Why do writers seek out other writers to critique their work? I suppose there are as many reasons as there are writers, but I believe the desire to be read ranks pretty close to the top. Without peer review, what eventually makes it to the printed page is little more than a silent scream. Writers must be read. It’s simple, it’s elemental, it’s required. I once read somewhere that a physician who diagnoses himself has a fool for a patient. I suspect the same thing applies to writers who critique their own work. We need someone on the outside looking in if we’re to grow.
As a writer I participate in both live session and online critiques. Before you accuse me of being a masochist, know this: the more I critique, the more skilled and diversified I become as a writer. The more I am critiqued, the more tolerant and appreciative I become of both the limitations and gifts of other writers I’m exposed to. Critique is a necessary and important part of any writer’s life who is serious about craft. Period.
There are significant differences in live versus online critique; the most obvious being it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever get beat-up in the parking lot for hitting “post my review” on a keyboard. It can be tempting to take cheap shots online, because, after all, it’s completely anonymous. I would caution you about that. The only person you’re hurting is yourself.
When you open your mind to constructive criticism, even though it stings a little sometimes, you learn things. Before you know it, you’re navigating your way through nests of dangling participles and clipping comma splices with the best. You don’t have to like another writer’s style or story content to critique it effectively if you strive to be objective. I guarantee you will learn something. In order to be a good critiquer, you must also be a good critiquee. (I’m not sure those are actually real words, but you get the point
Don’t become one of those people who delights in finding every little flaw and jumping on it like they’ve found a fly in their soup. Other people are going to critique the same piece. Leave a little meat on the bone for them. Look for the good and break bad news gently. “Suggest” changes rather than arbitrarily rewriting a person’s piece in your own image. No one likes a show-off or a line editor tampering with their “baby.” If there are strong and compelling reasons for suggested changes based on technique, grammar and mechanics, people will listen and they will thank you for it.
You’ll know you’re getting the hang of it when you realize you are learning at least as much critiquing the work of others as you are from being critiqued in return. Suddenly, slogging through those bothersome critiques isn’t such an onerous task. You’re discovering things in other people’s work you can apply to your own. Understanding dawns. Congratulations, and welcome to the difficult and rewarding world of serious writing effort.
Now for the bad news and the Achilles heel of online critique. There is no known defense against the drive-by critique. You know the type. Looking to have their own egos assuaged at the expense of others, they do the minimum. Spewing mindless platitudes, they pepper the “comment required” boxes like a Mac-10 with their vague and unsubstantiated garbage. Take comfort in the sure and certain knowledge that they won’t be around long. Good writing is hard work, and ultimately, they’ll want no part of it.
Writing is art and critique is the canvas. Some of us strive to paint masterpieces, others are happy with stick figures. All took the time to write something. Surely that deserves respect.
By Vance H. White
Vance H. White is a published short story author and award winning essayist residing on Northwest Florida’s Emerald coast. Vance divides his time equally between writing, pestering New York agents to publish his latest effort, and co-chairing a critique group of talented local authors.