As writers, nay, as humans, we inevitably have to come to accept that we need help. I'm not just talking about self-improvement help, I'm talking about help in general. Our society, for the past two-hundred plus years has been built on this notion of self-reliance. I mean, the American dream is that you can have it all, all on your own. There's no clause in there about needing others. No one ever talks about anyone that might have helped Benjamin Franklin along the way when he arrived here with nothing to his name. Nope, do it yourself or you're a failure.
As such, I think we often forget about how important it is to keep the lines of communication open once we start reaching out to others. We take things for granted, expecting the people around us to know what we're thinking. I've noticed this with regards to critiquing.
While on the one hand we often want a virgin reading of our WIP, we don't seem to take into account the fact that we're all different and bring different things to a reading. We also write to vastly different audiences.
I think that in the last couple of weeks I've done about five critiques, mostly for people whose work I've never read before. What I noticed is that I found myself backpedaling at the end of my critique. I'd say my piece and then add in that I wasn't sure where they were headed with it, what kind of work it was, and that those things could greatly sway my opinions.
It does no one any good to take a Lamborgini to a Ford dealer to have it repaired. Sure, they might be able to keep it running, but they won't be able to fine tune it. They're just not familiar enough with the workings of the machine. You have to be upfront about what the mechanic is going to be dealing with, and the mechanic has to be up front with you about what services they can provide.
This got me thinking that the way we do critiques needs to be changed. We've all had classes or been apart of groups, where we send our story off with strangers and wait for their feedback. We then get upset when all of the reviews on our Stephanie Meyer inspired teen, vampire romance come back with suggestions for more historical accuracy from those that love historical fiction, more suspense from the thriller crowd, and more purple in our prose from the poets of the group.
While good writing does tend to simply be good writing no matter its genre, you can't please everyone. That's just a fact of life. We don't necessarily have to find only those who are in our proposed niche audience to do readings for us, we just need to be up front with each other about what to expect. When you take the Lamborgini in, the Ford dealer will tell you straight up, “If you really want us to work on this we will, just don't expect much.” And you have to be upfront about what you're bringing in too.
So I set to work creating my own personal critique guide.
“Like how to critique? Psh. I know how to do that.”
No, like a guide that explains to the person you are critiquing the sorts of things you look for. Here's a run down of mine. Right now it has five sections:
Disclaimer: Talk about your limitations, what you can and cannot offer and how you might be limited by what has been provided. For instance, I note that unless the author has a clear idea of what their Story-Worthy Problem is (SWP), I'm not going to be of much assistance to them. And without a general outline of what the story is, I can only grade it based on what is in front of me.
My Writing and Reading Style: This is where I go into the things that I appreciate in writing. I note that I am a slow reader and that affects how I take in information. Prose weighted down by heavy description are going to draw more criticism than those that are fast paced.
Books I've Enjoyed (and Short Stories): One of the easiest ways to convey to others the kind of writing you enjoy.
How I Crit: We all have different subtleties in how we go about conveying our suggestions. For instance, repetitive words, or consecutive sentences all starting with the same word just get a highlight by me. I don't comment on it, I simply highlight them. I also comment heavily in the beginning of a piece and then taper off. These explanations can help to do away with a lot of confusion.
List of Terms: Another time saver. There are certain things that occur often in writing and we all have different terms for them. My crit partner will note show don't tell as “write it fresh.” The first time I saw that I had no idea what it meant. Luckily, I had her right there in front of me to explain it, but in most cases we don't have the other person at our disposal when we read over feedback.
Click this link if you want to see what my critique guide looks like. It's a work in progress, so it will be updated from time to time.
Once you've created your Critique guides you can attach them to your crits and reader copies. This way everyone is on the same page as to what to expect. As I get a new story ready for submitting to readers, I will work on coming up with a Reader Guide, so be looking for that in the future. I'm also trying to figure out how to host files so that I can put this guide up as a download in case you're interested.
So remember, open those lines of communication and I'm sure you'll find that life gets a little easier.