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How Do I Tell Where I Fail?
According to Dr. David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell, we are not good judges of our own competency. In other words, we aren’t very skilled at telling if we’re good at something. This suggests we may not be terribly good at telling when something we’ve written is good or bad. But studies suggest that what our peers think of our efforts is a much more accurate assessment than any we can make on our own. So, according to David Dunning, the input of others can be a great help in learning your own strengths and weaknesses. This holds true in many areas of life, but is especially true of writing. Getting input can help us better see what needs work and what does not. Input can be in the form of a paid response, like a hired editor, writing instructor, or our own critique program, but it can also come in the form of peer input such as you can find in a critique group or critique partner. However, there are things to keep in mind as we seek help.
Assistance, Not Abdication
The most important thing to keep in mind about critique, whether it’s something you paid for or something you’ve gotten from peers is that critique needs to be a learning tool. Don’t get a critique partner or paid critique to avoid learning the things you need to learn. I’ve known of writers with poor grammar skills who flatly refuse to learn how verbs work or other grammatical basics, saying they’ll simply hire someone to “fix” their manuscript before they send it out. Ultimately, this makes everything they write a collaborative effort since “fixing” large scale grammar errors basically means rewriting a manuscript. And those of us who are writers aspire to having our writing in print, not someone else’s.
That doesn’t mean there is no value in a critique to catch your grammar errors, as long as you follow up on it by being sure you (1) understand what was wrong with the original writing, and (2) make an effort to avoid that same error in the future. If we make a point of learning from our mistakes and not simply having someone patch over them for us, we’ll make fewer and fewer mistakes as we progress. And, through use, the correct grammatical constructions will become automatic, so they won’t take as much effort. So don’t hand your manuscript over for fixing, and instead see critiques as ways to learn about your writing strengths and weaknesses so you not only fix one story but make future stories better as well.
Not Just the Small Stuff
For many writers, the idea of having someone look over your work means getting any grammatical errors, punctuation problems, or word use issues fixed, but if that’s all you’re getting help about, then you’re missing out on the real value of critique. Critique can catch most (if not all) of the small mistakes, true, but a good critique will also help you with big picture issues like clarity, believability, sensitivity, and logic. Basically, a good critique addresses “does this make sense?” Does the plot progress in believable ways? Do the characters behave consistently enough that each person displays a unique and realistic personality? Are you being unkind to a vulnerable group or perpetuating stereotypes? Does the reader become confused at any point? These are all matters that move well beyond grammar, punctuation and word use and delve into the meat of the writing. And these kinds of issues are actually much more likely to result in rejection letters than the relatively easy to fix grammar problems. So don’t be afraid to give your critique partner or group some questions that you’d like them to pay specific attention to. This is especially valuable in a critique group since the tendency of many is to focus more on the grammar mistakes than the story structure issues.
So how do you phrase questions to your critique partners in order to get the most useful information? Being specific helps. For example, “I want the character of Bets to come across as impulsive but kindhearted. Does she seem that way? Are there places where she does anything that feels out of character?” This would allow the critique partner to hold your goal (for Bets to read as impulsive but kindhearted) against their experience as they read the story. Another way to ask the question might be “could you tell me a word or two that describes how the character of Bets comes across when you read the story?” In this way, you might find that instead of impulsive but kindhearted, the critique group is consistently seeing her as bossy and bad-tempered. By not prompting with what you see, you may more clearly hear what they see. But by focusing the question on the character, you will get good feedback on the character.
Questions often blend more than one aspect of the story. For instance, imagine I ask, “Could you see why Pete went with the old man on his quest?” A question like this could give me answers about Pete’s personality (Pete seems like the kind of impulsive, adventure-loving kid who would go along with something like that) or it could give me answers about plot (with the situation at home, it made sense that Pete would be looking for any escape, even with a strange old guy. His home life basically pushed him out). In a well-written story, plot and character are deeply intertwined so answers to a question about either will contain elements of the other.
A Plan, Not a Straightjacket
Try not to list things you don’t want on a critique. When your plan is too rigid, it can interfere with your critique partners natural reading style and result in lower quality feedback. So if you don’t really need a lot of grammar feedback, it would be fine to say, “I mostly want a big picture look at this story so don’t feel you need to give a line by line critique. But if you catch a major grammar blunder, feel free to point it out.” This allows those readers who really need to line edit permission to do that, but also lets them know what you most want.
There is another problem with a rigid list of what you want looked at. (“I am only interested in help with my dialogue!”) A rigid narrowing of what you’re open to hearing means the biggest problem with the manuscript may be off limits to the critique partner, which can be very frustrating. Also, as I mentioned above, all elements of a story are intertwined so dialogue is also part of characterization and plot. Any real critique on dialogue is going to be a real critique on the whole story. So, do tell a critique partner the things you want most to know, but be open to other things you may have been blind about.
The Problem of Trust
One thing many writers fret about when getting help is trust. How do I know they won’t steal my story? Certainly story-stealing is a huge plot point on television dramas involving writers. Anytime I’m watching a murder mystery with a writer, I can count on plot stealing to be an element. But in reality most writers aren’t really interested in writing someone else’s plot or premise. Most of us have a well of ideas and not enough time to get to them all. And professional critiquers are especially unlikely to be interested in stealing your idea. The time they give to critiquing is time away from their own writing, so they aren’t needing ideas, they’re needing time.
Having said all of that, it may easily happen that something you’ve written will be like something that comes from someone else. Writers often encounter this with submissions to publishers. You might send a story off to Highlights and they reject it, but then come out with a story in the magazine with similarities to yours. Since all magazines have a considerable lead time (time between when a story is sought and when it is used) and Highlights buys especially far ahead, the odds of your story having any influence on the story they ran is virtually nil. What mostly happens is that that same cultural forces that put the story idea in your head were also present for the writer in the magazine.
If you ask any acquiring editor, they will tell you that ideas tend to come in waves. Sometimes they can see why the wave happens. For instance, there was a wave of books about magic school after the Harry Potter series hit the big time. But sometimes it’s harder to see what is causing a wave of stories with insects as main characters or a wave of stories about dogs on road trips. These waves happen all the time, but as writers, we don’t see them. We might get hints of them in submissions guidelines that include notes like “no stories about gardens,” but mostly we have no idea what waves are rushing at publishers at any given time. It’s simply one of the risks of the business. If your story is part of a wave, it will make it harder to sell, but will also mean you’re likely to see published stories eventually with the same premise or some similar elements to yours.
Ultimately, the best way to judge trust in a critique group is to get to know your critique group before you jump in and begin asking for help. Do some critiques before you ask for one. Pay attention to how people interact. The more you know another person, the safer you’ll feel dealing with them. With professional critiques, pay attention to the reputation of the critiquer (or of the company behind them). Before we started our critique service, we paid for critiques from other companies and were surprised at the flimsiness of what came back. Make sure you know what you’re getting. But as you do your research, keep in mind that although literary theft happens it is far more rare than the TV would have you believe. And the value of a good critique can mean the difference between shelving a story and seeing it published. So as with everything in this business, sometimes you have to take a risk. The rewards can be so worth it.