Recently, a generous friend agreed to be a “critiquing partner” and we exchanged stories for review. I am very much the junior partner in this enterprise – my friend is a much more experienced writer who is really hitting her stride at the moment. I don’t have much in the way of a network across the speculative fiction community, so to have someone take enough of an interest to agree to read through some of my work was very encouraging.
It is the first time I had released an early draft story to someone, and it was nerve wracking to have something of mine “out there”. I’ve commented elsewhere on how much I enjoy the editing process with the editor of Antipodean SF (Ion “Nuke” Newcombe), but this critiquing experience was something new and different.
I was the first off the mark reviewing a chapter of a novel my friend is working on. The experience of giving feedback was very interesting. I wasn’t really sure how much detail to go into. I didn’t want to cause offence, but I wanted the critique to be useful. I also wanted to indicate through the nature of my comments that I was open to detailed and hard hitting (where needed) feedback on my own work.
Fortunately my friend is an excellent writer so I wasn’t faced with any fundamental issues to deal with (I can only imagine what it must be like to have to break it to someone that you didn’t like their story at all!). I then had the excellent experience of trying to put into words why I liked or disliked things in the text. It was interesting to work through a piece in that way, and it made me think a lot about the process of writing.
With nerves singing I sent off the comments. My friend took them well, and even expressed gratitude. My relief was palpable.
So what did I learn from the experience? I learnt that the more pedantic and detailed the comments the better (at least for my friend). I learnt that it was OK to express an opinion on something knowing that the recipient was under no obligation to agree. I learnt that working out why you like something is just as hard as working out why you don’t. I learnt that it is OK to say something isn’t quite sitting right with you even if you can’t pin down exactly why – it at least gives the author an area to focus on.
I learnt a lot.
It was then my turn to receive comments. I should start by saying that I was happy with the story I sent through. It was short (about 2,000 words) and I’d been playing around with it for a while. I was at the point where I wasn’t really seeing it anymore – too much tinkering will do that to a person. But I thought to myself ‘this is probably one of your most solid pieces of work – send it through so you don’t embarrass yourself with some of the other stuff you’ve got sitting around’. So when I saw the sheer amount of virtual red ink flash up in the returned document, I almost gave up my writing career before reading the first comment. But I steeled myself and started in.
The comments were thoughtful and intelligent. I learned a lot about how to lay out work more professionally and was reminded that my vague memories of high school English classes weren’t really cutting it when it came to writing fiction (there is not a lot of call for sharp dialogue when putting together a brief in the public service).
I was called on some lazy use of language and a structural problem with the first half of the story. As I worked through the comments in detail and applied them to the first draft, I gained a better appreciation of some elements of better writing than I had in months of looking at things by myself.
By the time I finished I had a second draft I was much happier with. I have a whole lot of work to do to rework most of my other draft material, but it is good work. Work that will substantially improve the stories.
One thing I learnt about myself was that even though writing briefs for government doesn’t necessarily help with all aspects of writing fiction, it has helped in one substantive area – the receiving of feedback. Many years of being focused on requiring the best possible work to get an outcome has helped me reduce the ego involved in receiving comments. If I got cranky every time someone pointed out a problem with my writing at work, I’d spend more time than is healthy being cross. And my proposals wouldn’t get anywhere.
So, while my other talents may be mediocre I hope I’ll be able to become a world class feedback receiver. If this experience is in any way representative, I’d strongly recommend any other new writers out there try to do the same. And if you can find yourself someone who’s writing you admire and who is willing to have a look at your work, grab onto the opportunity with both hands.
What have your experiences with critiquing been like? Leave a comment and let me know.