When most folks, especially those in the writing community, hear the phrase constructive critique, it usually brings to mind days spent in a college classroom, analyzing the metaphors in other undergrads’ short stories about life, loss and young love. For many, the constructive critique was not a good era of their writing life, and I know plenty of people who would be loathe to ever enter one again.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, the constructive critique is a vital tool and not just for the reasons you think. While there is much to be gained from new sets of eyes reading and analyzing your work, the value of a critique, whether in a classroom, writing group or on a peer-to-peer basis, is undeniable.
For one, yes, you need that new set of eyes. Writers often suffer from being way too close to their stories. It can be difficult to take that step back and see the book as it stands, without any of the background research or planning or outlines. We can forget that certain elements never made it into a character’s background or that our understanding of the world isn’t coming across to the reader. Trying to move forward without a fresh set of eyes on the book is foolish and won’t get you very far.
And those eyes aren’t just there to tell you about the parts of your story that prove you’re a failure as a writer and will never amount to anything, (please don’t ever say this to anyone!) Your partners or classmates are there to make the story better. I’m the kind of author who needs to talk out plot confusion or character background with other people, it’s just the way I work. Having that sounding board will push your story to the next level.
As will the knowledge that someone else is going to read it. If for no other reason– and there are other reasons– getting critiqued is valuable because you feel compelled to clean up the book. After all, if you’re hoarding the story to yourself and never telling anyone about it, then fine, it can have continuity and punctuation issues out the ass. But the second you show it to another person, you’ve opened yourself up to the world, and you want to present the best version of your work when you do.
It’s also important to be able to take what people say and not get defensive or aggressive when suggestions are made. One of the fundamental elements of a successful critique is the author’s ability to determine good advice from advice to be discarded. Still, as someone who spoke often and probably obnoxiously in the critique setting, if you can’t take it from me or your fellow student or your professor, how will you take it from editors, agents, publishers or, if it gets that far, public scrutiny.
I’ve received piles of rejection letters as a writer, and knowing how to let bad advice and rejection slide off your back is the only way to survive. Getting through a critique is a good step toward that.
And you don’t just get better at writing by having your own work critiqued. Yeah, I scribbled on people’s stories like they needed to go up on the front page of the Times the next day. I was ruthless, but because I was ruthless on my own work. Every element of editing, story structure, continuity and character that I recognized as a good or bad example in other people’s writing was something I could follow in my own. Do this, don’t do that. The better an editor I became for my classmates, the better an editor I became for myself.
No, critiques aren’t easy, especially in a public setting. It’s much less intimidating when you find one or two people to read and review your work, especially folks in your genre, who understand tropes, requirements and the like. But though it’s scary, and it is, it’s worth it. Constructive critiques don’t need to the bastard child of the literary world. When it comes right down to it, we couldn’t be writers without them, they make us better, harder and stronger. The trick is just to find the one that works for you. ♦