Thursday, February 3, 2011

Critique is about the readers

I'm a person who loves critique. Whenever I have a story done (or sometimes even when I don't have it done) I find a writing friend willing to look at it and send it over for their comments. I have learned so much through critique that I wouldn't do it any other way.

For me, the only bad critique is one that doesn't speak specifically about the text or story elements - one that attacks me personally or one so vague I can't make anything out of it. A critique that criticizes, or even one that makes me think "gee, he didn't get it!" is still valuable.

When somebody doesn't get it, it's important to ask why. That lack of understanding happened because the reader missed the boat somewhere - and that's why I think it's important to go back and take a look, to try to figure out what precisely it was that left them behind. Some missing clue, that if it had been there, would have saved this person from their misconception.

It's really important to remember that when we read, much of what we understand of the text comes from our own minds. Each word activates in our brains the set of meanings that the word has built up for itself over all the instances of its use in our experience. Story elements evoke emotions based on our experience. Every time we read, we bring ourselves to the story.

Obviously, this affects critique. I once had a friend read my beginner novel and tell me he thought I should have matched up the characters differently - X should have hooked up with A, and Y with B, not the other way around. I still don't agree with him! But what I can do is when I go back to get that novel right, I can make sure I put lots of evidence in for why my solution is the better idea.

If you ever find yourself writing off a critique for a reason like, "That person isn't a genre reader," you might want to reconsider. Who do you want to read your work? Is it only for the specialist reader of sf/f, or cosy mystery? Great works will transcend and be readable by a larger audience. In a sense each time you offer your work for critique, you're testing out a potential group of readers. If all your readers fall into the same group, you may not learn as much as if you give the work to different kinds of readers. Literary readers. Romance readers. Science fiction readers. Fantasy readers. Their opinions will give you a glimpse into what others of their tastes might think, and chances are there will be a way for you both to maintain your artistic vision and to make them feel more welcome in your world.

I think that's something worth striving for.


  1. Great post! I've been hesitant at asking the "why" question because I don't want my critters to feel as if I'm questioning them or being defensive or something. This is good to know.

  2. Thanks, E. Arroyo! The why question is usually hard for the critiquer to answer - easier for the writer to go back through and look for possible sources of confusion. I'm glad you found the post helpful.

  3. Juliette this is terrific and I think we share a similar philosophy regarding critiques. In one of my groups, the writers come from all literary backgrounds and one question I often ask for stuff I present is: for those who don't read s.f. normally, what, if anything might make this more approachable for you?

    It's a spin on a question I've heard Rob Sawyer ask when people say, "Oh, science fiction, I don't like science fiction!"

    He responds politely with, "Oh, well can you tell me what you've read that has turned you off to the genre?"

    I look at every critique as a learning experience.

  4. Jamie, I like that Rob Sawyer example. I think sometimes non-genre readers have a hard time putting their fingers on precisely what it is that jars them, but that's a good question to ask. I knew I was starting to get something right when my literary friend told me she loved "Cold Words" - because I'd thought of it as less accessible, and yet somehow I managed to get her into it!

  5. Good post! I wrote about critiques too today!

  6. "Great works will transcend and be readable by a larger audience."

    So true!

  7. Thanks for the comments, Roberta and Sarah!

  8. I love getting critiques too, even the ones that make me work harder. For me, it's all about learning to be better, and critiques are a huge help. Thanks for summing this up so nicely.

  9. Great post.

    Crits are one of the best ways to learn the craft of writing.

    It's hard to sit through, but it's valuable to see your story from a view that isn't your own.