It’s amazingly hard to accept and to do critiques.

When I was a music major I always had a teacher; someone that knew a lot more than I did, someone who had years more experience than I did, someone that I trusted. After years of work with the instructors, with the directors, I developed a sense of rightness, of understanding, an ability to see the gaps between was is and what should or could be, and, a sense of how to work at closing that gap.

Essentially, this enables you to teach others. It also helps you to critique yourself, to critique others (including the rest of the ensemble that you might be rehearsing with), and over time you also learn to take comments in context, though, with music usually all you hear from non-musicians is how good you sounded or how much they enjoyed listening to you.

Writing has been quite a different process. I had a little time with an experienced editor/writer but I got scared off by the amount I had paid for the setup, and was afraid that it was going to continue at this rate. So I’m relying mostly on critiques and reviews, from other writers who are learning as well. The blind leading the blind, to quote the editor that I worked with. Fortunately the local group that I joined has one member with extensive editing and writing experience, primarily in literary genres, so his detailed crits have been very useful. The others have varied backgrounds and I take what they offer within the context of where they’re coming from and still get useful thoughts.

But it can be painful to receive the reviews. You want them (or at least I do) to point out anything that they see as a weakness or might have room for improvement. Telling you what they like or find strong is good too, but I want to get better so I want to know where I’ve missed the mark or where there is a potential opportunity to improve. And that can hurt. It’s your baby, you’ve sweated over it, revised it, carved it, shaped it into something that you like, that you’re proud of, and to have it poked apart, torn apart, to be shown the weaknesses, the errors, to have your characters that you love be called thin or unrealistic can hurt. Exposing yourself to peer critique, especially when you haven’t developed the central confidence of an experienced writing student, like the experienced music student that I was, is risky. One member of my local group is pretty obvious when he’s frustrated by the group’s critiques; he’ll cross his arms, purse his lips, and lean back in his chair, swaying to and fro until it’s his turn for rebuttal.

I also participate in an on line forum, which is not nearly as useful or consistent. The writing there can vary from beginner high school writers to MFA students, and the critiques vary just as much. Most are not overly useful, but again, there’s always the possibility that something might come out of it.

When I crit I try to say encouraging things, but I also spend a lot of time pointing out the biggest things that stick out to me. A lot of the submissions have poor grammar but I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time fixing those things. I’ll point out egregious mistakes but I tend to focus on flow, rhythm, awkward sentences, missing background that’s keeping me from feeling engaged. Something to do with my music background, I’m sure.

The reactions to the crits varies too. Recently I did a critique of a submission because no one else had done a critique so I thought I would be nice and make the effort. I wandered a bit; it wasn’t my best job of reviewing, but I said that as a reader I was getting pretty annoyed by two characters saying ‘dude’ every other line. And I pointed out that the descriptive sections had no flow, no rhythm. The sentence structure was square and repetitive; bland and boring. Plus there were a few awful misuses of commas. But, I said your story is going somewhere, and I’d like to see you submit something short to an editor and have it thoroughly reviewed so that you can learn from it and build a staring point for improving your technique.

In truth, the story wasn’t very interesting and I stopped reading because the poor writing, poor grammar and stilted dialogue was too much for me. It was a relatively long submission.

The response was interesting. He defended his overuse of ‘dude’ because he writes the way people talk. He didn’t see the point of any of the other things that I said, and, he’s published two books (ah, Wattpad counts, I guess) and he didn’t understand why I even bothered doing the critique.

Last I looked, mine was the only critique given.




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