Ever notice there are 2 basic types of critiques out there?
First is what I call the 'artist's critique.' This is like those classes you took where the professor or teacher said "there is no wrong answer." Remember that? Sure it was fun, and you probably learned important writey things, but what didn't happen was constructive criticism. It's like putting a painting into a sculpture competition and getting the 'participant' award along with everybody else.
At the other end of the spectrum is the 'mechanic's critique.' This is what happens when you take the car in for an oil change and you end up being told your transmission is crap. In critiquing terms, this is when you hand an imperfect work over to somebody and they end up telling you every little thing you've done wrong, including the things you thought were right. Been there? It's like handing somebody a carving of a bear and hearing them say "This doesn't look like a painting of a dolphin at all!"
Seems like critique groups also fall into one of those two categories. And that's too bad because critiquing ought to be the most helpful stage of the writing process. It ought to be the impetus for making the rough become smooth in all the right places. Yet too often, critiquing and critique groups is what sends a fine piece of work into development hell, and what should have taken a few days or weeks to improve instead takes years.
Here is a story which helps me remember the key of good critiquing.
Back in my young and rude days I once visited a friend and mentioned to her mother that their piano was in need of a good tuning.
"That's odd," her mother said. "I just tuned it recently." She then brought out a tuning hammer and a small electronic keyboard. She then went through, note by note, and tuned every key on her piano to the corresponding electronic tone on her small keyboard.
I remember thinking, "well, that's a weird way to do it, but whatever."
After she finished, she played through all the notes on the piano with a smile. It sounded terrible. "That's better," she said. I smiled and wondered how things had gone so terribly wrong.
Years later I learned something interesting about pianos which explained why this carefully tuned piano had sounded so wrong. See, pianos have something weird in their physics called stretch. Without getting into details, it's stretch which makes it so that a piano must be tuned to itself. If you try to tune a piano to another piano or some other device you end up with pitches that don't sound good at all.
So, when you have the honor of critiquing the work of another, remember to consider the work in terms of itself. Don't try to 'tune' the piece according to the standards of another work, especially one which is unrelated. Leave your preconceptions at the door and just try to get the writing in tune with itself.
When looking for somebody else to critique your own work, have a conversation first. Maybe you should try and give them a work which you have already have critiqued and ask them to take a look at it. See how they do it. Find somebody who tries to make your work fit its own rules instead of theirs.
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