When I first joined a critique group, I was like a bull in a china shop. I didn't have any training for such a task and it was a frightening experience. But what really makes a good critique.
I am an author with a history in childhood publishing. It is my creating career in picture books both writing and illustration where I did learn, quite instinctively, to craft a world, a believable and credible entity, and a suitable one for an early childhood learning experience. I was learning without knowing it about GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict = Wants, because, but). I learned the story arch in a very tight situation where words cannot be wasted and illustrations cannot be mere reflections of words but actually meaningful for little the enrichment of fresh, growing, curious minds.
In my decision to jump the fence or grow up a little bit, and start writing for adults, I did it alone and innocent. Locked away in my author's tower, where Repunzel would let down her golden hair, I tap, tap, tapped away on the keys releasing characters onto the pages every day. Magical grown up people who would become my obsession and my friends.
So when I typed THE END I ventured forth into the big world and on my clumsy walk I discovered the concept of a critique group and so the story began.
I remember those early days. And what I learned in my trip through critiquing was that it is an art, between diplomacy and honesty - and a genuine desire to be helpful.
The reason I am reflecting on this is a meeting I went to yesterday. It is a network of authors which meets regularly each month to support, discuss, boast, complain, analyse and just be friends in this often rather lonely pursuit of getting published (and staying published). Yesterday at this meeting it was mentioned that a session by a panel of supposed professionals went hell-for-leather after the authors they critiqued. They were harsh, rude and took their roles as literally as possible, destroying already fragile sensibilities and that a lot of resentment had been generated in their wake.
So what makes a good critique? A good critique can only start with a good manuscript. It is not a one-sided endeavor. It is not fair to expect somebody to come up with the goods if the author hasn’t. This means that an author must basically present their best effort, in order to obtain appropriate feedback. It is not only fair but courteous. If the manuscript is not up to scratch then it isn’t a critique that is expected but should be relabeled ‘Help Wanted’ and conducted on this basis.
The critique then will be begin with a thorough reading. Looking for clarity and understanding, and flow. You should look through the m/s with encouragement in your mind. Concentrate on the positives which will expose the negatives automatically. Praise should be part of it. “Love this” can make an author feel buoyant and good. The critique should be on the lookout for ‘show not tell’, and probably also suggestions on rewording the odd sentence or two.
The trust between the critiqued and the critiquer should be very high. And not every manuscript will be identical to the next. And not every critique effort will be a compatible one.
And finally I think the self-confidence of the writer in their craft is probably important as well. This is the ability to sort out what suggestions to take on board, and what you will disregard.
It all, in the end, boils down to mutual respect.