Writing Question: When to get a critique

Receiving feedback on one’s writing may be the most difficult part of the writing process. Most writers believe that feedback is invaluable, yet knowing whom to ask for feedback, and when to ask them, can be difficult. Kevin Jewell, graduate of the Odyssey class of 2009, recently asked his fellow Odyssey graduates about this issue, and here are the answers he received.

When is the proper time for an outside critique? The first draft or the last draft? If I submit a piece while it is fresh/early in my creative process, I’m more likely to be willing to change major plot points and adopt big-picture criticism. But if I submit it later in the process, it’s more respectful to my readers (because the writing’s tighter) and I get a valuable set of eyes on what is about to be shipped out the door.

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

I’ll be honest. I have figured out that critiques don’t help me at all, and I don’t do them anymore. The reason why is because of this exact problem–what’s better, an early draft or a final one? I finally figured out that neither works for me.

My early drafts are unformed, half-done, with a plot that is absent, vague, nonsensical or predictable. This has gotten me a lot of “this doesn’t feel finished, so I can’t help you with it” crits or “this feels like the beginning of a novel but otherwise makes no sense” or “this feels like a novel’s worth of plot crammed into 6,000 words and it won’t work unless it’s a novel.”

Part of my trouble may be that my prose comes out polished the first time around, which may confuse critiquers into thinking it’s a later draft. Or, maybe I’m just a novelist who can’t write short stories–quite possible, since all the “short stories” I’ve been working on in the last few years became novellas.

But with more final drafts being critiqued, in which I feel satisfied with the story, the critiques feel nit-picky and I end up ignoring all of them.

The place where I really need help is early in the process, when I can’t even generate a complete draft because I have no idea where it’s going. But critiquing doesn’t seem helpful at that stage. Plot-talking with other writers is helpful, trying to explain my idea and respond to questions about it is helpful, but there’s no manuscript to be critiqued at that stage.

I’m not saying that my writing is so awesome I don’t need to get critiqued–quite the opposite. I struggle hugely, painfully, and desperately with plot. I don’t need to have that pointed out to me again and again. Particularly since I’ve made huge progress via outlining, studying the craft of plotting, etc, and each story I write gets better in that area. But a critiquer might not know how remedial I was to begin with, and how much progress I achieved when I finally created a predictable (as opposed to nonsensical/absent) plot.

My biggest obstacle to writing is doubt. What I need most is confidence and the ability to trust myself consistently. So, critiquing is out. Hope that doesn’t sound mean–critiquing has also got me lots of compliments and support and an understanding of my strengths, yet I finally got to a point where I couldn’t make progress with critiques.

And I’ve been writing LOADS since I came to that realization.

Susan Abel Sullivan, class of 2005

I don’t know that there’s actually a proper place unless the critique group has a specific rule/guideline like polished drafts only, or no first drafts.

Otherwise, I think it’s a matter of choice.

There are pluses and minuses to critiquing an early draft vs. a polished draft. Stephen King recommends that you have no help or interference with your first draft. I’ve come to believe that that is true for me. I’ve reached a point in my writing where I will get the major elements as strong as I can get them, then submit to readers, saving the polish for the final copy edit. But in the past, I thought revising was the same thing as strengthening style, so I’d spend hours and hours polishing style, thinking I was doing serious revisions.

Now and then, I’ll come up with an idea for something, and I’ll have readers look at a rough draft to just get their overall reactions. But I’m talking about readers and not a full-blown critique.

I know that when I’m doing a critique on someone else’s work, I’d like to know exactly what sort of draft the writer considers the work. Is it a discovery draft? A polished, ready-to-be-submitted draft? Somewhere in between? I like to know because I give different feedback for different draft stages. And also because I’ve read drafts I thought were discovery drafts that the author had revised multiple times and thought was ready for submission. And vice versa. So, if an author has made the piece as strong as they can, but it’s reading like a rough draft, they have a serious problem, and as a critiquer, knowing this can let me point that out so that they can take steps to correct it.

