On Saturday I went to the first meeting a local fledgling writers’ group. It was interesting to meet such a variety of writers and ambitions, and to hear various ideas of what the group should be about. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.
It’s hard to receive critique of your work, whatever your field, but I believe constructive criticism is what helps us to grow and improve. What kind of critic are you?
1 The Fan
Fans give short and sweet praise, which is great for the ego and otherwise of no practical benefit at all. “It’s great! I love it!” they say. Now if they are your Mum, or your husband, that’s fantastic, but in a writing group, they are of no value except to balance out the Ogres – see below. Often, the fan is actually not a fan at all – they just haven’t bothered to concentrate or to dedicate the time needed to come up with something helpful to say.
2 The Ogre
The opposite of fans, in many way, but for different reasons. Ogres either like the sound of their own voices or the power of putting people down. They tell you what’s terrible – whether in detail or with a broad sweeping statement, but either way in such a manner as to make the criticism feel personal and unhelpful. One thing they might have in common with Fans is a lack of attention: an Ogre might say “I stop reading after the first page” and mean it.
3 The Stuck Record
These people are much more useful, but on a limited basis. They have a pet hate, a bugbear, and you can almost guarantee that they will pick you up on it. I’m a stuck record sometimes; I often pick up on wobbling tenses and excessive adjectives, for example. Stuck Records are useful to an extent, because they are experts in their fields, and will pick up on genuine problems, but they are limited in range.
4 The Feeler
Feelers want to help. They get really into the piece and they give you a big-picture reaction to it. They aren’t interested in whether you’ve got the grammar spot on, or the consistency of character. They give you a reader reaction, and as such they are invaluable if you are too mired in the details of the writing. Unlike fans, they will give a balanced opinion and specifics, but it will be specifics about the piece as a whole, not about the wording. “I loved the characterisation,” for example, or “I didn’t feel the ending matched the pace of the rest of the piece.”
5 The Mechanic
The opposite to the Feeler, Mechanics are all about the nuts and bolts of the piece. They will pick up on stray commas, typos and oblique grammar points. If you’re happy with (and unwilling to change) the big picture, especially if you’re just about to submit, these folks are your best friends.
6 The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail of critics is someone who gives you a little big of everything. They praise what’s gone well, but aren’t afraid to pick out flaws. They look at the overall flow and they point out a lost apostrophe. They not only pick up potential problems, but suggest possible solutions, whilst always respecting the author’s right to ignore or disagreement with them.
There are methods and even classes to train for this kind of thing. People talk about “Strengths and Lost Opportunities” or “The Bad News Sandwich” and a hundred other methods of critique. But these methods are just examples. Those of us who care, are always trying to become Holy Grail critics, always afraid of sounding a little too much like Fans or Ogres.
Ultimately, nobody gets it right all the time, and a writing group is hopefully a way to get a little bit of everything overall. There are lessons to be learned in receiving critique too – and one of them is to develop a skin which is just the right thickness. That’s another holy grail I’m still searching for…