The essential key of a good critique

by on May.08, 2013, under Observations, Process

After more than four years participating in critique groups, both in person and online, I have come to the firm conviction that there is only one essential key to a good critique. This key is so essential that I’ve come to believe that a critique missing this key is worthless to the author, and that any critique containing this key, no matter how green or ignorant the reviewer, can be valued for its weight in gold by the author.

Each person in a critique group brings their own unique viewpoint to the group. In many of the workgroups I’ve participated in, I could count on my science being well critiqued by one person whereas my character interactions may be often critiqued by another. I think that diversity of viewpoints in a group makes the group stronger, so you may trust that I am not saying that any one of these personal strengths outweighs another. Diversity is an asset.

Each author (or aspiring author) spends a lot of time thinking about how to tell their stories. They each bring their unique talents to tell a story the way they want to tell it. This diversity is fantastic. The fact that each of us could take some core facts and tell a completely different story is wonderful. Each of us has our own stories– this is crucial to remember when critiquing another writer’s story.

No matter how much we want to tell the writer, “don’t tell it this way, tell it that way instead” — we must step back from that, discard that ego-based desire, and instead focus on helping the author understand why we feel that the story doesn’t work as it is told today.

Show, Don’t Tell.

This is a phrase that as authors we know fairly well. Don’t tell us something, show it to us. Let the reader experience that thing in visible and tactile ways. The reader experiences it in a way that they’ll never get from exposition.

Apply that same logic to the critique: don’t tell the author how to fix the story. Your fix may be perfect, may be exactly what the story needs, but it leaves the author without any feeling for why the original story didn’t work. Regardless of whether your version of the story would sell ten million copies, what the author needs is to understand why their story didn’t work in your eyes. This is the key.

I have seen dozens of new authors accept advice without this key. They get advice to change something, and they make the change. Everyone tells them that the new version is better, but they don’t know why. They spin around it endlessly, trying to determine why that change worked, tossing out all the style and substance that made the story work in the first place.

By contrast, when you give the author specific feedback about what did not work, they walk away informed of the scope and nature of the problem that you saw. They have what they need to apply that new understanding to future work.

It’s their story, not yours.

This is not your story. This is their story and they should tell it their way. When I hold this thought in my mind, I naturally avoid trying to “fix” the story for my own needs, and instead I focus on why the story isn’t working for me as a reader. I find it useful to hold this thought in my head when I’m writing my critique, as it keeps me focused on the key.

This isn’t a new thought.

Back in 2009, I first got one of my stories reviewed by well-established professional writers Elizabeth Bear and Mark Van Name. I feel forever indebted to them because they showed me how this should be done, they gave me this key that I’m talking about now. Both of them started off by saying that what I was trying to do with the story was challenging, and that it might not be the right way to tell that story. However they stopped there, and spent the next 30 minutes talking in great detail about where my story did not work for them, why they were unable to engage with the characters, etc. They didn’t fix my story for me, didn’t push me back out the door with a story I could sell. Instead, they spent a large amount of time going over the exact details of my story and why it worked and why it didn’t work for them. What they gave me was invaluable on two levels: they taught me how to write better, and they taught me what a good critique was.

I believe there’s an old book somewhere with a story from a prophet about a man and a fish. Yes, it’s exactly like that. Giving an author “the fix” is giving them a fish. Worse yet, you might be giving the author a fish that they can’t find in their local rivers and streams. Teach an author to fish…

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