Everybody Wants Something - Do You Know How To Critique?
Kellee Kranendonk

Everybody wants something. In life we all basically want the same things: love, nourishment and shelter. But what about in our writing lives? Of course, we want people to love what we write. We want our stories and articles to nourish the readers minds. And shelter? For some of us writing can provide a shelter or getaway from whatever everyday life throws at us. For others, our stories offer that for the reader.

But how do we get our stories to offer such things? We write them of course, but there aren’t many of us who can write a perfect story in the first draft. So what do we do? We ask for critiques -- at least if we’re brave enough. What are we afraid of? That our writing friends might hate what we’ve written; they might tear our work apart?

On the other hand, if we take the chance, they might love what we’ve written and help us to build our work up.

When I posted my first draft for critique with my online writer’s group, I was afraid too. But although others pointed out mistakes, they said my writing was good. This helped me write a stronger piece. Now, I know what advice to take, which to ignore, and I’ve developed quite a thick skin (this helps when it comes to rejections, too).

I’ve been with this particular group for many years now, even though the original site we met on no longer exists. We’ve been through many moves together. We know each other about as well as online critiquers can.

But I would never have known any of that had I not been brave enough to post that first piece. And you will never know unless you try. So, take a deep breath and hope for the best. But do your writing/critquing buddies really know how to critique? Do you?

Everybody wants something, but everybody wants something different from a critique. First we have to let the critiquer(s) know what kind of critique we want. Letting others know what we want not only prevents them from trying to be mind readers, but allows them give us what we really want, so everyone comes away happy.

Do we want a generalization, an acknowledgement that we’re on the right track or something a little more in depth that gives us specifics about what’s right and/or wrong with our stories. Writing paragraphs upon paragraphs of describing what we liked and didn’t like may seem like a rant to some. Others may like it. It depends on what they ask for.

When we return the favour, be sure to do what the author has asked and nothing more. That will keep both involved from being overwhelmed (and happy). One way of giving them what they want, without overwhelming them is to point it out within the story both what we like and what we don’t like. For example:

Jane went to her car. She looked around carefully. Joe was sitting in her car [and he thought about how the sun brought out the red so nicely in her hair - THIS SENTENCE IS NOT WITHIN JANE’S POV]. Jane got into her car and revved the motor [DID SHE START THE CAR FIRST OR WERE THE KEYS ALREADY IN THE IGNITION?]. "Ready to go home?" she asked Jon [IS IT JON OR JOE?]. He noded [NODDED]. "Yeah. I hope Jack’s there already." Jane smiled, her teeth sparkling like diamonds on snow. [I LIKE THIS COMPARISON]

Note that last line. Never forget to include what’s good about the story, what jumps out like a wonderful surprise. This makes the criticism easier to take. The passage above looks intrusive, but it’s professional. It helps the writer to identify the weak points and the strong ones. It identifies problems that they may not have noticed, and in a real critique you probably wouldn’t critique every single line. This kind of critique is best used on a final draft, but again it depends on what is asked for.

One other thing to remember is this: While it’s best to critique within our own genres, sometimes we like to try other genres (some of us write in several genres), so keep the genre in mind as well as the author’s style. Style is not what’s up for critique. Overall, it all comes down to what we want, but we’ll only get what we want if we ask, and everybody else listens.

As a critiquer, have you been listening? Are you giving your writing pals what they want? Are you getting what you want, and need, out of a critique? Are you brave enough to join that writer’s group and post that first piece for critique? Everybody wants something, including you. Just don’t forget to let everyone else know what it is.

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About the Writer:

A graduate of The Institute of Children’s Literature, Kellee is also moderator of The Writer’s Pen, an online critique group and manager of The Children’s Book Writer’s Café, also online. Her fiction and non-fiction (children and adult) has been sold to magazines such as Wee Ones, Georgia Family, CWFI, Once Upon A Time, Wild Child Publishing and DKA.