Critiquing: The Good, The Bad and The Truly Grotesque

Let’s get this out front right away: I love my critique group, the Hip and Edgy. They are wonderful writers, dear friends and beloved companions of mine. I also believe I am blessed to have them and that our very existence—the fact that we found each other—is a miracle sent straight from Heaven.

Do I think critique is for everyone? Absolutely not. I have a dear published author friend (twice a RITA finalist) who gets the heebie-jeebies when the word “critique” is mentioned. She is incredibly vulnerable to outside influences when she writes and will change her story when she shouldn’t to address someone else’s comments or concerns. Critique does not work for her. And if you are that sort of writer, critique is not for you.

I, on the other hand, have skin like a bull elephant. From the first, I invited my critique partners to give it to me with both barrels. Pure, unvarnished truth, that’s what I was after. They did not quite deliver that, but they were not afraid to take the gloves off when necessary. And sometimes it’s necessary, believe me.

Early on in my critiquing career, I found out other people generally do not have skin as thick as mine. Matter of fact, for some writers it is necessary to couch constructive criticism in the most delicate and politic of terms. I learned quickly to deliver, for the most part, a kinder, gentler critique than my nature dictates. One of my critique partners reports that I did, on one occasion, make her cry—but she deserved it. And the work was stronger when she figured out why it didn’t work and revised it. Could I have been nicer? Probably. But I did the best I could (considering my righteous indignation over the writing crime she committed), which is all we can expect from ourselves and others.

Critiquing, you see, is about trust. Like all the other relationships in our lives, we want to foster a healthy critique relationship and an atmosphere of mutual trust. But critique relationships are also business partnerships, for lack of a more subtle term. While it is lovely to be friends with your CPs, as I certainly am, it is not a requirement. You can respect, admire and trust someone without being bosom buddies. As well, it can make it easier to dissolve the relationship should it turn sour—or simply unproductive—if you are not the best of friends.

That said, here is a quick and dirty profile of The Good, The Bad and The Truly Grotesque critique partner. See if you recognize anyone you know:

The Good – This CP reviews your work and delivers constructive criticism in a timely manner. S/he is quick to point out the parts of your work that delight, as well as the parts that may need more thought or revision. This CP is supportive and helps you meet your writing goals. This CP has goals, as well, and wants your support to meet them. (All of my CPs fall into this category.)

The Bad – This CP may be tardy posting material, leaving you to feel you are only taking and not giving back. S/he may be slow to offer feedback or even simply pass your pages back with a vague reference like, “It was really good, I don’t have any comments.” Or this person may not want to hear your feedback, even if it is constructive and well-intended. S/he may not get, or may truly dislike, your subgenre and may be unable to overcome this and deliver an objective critique. These things may seem harmless enough, but if you are experiencing any of them, what are you getting from the critique relationship? If the answer is “Not too much”, it may be time to move on to more fertile critique pastures.

The Truly Grotesque – This CP is the snakes in your writing paradise. A toxic person. The CP who wants to critique your work but does not want you to critique hers/his. The CP who delivers criticism that is far from constructive and undermines your confidence. This CP may even want to re-plot your book, discourage you from telling your story or annihilate your voice with rewrites. RUN, don’t walk, to the nearest exit! Even if this CP has the best of intentions, this is a writing partnership you do not need. Worse, it is one that may kill your desire to write. RUN AWAY!

Critique can be an incredibly useful tool. Partnering with the right people can help you identify things you do well and areas for improvement. A supportive critique relationship can help you boost your writing to the next level. It will not get your book sold, but it could very well help you get it into saleable condition.

Critique can be a soul destroyer. Partnering with the wrong people can erode your confidence in your writing ability and quash your creative process. A destructive critique relationship can send your writing into the doldrums and stall your career. It definitely will not help you sell.

Know what you want from a critique relationship and make sure you get it. Be assertive and insist that your group establish and follow some ground rules. If you partner with people who cannot deliver, be professional and friendly, but get yourself out of the relationship. Critiquing is like dating—weren’t you grateful you got a do-over when you were dating? When you find a partnership that delivers what you want and need, nurture it and be thankful.

And if you decide critique is not for you, do not feel the need to defend yourself. This entire business of writing is about what works and what doesn’t work—for you.

Be persistent. Keep swapping pages—blind dating, if you will—until you find a partnership that works for you. If you’re lucky enough to find a divinely-crafted critique group like mine, hang onto them for dear life. For The Extremely Good, my dear writer friends, are worth their weight in Golden Hearts!