The Importance of Critics

“It is dreadful. Scrap it.”

That is an actual quote from a writing critique board that I frequent.

It’s worth stating that the critic provided additional feedback that was more substantive, and the author had the good grace to thank him. It’s probably also worth noting that the piece being critiqued was indeed rough, sloppy, and unfocused (in my opinion, of course). In other words: harsh or not, there was more than a grain of truth to what was written.

But I think most writers fear hearing something like this.

It’s a funny thing. We sweat and slave to tell a story that we hope will be read by complete strangers, but soliciting critical feedback is terrifying. Not because we worry someone will point out a repeated phrase, or too many paragraphs of backstory, or some massive continuity error (well, actually, that one is pretty worrying) – but because we worry someone will say “No, you can’t write. Now stop it and go home.”

Impostor syndrome is hardly isolated to writers; but I think artists in particular can be vulnerable – which is especially odd, since artists also tend to have remarkably resilient egos. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and there’s nothing anyone could say – no matter how harsh – that would make me stop.

Which does not mean I’m any good; but I digress.

I realized, in chatting with one of my soon-to-be-beta readers, that my book is just about a year old. I came up with the idea in October, and dashed out an anemic first draft with the help of NaNoWriMo. If it ever sees the light of day, it will likely be at least two years old – and it won’t look much like it did at the start. If it ever sees the light of day, it will be entirely to the credit of my critics.

I distinguish here between critic and critique. Critiques are also important, of course. A good critique is an invaluable gift: someone who reads your work, and can explain in detail what does and does not work – and, more importantly, why – should be treasured, and lavishly rewarded.

Not every critic will write a good critique. Not every critic will write a critique at all. But every critic who is willing to share is offering a different perspective on your work. Agree or disagree with what they say – but what they are offering is a truth. A critic is sharing with you their personal reaction to your work, and whether or not it’s easy to hear, it’s reality.

I had a hard time putting my work up for critique. The first time I chose a fairly safe venue – the forums at NaNoWriMo. The second time I chose my mother. (It really doesn’t get much safer than your mother; although my mom has assured me that if she thought I was going to embarrass myself publicly with this book, she’d find a way to tell me so.)

The third time, I posted a draft query letter to the same writing group that produced the critique I quote above. After all, I thought, surely I’ve seen the worst. Surely nobody could say anything worse to me than that.

These people pulled apart, rewrote, criticized, and asked questions. They told me what just didn’t work, what they didn’t care about, what I should be making them care about. They made confetti out of what I had posted – and I’d thought it was pretty good.

It was wonderful.

I had myself, and one good-hearted responder on NaNoWriMo, and my mother believing that maybe this book wasn’t some horrid piece of dreck I ought to abandon. And now…I have another half-dozen or more who may or may not want to read the book – but who didn’t read the query and say “Wow, give it up!” More than that – they commented on what I wrote with the assumption that I could make it better, that it was not ability holding me back, but simply a lack of perspective.

The value of a critic is not specific to what they say. The value of a critic is that they are not you. They are not scalp-deep in character and story and plotline. They are not madly in love with a metaphor or a turn of phrase or a lovely piece of backstory that isn’t really necessary – but oh, isn’t it pretty? The value of a critic is that they are a reader who is willing to talk to you about their experience with your creation.

What I posted was a query letter – a sales pitch. That, too, was a cop-out of sorts; I asked for critiques of an advertisement, not a product. I have been considering posting my Problematic Prologue, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just as terrified as I was before.

But I understand better, now, what I might expect to learn from how people respond – regardless of whether they find anything redeemable in the passage. Even bad feedback – or feedback I disagree with, or choose not to act on – helps me to see my own work more clearly. It helps me make this book the best it can possibly be.

Bring on the critics.

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