How Do You Critique?

The last couple of weeks (and maybe into the next) I’ve been buried in critiques. Hence this slightly delayed post. I’m not complaining, mind you, but the volume recently—the result a confluence of chance—has forced me to evaluate my process in between all my edits, insertions, and comments.

Some observations:
I read everything. For me, critiquing is less about the genre or subject matter and more about supporting the writer behind the project.
I firmly believe there is a level of trust required for exchanging work. And that mutual respect means doing my best to evaluate the work I agree to critique, regardless of what it is, as I would hope others would do for me. It’s too early for me to be trapped in a particular genre, and I’m always eternally grateful that my CPs and trusted readers are usually game to crit whatever I send their way.
Part of this is because I’ve spent a lot of time in non-genre specific writing groups. In fact, one of the more successful groups I’ve been a part of has members writing in completely different genres—poetry, alt lit, women’s fiction, and then there’s me. All of us have good bs detectors and strong writing chops, which definitely helps. Plus having this exposure also keeps me from getting tunnel vision from the particular genre/style I’m writing in.
If a fellow writer thinks they’ll benefit from an honest reader reaction from me, I’m happy to support them. Karma is important, and I know I’ve benefited from the writer connections I’ve made. That’s not to say if they hand me a mystery I’ll be thrilled. But I’ll do my best to critique it, with the caveat that I’m not as well-versed in this genre as I am others.
I usually have to read a piece twice before I’m ready to critique.
This is time consuming, yes. That has become abundantly clear these last couple of weeks. BUT, it’s something I’ve made peace with. Mostly because my own standards of quality demand it.
Reading the piece the first time, I’m trying to get a general feel for the story, understand how all the different elements work as a whole. I might make some copy edits in the first round, but really I’m just reading for story.
This is a tremendous help when it comes time to offer my comments on the second pass. That’s when I decide what are real issues that need to be dealt with to support an author’s story intentions. I believe I have to understand the macro story elements into order to comment on the micro-level ones (outside of grammar).
My critique style has evolved as I’ve taken strides with my craft.
What this essentially means is that early on, I was overly focused with style and micro level issues. If someone wrote a line in a way I wouldn’t, I’d offer my suggestions for changing it. I was also overly concerned with “the rules” and more than happy to say “You’re doing it wrong!” because the craft books said so. I won’t say I was a Craft Nazi, one of the Writerly Types to Avoid, but it took time for me to digest all that advice so I could apply it in more constructive ways.
But after a number of critiques, after reading a variety of work, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways of doing things. And I’ve realized with all the do’s and don’ts out there, all that matters is whether a particular technique is effective in a particular story context. That’s it.
So I’ve adopted a more flexible live and let live policy. I’ll still point out awkward phrasings or unsuccessful techniques, but I’ve come to realize that just because someone doesn’t write something exactly the way I would doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different, and that’s ok. And that frees up more of my mental space for addressing more substantive story issues.
I rarely say no to requests to exchange work, but the time may be nigh to change that.
For so long, I was too scared to share my work. Then, when I got less scared, I had trouble finding people to share it with. I talked about this progression in my post The Critique Mindset a while back.
Over time, I’ve collected a formidable group of trusted writer friends: local writers, online writers, and my writer colleagues from Taos. For every person I can rely on for critiques, they must be able to rely on me. And as the last weeks have shown me, I’m near my limit, if I still want to be producing my own work at a pace that doesn’t make me cranky. (Hint, I’m cranky this week.)
So while I’m a huge proponent for exchanging work for critique, all things in moderation. And maybe it’s time to take my own advice.
***
Happy Nanoing for those participating! Happy writing for the rest of us! And only good thoughts for our friends on the east coast!

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3 thoughts on “How Do You Critique?

  1. I think critiquing improves your own work as well. When you see something in someone else's work and suggest a correction it is easier to find that same thing in your own work.

    I'm glad you have found a great group of writer friends. 🙂

  2. Just found your blog (hopped over from Eternal Haunted Summer), and look forward to reading more of it. Happy writing, and thanks for sharing your ongoing journey! Blessings!

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