In Praise of Honest (and thoughtful) Criticism

For several years now, I have been a participant in the online writers circle known as Critters.  Although critters has communities for other types of writing, the largest community at Critters is the one comprised of people who write speculative fiction:  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  Each participant is expected to provide a 200+ word critique of other members stories, which come out in batches every week. If you critique one story a week for at least 3 out of 4 weeks on average, you are a Critter in good standing, eligible to have your work read and “critted” by the rest of the community. I have learned a lot from Critters, both by critting the works of others, and by having others critique my work.critters-pic

Last week, my “pastor meets space alien” story A Dangerous Philosophy came to the top of the queue. I received about a dozen replies from people of many backgrounds, and it’s time for me to apply the things I’ve learned in my next story rewrite. Before I do, I’d like to mention a few things I’ve learned and this and prior iterations of my Critters experience:

  1. Experts Give Better Critiques. If you’ve ever asked a friend for feedback on your story, and received empty platitudes, you know what I mean. The best and most useful criticism comes from someone who knows enough to tell you what’s wrong. That may be an opposite-sex friend when you’re trying to portray a character of that gender or a technical expert in the field your writing about, but mostly that means other writers. Most people who just like to read can’t tell you “character X has poor motivation” or “you’re overwriting here”, because they haven’t done battle with those particular demons — and those who can may be unwilling to tell you.
  2. Style Matters. I’m not talking about your writing style, though that certainly matters as well.  What I mean is that the way you provide critical feedback will make a big difference in how it is received.  There is a reason writers think of their stories as their children: the emotional response is the same. If you need to tell someone that their child is a delinquent, he’s more likely to listen to you if he feels like you care about that child as much as he does. Andrew Burt, who runs Critters, really pushes this issue, and he’s right to do so. People who follow this rule when applying #1 say things like “I don’t think X would behave as he does here,” or “I think your story would be stronger if you eliminated some redundant description here,” and are more likely to be heard for doing so.
  3. Diversity of Perspective Improves Results.  Some of the best crits I have ever received have come from people whose backgrounds are significantly different from mine.  Several years ago, a critter told me she thought my protagonist was offensively sexist when I was shooting for self-centered and ignorant. I never would have seen that perspective if it weren’t for her. With A Dangerous Philosophy, some of the most interesting crits have been feedback from people who don’t have my church background, showing me where I may need to tighten up the prose to make the inherent conflict between two ministers more obvious.
  4. Critters Read Differently.  Since joining Critters, my reading style has changed.  Whereas I once would have simply enjoyed a book for what it was, I now find myself pausing to appreciate how Hemingway phrases his English words to fit Spanish patterns in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or how Marisa Meyer gives her female protagonist a key action at the climax of Scarlet so she won’t be a passive victim in her story.

Early in my writing experience, I was able to quickly turn stories into rejection letters and didn’t grow from it. I liked my stories, and really didn’t see what it was that kept them from being accepted.  I don’t blame the publishers–these days, they simply don’t have any time to give critical feedback.  To fill that gap, I needed a writers group, and Critters works for me.