Larry Hodges, class of 2006

Always submit your best work for critique. It’s true that some are more willing to “change major plot points and adopt big-picture criticism” early in the process, but the weakness here is in the unwillingness to change these aspects of the story. A short story is, by definition, short, and so such changes are not as epic as in a novel. If you send in early drafts for critique, then critiquers may focus on the problems inherent in an early draft and miss the bigger picture. They also won’t be able to critique a final product, meaning that unless you get a second round of critiques, your final draft will be sent in uncritiqued. Most writers make relatively major changes between the various drafts of a story, and so an early draft of a story critiqued will be something quite different than the nearly final version that needs to be critiqued.

For a novel, it’s a bit different in that there’s a lot more invested in it, and if you wait too long for critique, you waste a lot of time and energy. That’s why it’s good to have an outline of the novel critiqued, where others can critique the “major plot points” and make “big-picture criticism” (as well as character arcs, etc.) before you’ve invested too much time in it.

Carl Frederick, class of 2000

Since slightly before I attended Odyssey, I’ve been a member of Critters (an online critique group with about 2,000 members). With one small exception, I’ve never sent a story out without having it go through Critters first. And I’ve rewritten every story based on the critiques–sometimes, heavily rewritten. I get from twenty to thirty critiques per story (depending on story length). The trick is to know how to read/interpret the critiques, and that has come over time. Yes, it takes me a lot of time to individually thank each reviewer, but it is (for me) well worth it. Also, I still gain a lot from doing critiques. It’s much easier for me to identify my writing shortcomings when I see them in others’ stories.

Maggie Della Rocca, class of 2005

Speaking from the point of view as a critiquer:

I don’t mind what stage the manuscript is in, as long as I know what the author wants from me. If I get a rough draft, do I spend time pointing out spending mechanical issues or not? If I know the author, I have a better handle on that question because I am familiar with their style. Otherwise, I do take the time to circle the style tics, etc because the mechanics affect my perception of the story. So when people hand out a manuscript saying “Don’t bother with line edits,” I always want to say, “Then don’t give me a draft filled with typos.”

Having said that, one of the reasons I critique is because it is a great learning experience for me. So I don’t have an issue with taking a lot of time, but I am frustrated when I feel the author will dismiss a large portion of my critique because “I’ve already decided to rewrite that.”

As a writer, I find benefits in submitting either early or near finished manuscripts. I appreciate a lot of feedback on an early draft which might change my PoV choice or get a good handle on reader’s expectations. When I get to a late draft stage, I’m more interested in editing comments (because I have a terrible eye for my own mechanical errors) and notable inconsistencies.

Certainly as I grow as a writer, my attitude towards critiquing has changed, but I still find the process enormously helpful, both giving and receiving.

Susan Shell Winston, class of 1996

For me, the trouble with test readers is I don’t know how honest they are. When I’m asked to test read something, I will, then I’ll smile and say it’s good, give my responses about what I liked and why, but worry if and how much the writer really wants to hear about what didn’t work for me. Personally, that is not the kind of feedback I need.

Critiques can be painful. But if they’re honest reactions from a trusted writer/reader, if they’re constructive pointing out what doesn’t work in their opinion and offering hopefully an idea of what might work to get the same scene better, and if they not only include the positive, but also strive not to be cruel, then I find them invaluable. I would rather be told what is not working before I send a story out, or in the case of a critique of a work in progress, be told before I go off in the wrong direction.

There are some words, I believe, that are too cruel to use in any critique–boring especially is one of them. That word I find attacks the writer more than the work–it’s destructive never constructive. There are other ways to let the writer hear a passage is not interesting, but could be fixable if ___ and ___ maybe could happen. But most writers can’t get past the word boring to hear what else the reader is saying–the writer only hears that what he has to say is not worth anyone’s time listening to, and may stop trying to write at all. The point is, we’re trying to be helpful and encouraging.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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