The Art of Critique

When I was first starting out as a serious writer*, I belonged to a critique forum, a writer’s chat site, and an online writer’s workshop. I’ve gotten critiques helpful and weak, gushing and downright rude. I’ve given critiques that pretty much spanned that range, as well, although I did reserve the not-quite-but-almost-rude for the one that was an obvious plagiarism posted to a forum that specifically disallowed such things.

Over the first couple of years, the writer’s forum closed, the chat site filled up with people from all over the world whom I still consider to be friends, and the writer’s workshop became so much work that I couldn’t keep up. Between my full-time schooling and full-time job and full-time mom/wife status… well, writing was on the back burner and critiquing was tossed in a cabinet, out of sight and out of mind. What little time I did get to spend doing what I wanted to do was spent writing. I pretty much stopped even reading.

In the years since, I’ve come to realize what a major impact that period of isolation had on my writing. The effects have been good and bad – good in that it allowed me to develop a real ear for my own voice and the voices of my characters; bad in that I found my creativity beginning to stagnate. The ideas I had for “new” stories weren’t much different from the “old” ones. My writing improved by leaps and bounds, because I had finally latched on to that elusive voice, but it also stopped improving in other ways.

I wouldn’t go back and do it differently. I firmly believe that writing is the best way to learn how to write. But there’s definitely something to be said for being read, and for reading and critically analyzing the writings of others. There’s something to be said for reading widely and voraciously, and for dividing time between expending creative energy and recharging the creative well.

Critiquing is pretty easy when you’re first starting out. You learn a new trick every time you pick something up, it seems, and the new tricks are exciting to pass on. It’s easy to find stuff to critique that is either comparable or better in quality than what you write, and those are the things you learn the most from, as a critiquer. As a person receiving a critique, of course, you learn the most from people who write comparable or better quality fiction than your own, and from reader responses (which are invaluable, imo).

There comes a point at which it’s hard to find a balance – to provide genuine value to the author receiving the critique and also get something out of it for yourself. I was running up against this unkind truth when I left my workshop in 2008 to focus on my nursing career and my family and Hunters. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough out of the workshop experience to justify the time I took to participate. I enjoyed the workshop, but I simply didn’t have enough time left over after all my obligations to participate in something that gave me such a low return for my time investment.

Now that I’m no longer working or going to school, a lot of time has opened up in my life. I want to restore that balance for my creative side – reading more, critiquing others, being critiqued… things I’ve neglected for too long, perhaps. With that in mind, I rejoined my old workshop from 2008. I’m not sure yet whether the difficulty in finding things to critique that teach me as well as the author will continue, but I’m ready to give it another try.

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*meaning I put my butt in the chair and actually wrote as often as I could, rather than just penning a few words here or there when I was too bored to do anything else

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