Critique is so important. I honestly believe that writers who don’t/haven’t gone through the process – on both the giving and receiving sides – are missing out on an incredible tool for improving their reading and writing. Bear with me a moment as we look backwards in time.
As of 2013, I had hardly ever let a single soul read any fiction that I’d written. I’d had a short story published in my college’s literary magazine, sure, and occasionally wrote some experimental stuff on my LiveJournal (feel free to mock me for this later), but any novel-length projects that I was working on stayed under wraps without fail. At this time, I also didn’t value the short story pretty much at all. In spite of reading plenty of great short fiction as an English major, I just had this stick up my ass that the only worthwhile fiction was in the form of a novel.
I’m still not clear on what changed in me, but I finally decided to go to a critique group and see if my writing was up to snuff enough that maybe I could try and get a book published. Enter Meetup.com and the Columbia Writers. At my first meeting, I screwed up completely and didn’t have written notes in advance, which I was supposed to give to the writers of the pieces that we were reading that week.
I got better, I swear. I attended regularly and did my best to give helpful feedback that wasn’t mean or overly critical, but that didn’t coddle the author, either.
In this, I failed. For a while. It turns out, I wasn’t very good at giving feedback. I wasn’t focusing on the right things and my tone was too terse and unpleasant. But I learned as I went on, how to find the right balance between being friendly and being a good reader that offered helpful constructive criticism. I learned to stop circling out-of-place commas in red pen and, instead, to focus on character motivations, dialogue, pacing, and other genuinely helpful things to talk about. I became a better reader through this trial and error.
And, in being a better reader of others’ works, I became a better writer as well. I learned how to evaluate my own work with the same critical eye that I gave to my fellow writers.
Then, I started to submit work. First, it was sections of novels I was playing with (the main one from that era is on the back burner – I’m not dropping it, but it would be a tough sell, especially as a first book), but then I started to attempt short stories. In this time, I blossomed. With the feedback I was receiving, I started to see my own shortcomings in a new light and began to understand my own strengths as a writer.
Critique does more than just show you what you need to work on; done right, the critique process makes you a better reader and a better writer. I cannot recommend it enough.