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.
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: