We had an interesting discussion this week in the Arlington Writers Group about giving useful critiques. As in any group, you have people with different levels of writing experience and that can–intentionally or not–influence the critiques given to certain pieces. I’d passed along this great link on Critique Group Etiquette by Madeleine E. Robins because I think it has a lot of sensible things to say. Still, as the discussion evolved something occurred to me that I hadn’t heard much mention of before:
Writing and critiquing are two very different skills.
The very first suggestion in Madeleine’s post is: “Assume the playing field is level” and while the “playing field” in question isn’t specified, I took it to mean the skill of the writers in the group. But while you may assume the playing field is level as far as writing goes, can you do the same for writer’s ability to critique?
I’ll be the first to admit that when it gets right down to it, I’m no critic. I’ll read a piece and my reaction will be one of, WOW! or YUCK! I’ll do my best to point out what worked for me and what didn’t. I’ll try to offer suggestions on how a story might be improved (even though in some groups, this is a no-no), but when it gets right down to it, if I was able to identify the problem in a story and suggest meaningful fixes, I’d be able to do it in my own work too–and perhaps I’d be better suited as an editor than as a writer.
When I mentioned this, the question arose: Well, you read don’t you, and you make judgement on what you read and that’s really not much different than critiquing. True. But when I read something that is not part of a writers group, I am rarely reading it with what I think is a critical eye. (The main exception these days is when I am reading issues of Astounding for my Vacation in the Golden Age.) If I am reading science fiction, I am reading mainly to be entertained. Often I will write and post reviews of what I read, but–and I think this is a key point–a review and a critique are two very different things. The former, to me, is much easier than the latter.
Critiques should be helpful to the author of the piece in question. That not only implies that the critic reads and understand the piece, but can identify flaws and think of helpful improvements, and then come up with a way to communicate this information in a way that is helpful to the author. I sometimes feel a work much harder on a critique for a piece than I do on writing my own fiction because it is a difficult thing to do and I am by no means an expert.
So even if you assume that all the writers in a group are on a level playing field in terms of their writing, I don’t think you can assume they are all of equal skill when it comes to critiquing. This is where a framework for critiques might help, although people argue against this. We used a kind of framework for critiques when I attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writing Workshop and I found the framework helpful because the critiques received for pieces were more consistent and even. They focused on elements of the story as opposed to just random reactions.
The bottom line for me is that writing and critiquing are two very different jobs with two very different mindsets. You can be skilled at one or the other, but rare is the person who, in my experience, is skilled at both. And when I do find someone skilled at both, they usually have another label: editor.