  And probably still valuable even if you have taken all those classes.

I talk to fellow aspiring writers often, and I’m surprised by how often I hear the words, “I’m really bad at critiquing,” or “I don’t know how to give a good critique.”

If you aren’t good at critiquing, go learn how to be good at critiquing.  Like, right now.  You can start with a Google search, but what you really need is experience.  If you are going to write, you absolutely need to be able to edit.  Critiquing is practice in doing this, and I think it’s the best practice you can get.

One of the best ways to get better at something is to help someone else learn how to do it.  Fact of life.

I have said before that writing is about communication.  When you write, you are communicating to your readers.  To do that effectively, you need to get feedback – as much as you can get your hands on.  If the news announced there was a nationwide shortage of bacon (or, I don’t know, some other food that you can’t live without), you would run to the store and fill up your cart with as much bacon (or whatever) as you could snatch up.  Treat feedback as though there’s a shortage of it.  Be hungry for it.  Need it.  Crave it.

But feedback is really only a small part of it.  If you want to learn how to do something, study it, attempt it, and get feedback.  If you want to be good at something, a few feedback sessions are not going to be good enough for you.  The craftsman makes his work based on his customers’ needs.  The master craftsman is always looking for new ideas, new ways to change and improve things, new ways to evolve as an artist.  He goes to shows and convention, observes others in their work and discusses it with them.  He learns how to judge things, to appreciate them, to see something in its entirety but also as its separate components at the same time.  He loves his craft.  And everything he does is to gain more knowledge, to improve his own skill.  Does he have to follow all of the advice he hears, adopt all of the new methods he discovers?  Of course not.  He knows what to incorporate into his own style and what is just bad advice.  But he listens anyway, for the sake of learning.

I brought this up because I realized how much I was missing by no longer having a group like that.  That writing group fell apart, and I haven’t found another one that fits in with my schedule.  For awhile I was having weekly writing sessions with a friend, but it’s not the same thing.  So I discussed it with my online writing group, which until now has been somewhat random and not very structured, and after confirming that there was enough interest, I have been working to set up something more formal.  Throughout the week, participants submit their work via our forum, and on weekend we enter a group chat and together review and critique the work that was submitted.  Today is our first session, so I don’t know how effective it’s going to be, but it’s worth a shot.

It’s always worth a shot, because I want to be good at something.

And I need all the help I can get.


From → General Advice

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