Finding Good Critiques

By | July 30, 2010

So, you’re sitting at your computer (or scribbling in your notebook), and you write the last sentence of the last paragraph on the last page of your story. If you’re like me, after you’ve written those last, glorious words, you take a moment to sit back and revel in how awesome you are. I mean, dude, you just wrote a story. How amazing is that? Then you take a few hours, or maybe even days, to relax, content in the knowledge that your story has made its way out of your head and onto the page, and it is done.

Congratulations! You’ve just conquered what is in my opinion both the most important and the most difficult aspect of writing: concluding a story. However, there is a vital difference between concluding a story and finishing it, and the next step is what I’m here to talk about today: getting critiques. Because some of you, after a bit of a rest, will start to have misgivings. “Does it really make sense for Johnny to kill Beatrice before he kills Todd?” you may wonder. Or, “Oh god, did my characters actually ride off into the sunset at the end? Will anyone notice that cliché, or did I manage to pull it off without being hokey?” Or you might just have a vague sense that that scene in the middle with the jackalopes doesn’t quite work but you can’t figure out why.

What this means is that you need critiques. And those of you who don’t have these misgivings, who continue to believe that the story you just wrote is the best thing you’ve ever written and it is perfect and ready to be unleashed on the world? You need critiques too. In fact, you probably need them even more, because as fantastic as your story may be (and I’m not denying that it is), the fact that you can’t find anything wrong with it probably just means that you’re too close to the story. You love it too much to be able to see its flaws, which means you need to find others to help you suss them out.

Once you’ve realized that you need a critique (well, preferably at least three, to get a variety of perspectives), the next step is locating a few people to give you some, and this can be tricky. Many beginning writers naturally turn to their friends and family for feedback on their stories. This is usually a very bad idea. While your friends and family are often the people in your life most enthused about reading your work, they are also usually very unlikely to provide you with a good critique. There are two reasons for this. One reason is that they love you. This means that they might not want to hurt your feelings by telling you negative things about your work, which is kind of the whole point of the critique. Family members are especially prone to this attitude, because your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably still see you as a kid, and kids should be encouraged in their hobbies and praised for a job well done. I mean, if your nine-year-old brother/cousin/neighbor handed you a story and asked what you thought about it, you wouldn’t want to tell him that his talking dog wasn’t very believable and that all the other characters being magically transformed into dogs at the end is a deus ex machina that negates the protagonist’s agency and provides the reader with little emotional payoff, would you? And your family probably feels the same way toward you and your writing, no matter your actual age and ability to handle criticism.

The second reason family and friends might not be the best place to get critiques is that they might not be writers themselves, and thus don’t necessarily know what pitfalls to be on the lookout for. As much as they may love reading, it often takes a writer (or someone well versed in literary criticism) to be able to grasp what sort of structures underlie good stories and be able to offer you concrete suggestions for improvement rather than vague “something might be off here, but I don’t know what” type criticisms. There are exceptions to every rule, however, and some of your family and friends, especially if they are writers themselves, may make fantastic and enthusiastic critiquers. However, I’d still advise you to get at least one critique from someone a bit less close to you.

The best people you can find to give you critiques are other writers. Many writers find it effective to join a writers’ group, either in person or online. Your school might have a writing group, or the public library, or a local bookstore. And if there isn’t one, you could probably start one yourself without too much difficulty. If you think you’d enjoy in-person critiques (and are perhaps longing to make a new writer-friend in your area), local writing groups can be good places to start your search. However, these groups can also be extremely hit or miss in regards to type and quality of writing. For instance, I joined my high school’s writers’ group freshman year, and not only were there no other speculative fiction writers, there were no other fiction writers, period. I spent a few months struggling to provide feedback on teen angst poetry and patiently receiving critiques that almost inevitably began with the phrase, “I don’t read this sort of thing, but…” before deciding that that was not the best way for me to get feedback on my writing. I know plenty of people who have succeeded in local writers’ groups, however, and they’re worth exploring.

