Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why a Serious Writer Needs a Serious Critiquer

We've all heard the buzz about critique groups, alpha groups, beta groups, peer review groups, and any other term you can think of to describe such an organization. But sometimes we forget to stop and think about "why" we need such a group and instead just add it to our list of Things to Do in Order to Be Successful. So let's look at some of the whys.

First of all, there is one crucial detail that all these titled groups have in common: other readers.

Did you realize the answer was that simple? Other readers.That is what makes an effective writer.  We've all had the experience of somehow getting stuck in our own minds. We missed stupid, easy spelling or grammatical mistakes; the scene in our head didn't make it to our paper; instead of a riveting conversation, we produced daily, boring drivel. But of course, since it is our own writing, we don't see those flaws. It is, after all, our baby, our darling, our perfect little angel, and by the way, how dare you claim something is wrong with it?

I have had those experiences, as I'm sure many of you had. A fellow writer approached me once to read through his novel. After taking the time to critique it and talk to him about it, it was soon obvious when he argued every one of my points that he really didn't want a critique; he wanted a "good job." It was a bit of a shame because he is exceptionally creative, much more so than I am. (I know, shocking, isn't it?) But until he is willing to consider criticism, his writing will be nothing more than mediocre.

"Good jobs," though they feel good, get you NOWHERE. So, a serious writer needs to accept a serious critique. But that's the real fear, isn't it? If this darling, this beloved, this precious creation of your own making has a flaw, it somehow is a reflection upon your own creative capabilities.

I say, Bah!

Which one of us can honestly say we are perfect in every single thing we do? And even the things we are really good at, are we equally good at every aspect? For example, even a professional basketball player is "known" for certain things. He has a great three-point shot, or always drives in for the lay-up, or has an awesome free throw average, or rebounds like a maniac. But never (or at least very rarely) do we praise a player for being amazing at everything, although they are obviously above average in all things. So why should writing be any different? (For a discussion of why writing is the only art that is perceived as "effortless" visit Kelly Lindberg's blog.)

And that, my friends, is why a serious writer needs a serious critiquer. It is terrifying to turn that baby over to the sitter for the first time and wonder what shape the house (not to mention the child) will be in when you get home. And it is equally as difficult (if not more so) to turn over that story to the red-pen marker. They say you have to develop a tough skin in this business, and that's the truth. How much easier is it to practice with friends you trust than that ultimate critic with no time for anything but bluntness -- the editor? There have been times when my critique groups have told me the blunt truth that I didn't want to hear, and I fumed and fussed about it for a couple of days, justifying that they were wrong; they didn't know my story; they just didn't understand. And then after those couple of days, I'd throw my hands up and sigh in resignation because I knew they were right.

And I learned the real purpose of a critique group.

Critiquers are readers. If my critiquers don't "get it," or can't believe it, or fill-in-your-own-problem here, then at least a large chunk of my readers wouldn't either. And it's a lot easier to take criticism from your private critiquers than it is from harsh public critics.

Part of my title includes the need for a "Serious Critiquer." This means NOT your mom/dad/spouse (sometimes)/best friend/co-worker, etc., and for two very specific reasons.

          Reason #1 -- You'll get a "good job," which is about it, and as we established above, that isn't helpful.
          Reason #2 -- They are not qualified to help you fix the problems.

We've already adequately discussed Reason #1, so let's spend just a moment on Reason #2. How often have you read/viewed/experienced something that you didn't particularly like or felt was mediocre, but you couldn't express why you felt that way? This is like your general, lay reader. When you don't write well, your readers don't feel satisfied but they can't really express what their disappointment is. A critique group contains people who are somewhat trained in writing and can better find and express where the problems are and how to fix them. An ideal group has a mix of strengths, weaknesses, expertise, and experience that help balance, support, and ultimately improve each other. It's that simple; they can see -- and express -- what you can't.

We could go on for pages more, but we'll save that for future posts. For now, just realize that if you want to be serious about your writing, be serious about seeking criticism. Ultimately, it makes you a better writer (and, in many ways, a better person).