Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Critique Mindset

For the last two years, I’ve been in at least one critique group, focusing on short stories and longer pieces of fiction primarily, with some memoir and creative nonfiction thrown in for good measure.

I like to think I’ve gotten better at examining a work and responding to it critically. Doesn’t always mean I’m right (or that there is a right way to critique something), but at least I can usually explain why I feel a certain way about a piece of writing.

 

And the longer I’ve critiqued, I’ve noticed that my mindset has shifted into distinct stages, where my emotional state and my approach toward critiquing differs from how I operated before.

Behold:

1) The Oh My God, Someone is Going to Read My Work Stage

This is that initial moment when it hits you that you are letting someone else – some stranger no less – peer into your heart and soul that you’ve scribbled onto the page. Or not. Maybe you’ve always wanted to share your work with someone else and now is your chance. Either way, it’s finally happening. As you dig into another person’s work, you are so excited that you scrutinize every single word within an inch of its life, so grateful to be given this opportunity.

2) The I’m Not Worthy Stage

This is after you have exchanged a few pieces with other people and you are blown away by the quality and wide-ranging ideas of others. You’ve spent so much time typing away in your respective cave that you forget that the world is a big place and that other writers have worked as hard or harder than you. You start feeling insecure and self-conscious about your own work, and you become extra diligent in your editing to prove you are worthy of the attention of others.

3) The A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing Stage

This is when you start reading craft books and blogs and start internalizing all the rules and should-nots and thou shalts of publishing. The next time you sit down to critique something, all these rules bubble up and you start saying things like “Never open with the weather” or “Are you sure you want to have a prologue in your story?” or “Haven’t you been following the serial comma debate?” in your comments. While the rules get to be rules for a reason, sometimes critique is more about determining whether the story itself is sound, not its container.

4) The Means To an End Stage

This is the point where you are critiquing just about anything people ask you to. Not because you are a pushover (or maybe you are). But because every time you sit down and examine a piece of writing, you know that you are strengthening your ability to revise your own writing. Every problem you unearth in someone else’s manuscript is a problem you’ll hopefully be able to see and correct in your own work. Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve bought into the idea, and the track changes and insert comment features in Word are now your best friend.

5) The I’m Busy, Don’t Waste My Time Stage

This is when you’ve reached a certain level of confidence in your writing and you think, hmm, maybe I should cut back on some critiquing to make more time for writing. Where you start being more selective of the folks you do exchange work with. You also start to figure out ways to remain supportive of but not beholden to those people who, for whatever reasons, are well-intended but unreliable in their critiquing, or aren’t making the same strides you are in their craft, or are writing more for fun than for publication. It takes a lot of time and mental energy to critique someone else’s writing, and you are now at the point where you want the time you do spend to be worthwhile and valued by others.

Did any of these critique mindsets ring true for you?

For more resources on critiquing and critique groups, check out the following links:

11 comments:

Steph Schmidt said...

#5 rang really true. Except for me it was also that reading work from someone just starting out actually started to make me write those old mistakes back into my writing without realizing it. I kinda hate myself for it because whatever I happen to reading (be it academic or fantastic) always finds a way into my writing next time I sit down to do it. Errors and all.

Gail Shepherd said...

I'm somewhere between 4 and 5 now. I find I'm much slower to respond to requests for critique because I'm so busy with my own work. I do get to it eventually, and I love reading other people's fiction (particularly if they're fairly far along). So I don't ever plan to give it up entirely.

anonymeet said...

Uh, yeah, definitely! But I love the point about using a critique of another's work to spot holes in your own.

An often-underrated but great effect of being a critiquer.

Bluestocking said...

Steph -- That's a bummer. I'm glad I haven't had that problem. I guess you'll just need to read really good books to counteract that tendency. Constant vigilance!

Gail -- That's where I'm at too. I really enjoy critiquing, but I'll catch myself getting annoyed at typos and other obvious fixes in some people's work in my local group that pulls in members with a wide range of experience levels. I just have to remember we all start somewhere!

Anonymeet -- I'm a huge believer in the benefits of critique! It's time-consuming, yes, but I think it's worth it.

Laura Pauling said...

I've been through all of these stages! So true!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think groups (and people!) go through all these stages. There's one more (the pay it forward stage) where I feel like it's important to help people (including kids) early in their journey (like stage 1!). I'm teaching a teen writing class at the library and it's just a joy to see these young minds starting down the path!

Bluestocking said...

Susan, that's a great point. I'm not there yet, but I know I've benefited from others at that stage. Thanks so much!

Lori M. Lee said...

I think I'm at #5 now. I WAS at #4 for a while, but you're right that critiquing is a lot of time and effort and the WAY I critique also affects that b/c I look at everything. It's very hard for me to turn off my internal editor at the minutiae.

Sophia Chang said...

UGGGHHHH I'm always recovering from #3...I'm even considering rewriting my entire WIP because of a method I recently read. sigh...

Angela Orlowski-Peart said...

Sometimes I'm at #4 but I mostly stay in #5 stage :-)
Great post. I'm your newest follower here and on Twitter.

garridon said...

I think there's one more stage, #6: "I no longer critique because it stopped helping me learn." I started out as a four, and I learned a great deal about my writing with it. I zoomed past five and landed in six, suddenly realizing I wasn't getting anything out of critiquing. I'd learned what the critiques could teach me, and it was time to pay attention to writing.

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