If you’ve checked out the local groups and found them lacking, or there aren’t any, or you just want to skip that step because you are painfully shy and think you’d prefer online critiques (I empathize), there are plenty of places to get critiques on the internet. However, as you may already know, the internet is full of a lot of crap. And not every online writing community will actually be able to provide you with a decent critique. There are plenty of websites where you can slap up a story and get some ego-boosting comments like, “Wow, this is great! Character x is sexy. I wish he were my boyfriend, lol.” And if you get negative feedback, it’s often not of the constructive type. Finding a good, solid critique on the internet can be harder than it seems, hard enough that some people pay for the privilege (the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror is one such place, charging $49/year or $6/month).

But it is possible to get good critiques for free, especially if you’re willing to return the favor. And the very best way to get good critiques online is to give them. If you read someone’s story and provide them with a lengthy, in-depth critique, that person is more likely to give your story the same considered treatment. (If you missed Rachel Halpern’s excellent series of posts about how to critique, definitely go read them now!) Most of the better online writing communities actually require you to provide critiques of others’ work in order to receive critiques on your own writing, so be prepared to put in some work.

A couple sites that I think deserve special mention are the Young Writers Society and Critters. The Young Writers Society is pretty informal, and operates using a forum. The major downside to this community is that the boards are public, which means that posting your story there could be considered publication by some story markets who define publication more or less as “available to a wide audience” (i.e., the entire internet). So don’t post anything you think you might want to eventually submit for publication. However, this is a great place to meet other new writers and talk shop, and often critiques can be done using private messages between individuals rather than posting to the boards, avoiding the pitfall of accidental publication.

Once you’ve reached a stage in your writing where you feel that you’re perhaps no longer a wet-behind-the-ears beginner, Critters is a fantastic place to get critiques. It describes itself as a group for “serious” speculative fiction writers, so you might not want to jump into this one straightaway. Critters uses a more rigid workshop format that has you critiquing one story per week, with your story waiting in a queue for other members to see it. If your rate of critique drops below 75%, your story is held until you reach that percentage again. As a bonus for the novelists I’ve neglected thus far in this post, Critters will also critique novels. One of my favorite things about Critters is that it’s dedicated solely to speculative fiction, so your critiquers will have the genre framework for your story that critiquers who aren’t genre readers will lack. You also get a ton of critiques (an estimated 15-20 per piece), so you’re more or less guaranteed to get at least a few good ones in the mix.

There are a lot of other places to find critiques, many of which I’m sure I don’t even know about. Explore! Try new things! When you get a good critique, foster a relationship with that critiquer, because even if you decide that the venue in which you received the critique isn’t to your liking, you can always start forming a network of good critiquers with whom to swap stories. Eventually you might reach a magical stage where you have enough critique partners to form your own private critique group where everyone is certain to get good critiques every time.

So, writers: Where do you go to get feedback on your writing? What works and doesn’t work for you when you’re looking for a good critique?

***

I’m Elena Gleason, Alpha alumna of 2005 and 2006. My stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine, and I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I like to avoid actually writing by talking about writing and writing resources, so look for more posts from me in the future on topics like when to know if you’re ready to start submitting stories for publication and how to go about doing that, and having a positive attitude toward rejection letters. You can visit me online at http://www.elenagleason.com.

3 thoughts on “Finding Good Critiques

  1. Catherine Krahe

    Some possibilities for critiquers open up when you go where writers are in general– not just Alpha and other organized workshops, but cons in general. I wouldn’t have found my Iowa City crit group, nor anyone writing in Iowa City, had I not gone to Wiscon in 2006. It took until 2007 to re-find the crit group, helped by some serious serendipity (when you meet someone cool at a con, WRITE THINGS DOWN!), but it wouldn’t have happened at all without that bit of writertalk at a party.

  2. Elena Gleason Post author

    Yeah, cons and workshops are the absolute best way to meet good critique partners, but it’s a bummer if you can’t afford them. I would have mentioned them here, but was trying to find ways that didn’t involve spending money. I definitely couldn’t afford conventions when I was just starting out, and I still can’t afford any that involve travel and accommodation expenses, which is most of them.

    …But if you CAN afford to go to conventions, then yes, that is a fantastic way to meet other spec fic writers with whom to swap stories!

  3. Catherine Krahe

    I hadn’t picked up on the free/cheap pattern, sorry. I also think of some things as side benefits, like finding writerfolks at cons– I go to cons for other purposes, and that was a bonus. The con is an unrelated cost, like buying a laptop to get online. Assumptions and privileges all over the place.

Comments are closed.