So having had my unscheduled little rant on Monday about the importance of critique, and a little bit about why having your work critiqued is important, let’s discuss today why it’s important to critique. (I know you guys are waiting for the Mean-assed examples, and for more nitty-gritty stuff on how to critique etc., and we’re going to start that next week. I want to get the theory down first as a sort of base.)
We all know getting critique can improve our work. Critique partners or beta readers can ask questions we didn’t realize were there, or point out weak areas we didn’t see. They can helps us show not tell or clean up dialogue or whatever, depending on our own individual skill levels.
But what often seems left out of the gotta-get-a-crit race is how important it is to critique others, and how that process helps us become better, more critical, more thoughtful writers.
How many times have you bought a book because it looked promising, only to discover, a chapter or two in, that it wasn’t at all? For whatever reason, it didn’t appeal to you. Maybe you thought the characters were wooden and insipid, or the writing didn’t sparkle, or the plot was cliche, or too many characters were introduced at one time and you never could keep them straight because they all seemed exactly the same, or maybe the writer kept using the word “unctuous” over and over again until you wanted to slap him or her in the face repeatedly with a bowl of oxtail soup.
There’s almost nothing in the world more disappointing than a bad book.
But bad books can teach us a lot. Bad writing can teach us a lot. Because your work came from you. Yes, we can and should learn to distance ourselves and be objective enough to see it as a piece of work separate from ourselves. That’s important.
But the way to learn that distancing and objectivity, the way to learn to take critiques, is by giving them.
When it’s someone else’s doc open on the screen, we’re not emotionally attached to it. We can view it for what it is: a piece of writing. Not somebody’s “baby.” (UGH.) Not somebody’s soul. Not their heart. Just a piece of writing, which can be judged on its own merits.
Does that mean we can forget that it’s a real human behind that piece of writing? No, of course not, and as we’ll see when we get to the mean-ass crits, it’s very possible to really hurt someone. Comments like “This sucks. Give it up,” are no help to anyone, especially not–surprise!–you.
Because when you look at something and simply dismiss it, you’re not learning anything. You’re not putting on an editor monacle and really studying why something doesn’t work. And sure, sometimes a piece will have so many problems you don’t know where to start.
But most won’t, at least not if you’re finding appropriate partners. Most will be close. And what you’ll learn in trying to make them hit the mark will teach you how to fix your own work.
Maybe the word “was” keeps leaping out at you in this particular piece. And it irritates the fuck out of you for no discernible reason (this happens. See my “unctuous” example.) It drives you do crazy, in fact, that soon all you can see is “was.”
Then you open your own book. Lo and behold, you have “was” strewn about like crayons on a playroom floor. Oops! Maybe you should try to rework some of those sentences, huh? Figure out a way to show all those things you “was”ed instead of telling them?
(That’s not to say “was” isn’t useful or should never be used. It’s just an example. But we should be careful about “was”ing.)
Here’s an example:
The night was dark. (Hey, it’s an example. Shut up.) Lucy was walking down the street, past the pub, which was filled with drunks playing darts. Lucy shivered. It was so cold outside, and her feet were (ha!) so sore. She was desperate to get home, but it was still so far away.
Now. This is not great. It’s rather dull. And something feels off about it, at least to me. There are a few issues with it, but all those wases jump out at me first. So how do we eliminate them?
We figure out how to show the dark, cold night, the pub drunks, Lucy’s desperation and sore feet, without telling them. Perhaps we try something like this:
Lucy pulled her ragged jacket closer around her shoulders, but it didn’t help much. The wind cut through her like shards of ice, whipping around the lonely buildings to shred her soul. Up ahead home waited for her, warm bright rooms and her mother’s smiling face. But here on the street only the echoes of her footsteps kept her company.
She passed through the square of pale gold light on the street made by the pub window. Inside men shouted and laughed, lifting pints, slapping each other on the back when one of them hit a bullseye. If she only had some money, she could walk in and have a drink too, defrost her aching extremities by the gentle coal fire.
Now. This isn’t great either, for another reason. Can anyone tell me what it is? Go on, critique this paragraph.
When you’ve done that, think about it. You’ve just read this opening looking for flaws. You’ve been specifically looking to find something wrong. You’ve (hopefully) taken your undoubtedly very warm feeling toward me (ha) out of the equation and examined the openings just as openings, and tried to decide the following things:
1. Is it well-written on a basic level? (i.e. are there no obvious grammatical flaws or spelling errors; is the character named Lucy throughout, does it make sense, etc.)
2. Is it well-written on a more advanced level? (Are the sentences clunky; are words repeated; do all the sentences start with “she” or “it” [that’s one of my personal bugbears].)
3. Did you get a sense of character, place, and/or time from it?
4. Most importantly, would you keep reading?
There’s more, of course, and we’ll get to it in time. For now, take a look there and tell me in comments what your thoughts are. And be honest! You’re not going to hurt my feelings.
In fact, as a bonus today I’m going to offer the sum total of my wisdom on accepting critiques. Keep repeating this to yourself:
My work is not me. My work is not me. My work is not me.