By Erin Krueger and Jordyn Kross
Editor: Sarah Allan
Graphic Designer: Carol Potenza
For the purpose of this discussion, we need a working definition of critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of the “word babies” to which we gave birth and have strong doubts as to whether or not we should bury them in the back yard.
Just kidding. Kind of.
Because that really is what the desire for critique can feel like—we want honest opinions on our work, but we also don’t.
Not to mention, how do we find willing victims—um—critiquers? Which isn’t actually a word, and may be part of the problem in finding these elusive people.
Let’s back up a second. There are many types of critiques that vary by:
-the number of people in the critique group
-the types of feedback given
-the exchange/delivery process
-the interaction during and post critique
There are a lot of different methods and critique types. Some people suggest meeting in person and sharing aloud. Some cannot meet in person and so they share over email with track changes on and pass it through the other members before it comes back to the original author. And some will just want one other person to read it and not have it go through tons of people. How many people you are okay sharing with will depend on how much time you are willing to invest in the work. The choice is ultimately up to you and what will work for you and your group and your work commitment, because, let’s face it, critiquing is a commitment.
There is also the Milford Style Workshop critique format. In this process, the author’s work is submitted in advance. The author sits silently as the group takes turns giving feedback. The author can ask yes/no questions, give thanks for the critique, or request clarification of a particular point. They are not allowed to justify or discuss their work. And yes, I did just describe Jordyn’s version of hell—mostly the sitting quietly part.
There are informal critique groups that meet on a regular basis, possibly in person when a deadly virus is not on the loose. They have their own rules about the size of submissions for critique, the type of feedback given, the amount of discussion, or interaction from the author.
For example, there was a critique group that met every two weeks in Paris. Authors submitted a chapter, or 2k words, or a poem for critique 5 days before the meetup. Then, over wine, cheese, and baguettes (la vie bohèmienne!) someone else in the group read your submission. After reading, there was a discussion on the piece—what worked, what didn’t, what was confusing, etc. The author wasn’t told to be silent, but to allow someone the space to express their thoughts. The more comfortable you were with your critique group, the more open you were with your work and others. You found out what the author needed to work on more and what they already did well.
Some of these groups remain intact for years, even if the members change. But it’s critical to make sure that if you do get into a critique group, it’s with people who want to see you succeed. (Check out Jeffe Kennedy’s blog on this topic: https://sffseven.blogspot.com/2020/03/who-do-you-trust-with-your-work.html)
Some contests also provide critique as part of their format. Like our LERA The Writer contest, there is typically a small panel of judges evaluating the submitted work for various strengths and weaknesses in things like setting, dialogue, and the use of swear words.
Okay, maybe they shouldn’t judge your vocabulary, but they likely will. Don’t worry, our LERA judges are better than that.
Which brings us back to the original question: How do we find critiquers?
Finding your clan of critique partners is often organic and a process—like dating, only more personal. Rarely does a group of people sit around discussing your first kiss technique. (If this is not true, contact Jordyn, she needs to interview you for her next book.) Also, you need to build up your own critique skills in order to be a good partner or group member.
“But I don’t know what I’m good at,” you might say.
Then you need to do three things:
- enter contests
- judge contests, and
- volunteer to beta read
What you notice in books and novels that you read is also a good way to see where your skills may lie. For example, if you notice dialogue not sounding right—maybe, for example, it sounds unnatural, stilted or clunky, or even too wordy—you might be a good source for natural speech patterns. Or if you notice that chapters aren’t punchy enough to make you want to turn the page, you might be a good “hook” catcher.
Entering contests will help you get really good at taking critique. It’s always easiest to pick out faults in others, but having to take some critique of your own “word baby” will keep the compassion in the forefront, too.
Find out what you do well based on your scores from those contests. Leverage those strengths. If you write good dialogue, learn everything you can to write STELLAR dialogue. Become the dialogue guru. It’s much easier to improve an area where you are already strong. Yes, work on your weaknesses, too. But by polishing your strengths and identifying your weakness, you will know what you have to offer a critique partner and what you’re looking for in one.
After you’ve entered some contests, you should volunteer to judge. Critique isn’t just about the negative. It’s important to build up your skills in identifying what other writers do well. One of the best things you can tell another writer is what to keep. What is really working in the story? What shouldn’t they bury in the back yard?
Lastly, offer to beta read for other authors in your genre or subgenre. It’s possible that a beta read for an author could turn into a critique partnership.
One final note, the April LERA meeting will offer a perfect opportunity to receive critique on a small sample of your work. LERA Idol is an anonymous presentation of the first two pages of a manuscript that is critiqued by a panel of published authors with additional input from a group of authors with varying levels of experience. There is no expectation that the author will ask questions, or even give up their anonymity, although they may receive written notes in addition to the oral critique. We invite you to submit your entry.