The Twelve Dirty Truths About Critique
Updated: Mar 21
1. Thou shall seek improvement, not bravos
If the intention is to ‘wow’ them with your piece, then the author has missed the point. This is not a room full of literary agents. It is a group of like-minded individuals looking to take their craft to the next level. If critique bothers the author and all they are after is cheers, then they should probably stick to reading to their friends and relatives.
2. Thou shall be humble
Let’s face it. No one woke up in the morning looking forward to hearing you read at your writers' group. It sounds harsh, but it is the truth. Remember that when receiving critique. Do not argue a point—again, no one cares. Not easy to do, especially if you feel your work has been maligned, but remember, no one is going to give your work or your critic a second thought five minutes after they leave the meeting. Good work will always stand on its own. If you do run into that person who is insistent upon you changing your work, say nothing—let them fall off the face of the universe—they are what the medical profession refers to as ‘fu-crazy’.
3. Thy critique shall be critiqued
Believe it or not, your critique is critiqued by your peers. A consistent flow of bad critique or lazy attempts to participate will tend to draw your colleagues away from you. The critic will soon realize that the type of feedback they give is the kind of feedback they receive. Critique meetings are a two-way street. You get what you give. We all have to leave early from time to time and that’s cool, we all get it. Don’t read and run as a matter of practice. People may not say it, but the habitual skipper will be noticed. Mean spirited critique speaks for itself—no one wants feedback from a donkey or its cousin.
4. Thy neighbor’s critique is your critique
When I first started going to writing critique meetings, I was about three months deep before I got up the nerve to read in front of the group. But, I learned a great deal in that time of…let’s say awakening(it sounds much pithier)…by listening to the critique of others, and I still do. Pay attention to the advice other people are offering your colleagues; most of it will apply to you or help to improve your technique. I learn from everyone there, be it grammar, content, or flow. I see what works, and I see what doesn’t. If I only paid attention to my work, I’d still be writing past tense in a passive voice from three different point-of-views.
5. Thy handouts shall be plentiful
For the critic, it is ten times harder to offer solid critique if they do not have a visual. Grammar goes completely out the window. The ability to circle back, re-read, and mark up your piece is also non-existent. Unfortunately, this gives the critic the impression that the author only cares to read and receive accolades as they have made constructive feedback very difficult—most critics will pass on offering any advice, and applause will be shallow at best.
6. Thy skin shall be become thickened
I’ve seen writers come and go for a variety of reasons. But the saddest to me is when they fade away due to critique. Everyone thinks their work is great, some are right and some are wrong. But a common denominator in this art, or business if you like, is the ability to take a punch. The first time I read, I received less than stellar reviews. I still came to the meetings, listened and learned, and one meeting during the break, someone asked me, “Hey, when you gonna read again.” So the next meeting I read—it went a lot better. By the way, confidence is a great attribute for a writer—and having a thick skin means you have confidence.
7. Not all critique is created equally
Remember rule 3, forget it for now—focus on the 99% who put forth the effort. You are the author, it is your story. No one believes in this story more than you, not even close. In one read, you will receive from your peers twenty things to change about your work. DO NOT accept them all. This is where the big D-word writers use comes into play: Discretion. Even when working with a professional editor, someone who’s edited fifty novels, do not take everything they offer. Address everything, think about it, then make a change or move on. It’s your work, your name on the title of that book cover, make the story yours, not someone else’s.
8. Not all bad critique is bad
Huh, what? What are you talking about? What about rules 3 and 7? Here’s the deal; even bad critique can spark genius. The bad critique falls away from the table, but sometimes it leaves a gift. That early birthday present is a good idea you didn’t have before but was born out of thoughts about the bad critique. Many times someone has provided me critique I thought was…how do I put this?—Not what I needed. But it made me think and gave me an idea for doing something really great with my story.
9. Thou shall pay thy dues and show up on time
No better way than to secure a spot for a read than to be a paid member and show up early. Volunteering helps a lot, as well. Here’s the order: paid members on time, then guests on time, members late, guests late—well really after you’ve missed the bell it is now first come first serve—this time thing is really important. I belong to an exercise club, if a session begins at 9:00am, the waiting room at 8:55am is packed full of eager folks looking to burn calories. Once they let you in and close the door, no more entries are allowed. They even slap you with a twelve-dollar administration fee for signing up and showing up late. Just be on time. And paying dues speaks for itself. Money talks, and you-know-what walks. There are bills to pay.
10. Thou shall respect the clock
Look, folks, there is nothing I hate worse than to have to bump an author from a read. Well, maybe the rule 3 people, but back to point. I hate it. I know you came here to read and get good feedback, and believe it or not, underneath all the slashings, killings, and other horrible things beats the heart of an empathic soul. I’ll say it again, I hate when someone gets bumped. So, be respectful of time—don’t speed read, and don’t not participate(double negative, that’ll hang somebody up) but move it along. As a moderator, we do what we can, but we need your help. Remember rule 2.
11. Thou shall work with the abnormal, get used to it.
The people in your writers' group that you talk to others about—you know the ones you call weird. You’re one of them.
Let’s not kid ourselves, we are writers; therefore, we are strange. We play make-believe for hours on end, dreaming up people, worlds, and scenarios. String together a series of related short stories and call it a novel. Character voices start becoming our voice. We’re even reluctant to have something bad happen to one of our characters, even though the piece needs it. You ever finish writing a story and then get depressed for several days, perhaps even weeks, because you miss the people and the world you’ve created? Sure you have—you’re four years old and you just lost your Barbie or GI-Joe. You are weird, some in a fun way, some in a yikes way. Parents, friends, drugs, or your Adenine just didn’t get along with your Guanine, something happened. Doesn’t matter, you’re just as weird to your writing peers as they are to you. Accept it, accept them, it’s natural—just don’t get a ride home from any of them.
12. Thou shall write
Rule 12 is like the fifth Beatle. An integral part of the Fab Four that got little credit, but still made a lot of money. The last Rule is just WRITE. You actually have to write something before it can be critiqued. This is the only writing advice I will give anyone on how to write a story—JUST WRITE.
This also gives your critique to others more credibility. Don’t be a rule 3 critic—WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. Everyone has a different style and their own muse. That’s perfect—without all that diversity in form and technique, we’d all be churning out the same thing more or less—that’s boring. Take the classes, study the rules, make the outlines, even pants-it—all great stuff. But nothing happens until you put those words on paper. Good or bad, they are going to change. If you’re waiting to unleash perfection on your first cut, then become a surgeon. The pay is better, and you’ll get preferred seating at restaurants.
Steven J. Marek writes and works just outside of Houston where his imagination runs free.
You learn more about his work at https://stevenjmarek.com/