What’s in a critique? Pushing vs. support, confidence vs. criticism

While working on Finding Your Sense of Place I wrote about my first critique group, the Alternate Historians, who pushed me to first understand the importance of emotion and description in my own stories. They pushed me understand a lot of things, and they were the first people to consistently show me what was wrong with my writing and how I could improve it, instead of just telling me how much they liked my stuff, the way my family and friends and teachers mostly had until then.

I was so grateful for finally getting that deeper feedback that for a time, I thought every writer was looking for exactly what I was—someone to tell them what wasn’t working and how to improve. So when shortly after joining the Alternate Historians a friend asked me to read her poems, I dug right in. I was proud of the detailed critique I was able to give her.

My friend, however, was appalled. “I just wanted to know what you thought,” she informed me icily.

Hadn’t I told her what I thought? When it became clear my friend had only expected positive comments, I dismissed her in my mind as someone who wasn’t a serious writer and didn’t want real feedback the way serious writers did. After that, when others asked me to look at their work, I was more careful, and asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for—but truthfully, I was doing that as much to protect myself as them. I didn’t want to waste my time giving what I thought of as “real” critiques to those who wouldn’t appreciate them.

I was a new writer. New writers can be harsh, as we take our first stumbling steps toward making our writing a deep and serious part of our lives. We can be judgmental, and we have a bad habit of trying to turn our new-found personal truths into universal truths.

I don’t know when I first began to understand things were more complicated than that, but now I know that they are, in so many ways.

For one thing, there are many ways to be a writer, and writing for publication is only one of them. There are things I’ve done as hobbies that others do professionally: bookbinding, working with rescued wildlife, running, countless other things through the years. If writing is someone else’s hobby—if they just want to have fun with it, and share for the joy of sharing, without don’t want to push their limits in the same ways I happen to want to push them, that’s fine, and more than fine.

And there are many ways to be a professional writer, too. Or, to put it another way, different professional writers need different things.

Years after I met my first critique group, in another critique group and another city I was delighted when a writer who’d mostly just filled her critiques of my work with smiley faces finally told me why a story of mine didn’t work for her. I’d had a nagging sense something was off about that story, and I was genuinely grateful for her comments. Yet when I told her so, she was baffled. “I don’t feel like I really gave you anything useful this time,” she said of the first critique in ages where I felt she finally had given me something that felt useful.

She told me that to her, a useful critique had at least as much positive feedback as criticism, at least as much focus on what was working as on what wasn’t. I was the one baffled this time, because while positive comments felt good to me and while I did want to know what was working so that I could keep doing it, some part of me was always waiting for that part of the critique to be through, so that I could get to the “real” feedback.

Some weeks or months later, this same writer commented more quietly that sometimes new writers just need for other writers to believe in them and tell them their work is worthwhile, because maybe they don’t have anyone else in their lives who believes their work matters. It took a while for that to sink in, just like it took a while for it to sink in that my friend probably wasn’t really talking about other writers, but about herself.

One of the things that sank in—one of the things I now understand—is that not every writer already has someone who believes in them. Those family and friends and teachers who told me my work was awesome without helping me to improve it gave me more than I knew. They gave me something I needed more deeply than I’d understood: the deep belief that my work was worthwhile and worth pursuing. That belief would later help me get up the courage to show my work to others, to ask for deeper feedback, to be able to listen to that feedback and make the most of it, and to send my work out into the world. I don’t know if I would have eventually found the belief and courage I needed on my own, through brute force, with time. I do know that I didn’t find it on my own, but with help and support. And I know that without that basic foundation—a foundation so basic I hadn’t even fully realized it was there—I could never have moved forward.

Thank you, supportive family and friends and teachers who I took for granted. Thank you so very much.

I still ask, now, when I’m giving a critique, what writers are looking for. But I no longer think there’s a right or wrong answer to that question. If I have a chance to tell someone else that their work is worthwhile, to play some part in building their foundation and confidence by pointing to the sparks that are worth pursuing—why wouldn’t I want to do that? Now, I see it as an honor.

Indeed, in the years since my harsh early writer days, I’ve handed manuscripts to others, from time to time, too, and told them truthfully, “I just want to know this doesn’t suck.” It’s easy to be full of confidence in the early years of a writing career, but through the years and decades after that, well, we all need a confidence boost, some years more than others. Long-term writing careers are complicated, after all.

There’s more than one way to be a “serious” writer, and serious writers—all writers—need many things to move forward. We need people who will push our work to the next level, yes, absolutely. But we also need people who believe in us, as we work to internalize that belief for ourselves, and as we work to hang on to it after that. If the push to improve is missing, our work may never sell. But if the belief that the work is worthwhile is missing, that work might never get written in the first place. We need both things, belief and challenges. It’s not an either/or and never was.

Writing isn’t that simple, after all. Few things are.

7 thoughts on “What’s in a critique? Pushing vs. support, confidence vs. criticism”

  1. I really appreciate this article. Back when I wrote my first awful draft, I joined a critique group. One person showed up that week. She looked intimidating, but her comments were actually what I needed to hear. She told me she liked the sister character and then explained how I could improve the main character. Back then, I made all the new writer mistakes. I didn’t know about show, don’t tell. I even had the boy looking in the mirror to explain what he looked liked. She could’ve ripped it apart. She didn’t. But I never went back.
    Several years later, I ran into her at a conference and thanked her. I told her if she hadn’t been as kind, I may have lost my nerve and never written another word.

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