Critique Mystique: Unlocking the Writing Craft BONUS LEVEL

What is is the value of criticism to you, as a writer or creator? How can critiquing other people’s work strengthen your own craft? Criticism and critique are invaluable in any field. Creatives in particular can use critique to take their work to the next level.

It’s been over a year since I quit the emotional energy treadmill that is Facebook. I don’t miss it. I really don’t. In fact, I feel much freer without it and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back even in order to make myself an author page and do the social media writer gig. But I do miss something that I used to get on Facebook. Writing groups!

I was lucky to belong to a number of great writing groups, and while I used to get frustrated with myself for spending more time critiquing other people’s work than actually writing, I’m really starting to miss that aspect of my erstwhile favourite writing community. Ditching the Zuck has opened up a lot of time for writing, which is great. I’ve been a lot more productive in the last year than I was in the year before that. There is no denying that the year I spent writing less and critiquing more wasn’t great for my word count output. What I didn’t realize is I was actually doing a lot of learning and processing when it comes to the craft of writing in that time. I’m really missing that critique community now that I have a back log of stories to prep for submissions!

I’ve been trying to get and stay involved in some WordPress circles, and it’s a wonderful community itself. However, publishing on a blog–even if it’s just in draft form–hinders one’s ability to submit work to most serious paying markets. These challenges can only really act as writing exercises rather than first drafts for salable work. With flash fiction being one of the best markets to start publishing in, it irks me to “waste” all of that creative energy on pieces I can ultimately do little with beside pad future collections of (hopefully) previously published stories.

So I’m looking at some other options. I’ve been investigating online critique groups. The Next Big Writer has had pretty good reviews from the writing community, and during my seven day free trial period I received valuable feedback. However, there is an annual fee involved that I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to yet. Scribophile is another site I’m scoping out, though I’ve heard mixed reviews. It seems more geared toward socializing than critique compared to TNBW. I’ll keep you posted with what I decide to do with those groups.

One place I’ve found that has been amazing so far is 12 Short Stories. I joined last year, but I didn’t get as involved in that community as I should have. As a result, I ended up missing half the assignments and being late with the ones I did finish. I’ve commited anew this year, though, and I’ve already found a handful of serious writers who deliver serious critique. Even better? They actually want to receive critique (rather than just praise, as you see with a lot of amateur writer groups).

Why is that better? Because giving constructive criticism is even more valuable to writers than receiving it. It’s only been two months and I can feel how much more focused my own writing is become!

That’s something we don’t often consider as writers. Giving critical feedback, applying what we are learning from all those craft articles and books we devour, on another writer’s work is just as important as receiving feedback on our own. This is true of writing, and it’s true of pretty much any skill that requires study and practice.

Writing a strong story is like solving a puzzle. Reading and critiquing a story allows us to apply all of our problem solving skills on a piece that we are not emotionally invested in. It’s the practice session to our game day. Constructive criticism forces us to identify issues, assign potential remedies, and articulate the things we have learned in a way that someone else can understand. It’s kind of like writing a paper to prove to your university professor that you actually read and understood the material. You make an argument for your case. The recipient of your criticism may or may not use anything that you suggest, but the value in giving that critique is never wasted.

That’s not to say that it isn’t wonderful to receive quality feedback, of course. By quality feedback, I don’t mean glowing praise, either. My favourite is when someone steps outside the warm and fuzzy back-patting bubble and says something like “You’ve used 17 unnecessary adverbs in a 1200 word story” or “Is the personification of the house really necessary?” or “Your imagery is great, but this is a little too much even for me.”

I don’t agree with everything that other people think about my stories. But even if I disagree, that feedback is invaluable. When someone draws attention to a potential problem within you work, it gives you the opportunity to assess that part and decide for yourself what should be done. Keep it? Tweak it? Trash it? The important thing is that you make a decision. Nothing in your story should ever be there by accident!

If the personification of the house is necessary, I might need add more examples so that the reader knows I’ve done it on purpose. Then they can wonder why (and hopefully I have provided an answer to that, too). Okay, 17 adverbs is a bit much. Which ones should I keep and which ones to I need to rewrite? Yes, this borders on purple prose, but does it serve a purpose? Am I slowing the reader down and forcing them to linger over something that matters to the story? These are the kinds of questions you are forced to ask yourself, and if you answer them honestly, your story will be better for it.

If you want to unlock the mysterious power of critique and use it as a tool to enhancing your own writing the secret is this: you get what you give. If you just tell everyone what a wonderful job they’ve done, whether or not they have earned that praise, that’s likely all you’ll ever get in return. Giving honest feedback is harder than receiving it, sometimes. But if you want to receive it, you might have to break the ice with your own foray into real criticism. Sometimes this will fail miserably. But you know how I feel about failing.

As writers we are often afraid of offending other writers, we are afraid that because our own writing needs work that we have no right to critique others. Bullshit. That’s fear talking. That’s insecurity. Some of the best critiques I’ve ever received are from editors who are not creative writers. Being a good writer and being a good critiquer are two separate skills. They are complementary skills, but they are separate. So get over that fear, do yourself a favour, and join a critique group today and start analyzing some stories!

If you belong to a group you really love, please share in the comments!

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