The fine art of critique

I’m on a writers’ website called Zoetrope – you can find the link under “Ampersand’s Writing Sites”. My writer friend Angileen put me onto it in March of 2008 and I’ve checked in there almost daily since. It’s one of my most valuable writing sites, because there I know I can get good critique.

One of the things writers really, really need is good, solid, constructive critique. Until I got into To the Point (the Thessalon writers’ group Angileen started in 2007), I found it very difficult to improve my stories. Part of the problem was that I had nobody disinterested whom I could ask to read them. Part of the problem was that my readers – friends, all – were either so impressed or so kind that they handed every effort back with “I loved it! Just great!”

I knew the stories needed improvement, but I didn’t know what they needed. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, those I could fix; the nuances of character, setting, plot development, what to put in and what to leave out, eluded me. I didn’t know whom to ask for help. Whatever they say about studying the work of writers you admire in order to learn, that is essentially as lonely a process as writing itself. You need feedback.

That’s where the writers’ group in Thessalon, and Zoetrope, which is my online writers’ group, were a tremendous help. There I met people who could tell me not only where a story worked but also – glory, hallelujah! – where it didn’t, and what I might do to make it work. It was gratifying to have them point out things ranging from, “You know, all your surnames are things like Cooper, Tanner, Miller. They get confusing,” to “You don’t need this character,” and “I need to know what happens between here and here in the plot.”

Yes, there were those who said things like, “I like (or don’t like) this story.” In my opinion, whether or not you like a story has nothing to do with giving critique. It’s gratifying to hear that someone likes it, disappointing that someone doesn’t, but neither of those opinions is helpful in polishing a story.

I’ve done comprehensive critiques on stories that I didn’t care for; even if you don’t like mysteries, a critical reading will tell you whether all the loose ends were tied up or not. That is a valid point of critique. Hate a character and want to smack him? Hey, that means the writer made you care enough to get you angry!

One of the best-written passages of fiction I know is a part of “The Weirdstone of Brinsingamen” by English author Alan Garner. I can never get through it in one sitting; I always have to put it down and go away to breathe because his description of getting through a series of passages in a cave makes me feel very, very uncomfortable. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, except when I’m reading that passage. Whether you like the genre he writes in (young adult fantasy) or not, that’s great writing. I wonder how many times Garner himself had to walk away to breathe!

If you don’t have a writers’ group, try to get into one, or put one together. Learn the skills of critique. (Ampersand and I will have more to say about that in later posts!)  And check out Maybe it’s not your thing, but have a look around anyway. There’s nothing to lose, and much to gain.

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One Response to The fine art of critique

  1. Linda says:

    Zoetrope is an awesome resource for writers and artists. I’ve been going there for years, and credit much of my development as a writer to the incredible support and talent there. And you, Liz, are an absolute inspiration~

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