Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism part 3

Before a writer gets into final revisions, there is usually a process of peer review.  Some writers will join a critique group.  Others will have mentors who are professionals in the field or perhaps they are on staff in some academic facility.  The first external review of a work is often the hardest part of the process.  The manuscript is not in its final stage and the people that the author invites to read it must be sensitive to that understanding.

Many fledgling writers are pulled into the allure of the critique group.  It’s my opinion that a good critique group builds a solid writer for a few years, but sooner or later, the dynamic begins to shift when a writer starts coming in to their own professionally and takes on a strong professional voice and begins to kick the training wheels off their bike and ride with the pros.  Eventually you will want to find readers rather than writers when you’re looking for feedback as you evolve as an author because at the end of the day your work will be primarily in the hands of readers, not writers, and there is a distinction.

There is a difficulty in navigating most critique groups in that everyone in that circle with you is not only another writer, but also usually a direct competitor.  This is an implicit dynamic that no one likes to acknowledge openly but it’s imperative that you understand this when going in to a group of other writers.  They have agendas and so do you.  The point is to push past this to give and receive a meaningful critique.  There are many good critique groups out there that get it right and most of them have rules and guidelines that help the process a lot.  Be picky; it’s your right.

First remember that it is your manuscript.  Look at the group around you and decide whether or not the criticism being offered comes from a genuine desire to help your manuscript be the best that it can be and still be yours.  There are a lot of shadow artists in the world.  There are people who spend their lives unpublished but prominent in places like critique groups mostly because they’re comfortable there.  And as shadow artists they have a tendency to want to shape someone else’s work into their own.  You will not find shadow artists only at the critique level, but it’s where you first run in to them.

Most people within a critique group have also never had formal training in giving criticism though many of the best readers that I’ve had never had formal training either.  You don’t need formal training to offer insight that can really help a writer find their voice and give a project its best chance.  It does help though.  You don’t need to take a class or work as an editor somewhere to get instruction.  There are actually several nonfiction books on the nature of giving positive criticism, even if that criticism is not specifically on writing.  Criticism in general is a difficult art to master and one does not need a specific subject to practice some sensible etiquette.

Every writer should know how to give and receive criticism.  It’s something you should strive to personally educate yourself with.  Once you’ve studied a few guides, you’ll find you can apply criticism strategies to your own work and then understand the goal of criticism applied by others to your work.  Next week I will get into some basics that every writer should know about the fine art of criticism whether coming or going.