Being in and amongst a large group of writers, where people like to share their work and exchange feedback, the subject of critiquing comes up quite frequently. Often, I hear people – particularly beginning writers say, “Well….I can’t really critique that well. So why should I bother?” Or maybe, “I’d really like to critique, but I don’t know how, and I feel like I wouldn’t be any good.”
This leads me to answer another question. What is critiquing all about? Most people seem to think that “critiquing” is to be equated with being a copy editor, or some such position. They seem to be under the impression that it is an arduous task that only people with expertise can accomplish. But the reality is that the process of critiquing is a simple one that anybody (even non-writers!) can do, and do well. It’s not a fine-tooth comb, and the belief that you have to be an experienced author, or an English major to critique a piece of work is simply not true.
The fact is, critiquing just means to analyze something, and then provide your opinion on things that could be changed or made better. This is where I often get the question, “Well, what if I don’t know what to look for?” The answer to this one is: you’re not necessarily looking for errors. You’re giving your opinion. And opinions can be something as simple as saying, “This paragraph confused me”, or, “I don’t understand why this character said that”, or, “I can’t really picture what this room looks like. Maybe you should describe it more?” Even something like, “What if he did this and then she said that instead? It might help this paragraph to be more interesting.” These are perfectly acceptable critiques that even beginning critics, and non-writers can give.
As a writer in a group of writers, I value people’s opinions, even if it’s just the answers to simple questions like, “How do you feel about what’s happening?”, or “What do you think of this character?” People like to think that critiquing is a glamorous task that takes a lot of effort, when it isn’t. Granted, sometimes it takes a little bit of time (though not always); but it’s something that writers should be willing to do for one another, to help and encourage one another to improve and expand their talents.
And it’s true that there are different levels of critiquing, and those levels do come with experience. But everyone still has a different opinion, and to a writer, many opinions are like gold. We want them. We crave them. And even if you don’t consider yourself a professional critic, you can give them.
Everyone has a strong suit, whether they think so or not. Some people are good at writing (or at the very least, imagining) action. Others are brilliant with character development, and know how real people act. One thing that often helps beginning critics to feel comfortable offering their opinions is to realize that there are things that they are good at, regardless of the fact that they may be beginners. There are things that they can visualize and comment on. One does not have to have loads of experience with writing to tell someone that, “This character isn’t really seeming human right now.”
Another common misconception about critiques is that they must be detailed, and hit on everything that could be changed or made better in the story. This is also not true. Personally, I love critiquing, and generally do pretty detailed critiques, but there are also times when I can’t devote three hours of my day to a piece of prose. Those are times when I prefer to give more of a generalized critique that may take me five minutes to type up. “I don’t feel like the protagonist had a clear enough motive for what he did in this scene”, or “The swordfight didn’t seem very vivid. Maybe add some more description?” One or two general comments on what you might change or improve in a scene is often just as good as an in-depth critique for someone who just wants as many opinions as they can get.
Something I’ve noticed when it comes to “lesser experienced” critics, is that they are often afraid that their opinion won’t carry much weight, especially if they are critiquing someone who they consider to be “better” than them. The truth is this: when it comes to writing, we are all on a journey. Even those who may have more experience with the craft of writing are still improving. They still value opinions, even from those who may not have the experience that they do. Critiquing is a field where everyone, no matter their age or experience, has something to offer.
This is why I encourage younger writers to “get in there and give their opinions”. Of course, it can be hard at first both to give and to receive critiques, but deep down, it’s something that every aspiring author desires. So when I get the “I don’t feel like I would be any good” statement, I remind people that critiquing isn’t about “good” and “bad”. It’s about opinions. It’s about breaking out of your comfort zone and being willing to give what you have to offer.