Sooner or later, someone else needs to look at your writing. After spending who knows how long slaving and perfecting, we the writers are hardly objective observers anymore, and as such it’s a really good idea to get someone else in to take a look. Short stories, novels, essays, having a second opinion can’t hurt. So I joined the critique-trading website Scribophile and posted some things.
I’ve been lucky in that most of those who have looked at my work were good at the art of critiquing. Changes were suggested rather than demanded, and all framed politely and with at least some enthusiasm for the base work. As such, it was a shock to my system when I got my first bad critique. Not the first critique where the person didn’t think it was very good, but the first one where it felt like a personal attack.
This person was arrogant in tone, “encouraging” me to go back to my basics and learn more about sentence structure, assuming that of course I must be a novice writer in desperate need of guidance from this wise, experienced writer. The critique itself managed to miss the central idea of the work, and made assumptions about the story that would have easily been cleared up if this person had simply read the previous chapters, or at least the summary of what they contained. Which in itself was all very aggravating, but what truly made it all so nasty was that this person was not that good of a writer. Decent at their craft, definitely better than me at literary writing, but not that great. After some ranting, I took the one single thing from the critique that actually was helpful, and tried my best to forget about the rest. (Obviously that’s not working so well, but baby steps.)
Sometimes that just happens. It teaches patience, forbearance, and also gives a valuable lesson that not all advice is going to be good. In some ways it’s nice to have a bad critique on hand just to appreciate the good ones more.
And there are lots of good ones. Most writers take what they’ve learned about their own writing weaknesses and reapply them through the critiques they do, so you get the advantage of their experiences. When they’re gracious about correction, it’s one of the best things in the world. Yes, we all know our work sucks. Finding out how, and that it can be fixed, it wonderful.
Bad or good, critiques are an essential part of the writing process, and without them an important stage is lost. Even the bad ones can show things like who your audience is not, or elements of writing style that you really, really don’t care about. And what we all want, at the end of the day, is for our writing to get better.