The Value and Place of Critiques

or…

“What in the World is THAT All About?”

I would have to admit that I like to know what I’m doing, and for other people to know – or at least think – that I know.

I doubt if you struggle with that. Or maybe you do?

If that’s the case there’s a couple of things that have to be accomplished:
1. We have to have a working knowledge of the thing that we are supposed to be knowledgable about.
2. We have to make people believe that we know more than we actually do, in some situations.

Maybe that seems a little bit pessimistic, or a bit dramatic, but I think it’s probably more accurate than most of us care to admit. To do what we do, to try to make a life as a writer, we have to try to convince ourselves that we are at least somewhat expert in the whole area.

While you’re thinking about that, trying to digest whether you believe me or not; let me tell you a story.

I have the tremendous pleasure – most of the time it’s a pleasure – of teaching art to junior and senior high students at a local school. The joy of imparting even a little bit of knowledge to these young people is coupled with the opportunity of being around their infectious appreciation of life. In a word, I love working with young people.

The other day I sat across the table from a young exchange student who was working on a very impressive “Ironman” project. It combined paper mache’, acrylic paint, and lighting. The paper mache’ was done in such a way that Robert Downey Junior’s arm actually extended off the page.

I’m sure you’re incredibly impressed with this information, but that’s not what we really want to address. Later on the student had to perform a fairly simple procedure. What would have taken me about five minutes stretched to fifteen minutes or more; and this student has by no means a “do it on my own” personality.

Here’s the point we want to consider: When we believe we know what we’re doing, we have a tendency to develop a “blind spot” in areas we don’t have knowledge about!

Now, let’s go back to the idea of our desire to be “knowledgable” in the area of writing. We naturally will have a tendency to think that we have a handle on how to write. We just normally believe that our writing is superb until someone with more information lets us know that we’re wrong. Until someone points out a blind spot we will not know it’s there.

For that reason critiques become absolutely essential for every author, but especially for the pre-published writer. While every person who has done any writing needs to coontinue to address these blind spots, for the published author that has been partially accomplished by the company’s editors. Meanwhile, the self-published – or unpublished – writer will continue to have those same blind spots, and they may not be addressed. At that point, critiques become even MORE invaluable when self-publishing. If we don’t embrace a strong – even “harsh” – critique we will have a tendency to pass those blind spots on to the reader (a totally unacceptable practice if we desire to have that reader ever read anything else we publish).

So, the value of critiques cannot be overstated. But should we simply incorporate everything said about our writing into our work?

Time for another story…

Several months ago I submitted a small introduction to my upcoming book for critiquing to a very quality critique group. I received several very helpful responses, and one pretty painful one. This particular person proceeded to inform me that several ideas from the book had not been researched sufficiently. The words were along the line of “now you can see why research is so vital in one’s writing”.

This person, I think they had a desire to be helpful, had no idea that I had spent months researching the particular subject being addressed. I knew I was right, I just hadn’t included all of the information because I wanted the reader to discover many of the points this person had made as they read.

So, we have several points that must be considered as we critique our work:

1. Remember that the editor or one doing the critique is not omniscient. They should be willing to say that their information and ideas are limited. The truly professional people in this area always seem to make that statement, and the really good ones seem to be able to make you believe that the idea was really your idea to begin with.
2. Make sure that the one doing the critique is not trying to recreate your writing in their image. You have your own voice, and a critique should never destroy that. It seems to me that there is a tendency to see a particular approach, or audience, as the only one that matters in our current publishing environment. Just because 80% of readers are female doesn’t mean that all of those readers want only romances!
3. Play to your strengths while considering the possible improvements that an opposing voice can address. It sure seems that a particular author has plenty of room to write a work of staggering genius without that work having to fall within a certain parameter – it just has to be REALLY good.
4. Make sure that you end up feeling good about the story you have told.

So, there’s my beliefs on the matter of critiquing. Having said that you must understand that I am one month into the three month process of having my first book edited for publication. Check back in two months, these concepts may have changed greatly!

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