14 April 2011 - 7:59 pm

Critiquing Fiction: Part 1: Why?

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of critiquing of fiction, from both sides of the fence: I’ve given feedback on others’ work, and given my work up to be considered. I know what I like and what I don’t like when it comes to the process. What works and what doesn’t. So here are my thoughts and philosophy on how to get the best out of a critique.

First of all, I don’t like calling it ‘critiquing’ (I have used it here only because it’s the term most often used for it). The word carries negative connotations, and this should not be a negative process. When I run feedback sessions in my writing groups, I tend to call it ‘workshopping’, because it is a closer reflection of how I like the process to run.

Many advice pieces on critiquing (workshopping!) fiction will say that the criticism should be constructive. This is good advice! I would like to go further than that, however, and break it down into a lot more detail.

Why do we do it?

This may seem like an obvious question, but I think it bears some examination. Let’s look at it from both sides of the process: the writer and those giving feedback.

Firstly, why does a writer bring a piece to be workshopped? What is it that a writer is looking to get out of it? It’s good to be clear about why you are asking others to workshop your writing, both for your own sake and to help get the kind of feedback you’re looking for.

There could be many reasons for asking for feedback, not all of which are good ways to approach the process.

Some bad reasons to bring a piece to be workshopped are:

  • Acclaim. If what you’re looking for is a pat on the back and a thumbs-up, you’re not looking for a critique. You’re bound to either be disappointed or heartbroken, possibly both. There are plenty of back-patting societies around if that’s what you’re looking for.
  • Confidence. Be very careful of trying to gain confidence through having your writing workshopped – that is not the point of the exercise. People will question what you’ve done. They’ll point out errors, disagree with things you think are perfect, and so on. You need to be prepared for that. At the end of the process, you may end up more confident in your writing, but you need to be able to get through it first! I have seen people driven away from writing entirely by a single experience with critiquing. If what you’re looking for is a way to gain confidence, see the bullet point above.
  • Confirmation of perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing; there is always someone out there who will find fault with it. Also, if you think a piece is perfect, what the hell are you doing bringing it in for critique? See the first bullet point. (I have seen people do this. It never ends well.)

Avoiding those, here are some of the positive, useful reasons to have a piece workshopped:

  • Improvement of the piece. This is the crucial point of the process, and should be the focus of every critique comment given and received. More on this later.
  • Improvement of writing. This could be any facet of the writing: style, grammar, plotting, structure, etc. There’s a lot of scope for comment here, so if there’s something specific you’re looking for feedback on, be up-front about it. There’s no point getting line edits on a piece when you’re still working on the structure and characterisation.
  • Beta reading. Does what has been written make sense to a reader? Do the images and metaphors work? Is the reader picked up and carried along by the story? How does it feel? Is there anything that might trip a reader up or throw them out of the story? Early reader reactions can be very eye-opening and important when polishing a piece.
  • Problem solving. If there is a particular part of the piece that isn’t working, perhaps throwing it out to others for ideas will help you find a solution. It can be a great way of getting past a hurdle you’re struggling with.

Ultimately, be honest with yourself about your goals and motives. Make sure that a critique is what you are looking for. Approach workshopping with the expectation that your work will be questioned, errors will be pointed out, and you may have to revisit things you thought were great already. Just remember that it’s intended to improve the piece!

Next, let’s look at why a person would be motivated to give feedback on a piece. Again, I’ll break it down into good and bad reasons.

I have seen a lot of people approach workshopping in a wrong or unhelpful way. Here are some of the factors in that:

  • Competition. Writing is not a competition. Selling books/stories/pieces can be, but that’s not what workshopping is for. This isn’t about putting down someone else’s work to make yours look better. Workshopping isn’t about comparing the piece in front of you to anything else: judge it on its own merits. (One to be careful of if swapping feedback is one of your goals – it’s not a competition to see who can get the most/least comments, either.)
  • Expounding knowledge. Workshopping isn’t about showing how much you know. Again, it’s not a competition; there are no winners or losers, and it’s not about telling the writer how terrible and stupid they are. Keep it relevant and useful, and note that ‘educating’ and ‘expounding’ are two different things. Also remember that you don’t know everything.
  • Look at me. This covers both of the above, but also other situations where feedback is particularly slanted to allow the critiquer to show off. This shouldn’t be a factor for the writer or the reviewer. Workshopping is not about egos – please check yours at the door.
  • Everyone should write like me. Hell no. That is not what workshopping is about. You are there to support and improve someone else’s writing, not shape their piece to look like one of yours. You may not even be the target reader for the piece. Be prepared to be ignored if your feedback isn’t relevant and don’t try to impose your opinions on others – offer them, don’t force them.

But there’s a surprising amount of good stuff you can get out of giving feedback. Here’s my top list of why giving feedback is a great thing to do:

  • Support fellow writers. Depending on the setup, these writers may be friends, acquaintances, or just names on a website. Sometimes it may even be anonymous! I’ve found writing to be an incredibly supportive community, and the fact that there are critique groups around proves that. Every writer should strive to improve, and I think it’s great to be able to help them do that. It’s especially great when more experienced writers can help the less experienced.
  • Learn how to critique your own work. Looking at other people’s writing in a critical way helps you to develop skills that you can then apply to your own writing. It will help you to look at your writing in new ways, and show you things you hadn’t previously realised you were doing. By examining others’ work, you’ll become more aware of what kind of reader you are, what you look for, and what works for you. This will naturally feed into your own writing, and you will improve as a result.
  • Learn more about writing. Workshopping others’ writing will expose you to different styles. As with the point above, you can gain a deeper understanding of what works for you, as well as what works in general. On top of that, the kinds of comments made by the group will also feed into this: others will comment on things you hadn’t thought about or been aware of before. It all expands your knowledge and toolset.
  • Receive critiques of your own work. It’s only fair that, if you want to get feedback on your work, you give feedback in return. It helps to motivate good and useful feedback from all parties involved. This can create a wonderful supportive environment if handled correctly. Unfortunately, that ‘if’ can be a big one – check the list above to see some of the pitfalls in this approach. Just remember to keep it supportive!

Lots of great reasons to get involved in workshopping or critiquing! Arriving with the right expectations is half the battle, and the better prepared you are, the smoother it will go.

So you’re all prepped and ready to go. Now what? Check out: Critiquing Fiction: Part 2: How?

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  1. Mill says:

    I stumbled across your page looking for writer’s groups in Brisbane–this was a really interesting read 🙂 If this is the way your group runs I’ll definitely have to drop by some time.

    April 27th, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Hi Mill!

    Sorry for the delay in replying. Yes, this is how my group runs when we do workshopping/critiquing, when we have something submitted. 🙂

    You’re more than welcome to come along. We’re meeting on Friday this week! Hope to see you there.

    May 11th, 2011 at 9:18 am