Are all critiques useful?

Picture of handwritten pageLike most authors, I’ve belonged to my share of writers’ critique groups in my day. Authonomy was one but there have been others. There are certain difficulties with being a member of these sites and those difficulties will inevitably affect the value of the critiques you receive for your work. I recently posted a book to a writers’site. I did this because I had diverted into a genre I hadn’t written before and even then, I felt my novel was a little bit different to the usual types of plots I’d seen.

Leaving aside the wide range of technical competence and the gamesmanship inherent in such groups, I think the biggest issue is that comments can come from people who don’t, in the normal course of events, read the genre. Some people will immediately say ‘yes but writing is universal’. But is it?

Romance novels may be the biggest sellers on the planet but many, many people heap scorn on the very notion. Some are afraid of science fiction, others shudder at horror. Personally, I don’t understand and would not read vampire or zombie stories. So if I encounter a vampire story on a writers’ site, what do I do? (Assuming I have an obligation to read and comment) I don’t like the subject, I haven’t read other such books, I don’t know what an avid reader expects or would find acceptable. So all I can usefully say is whether or not the story engaged me and why.

Normally judgement is passed on a section of the book which may be as small as the back of the book blurb and three chapters. After all, that’s what a query to an agent or publisher would offer. So would I read on after 3 chapters? Come on, let’s be honest here. This is a vampire story. I wouldn’t even have picked it up off the shelf. Sure, if I read the whole thing I might be able to suggest changes to structure or weaknesses in characterisation and such. But I think I’m going to be in much better hands, talking with people who actually read the sub-genre I’m writing.

What do other people think? Please share – I’m genuinely interested.

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About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 3 December 2011, in On writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I’ve had problems with the critique process. What one person thinks should stay, another person says should go. In the end, I’m more confused than ever. I once critiqued an erotic novel for a friend and I’m not familiar with the genre. There was a scene I thought was a little over the top, but decided not to say anything and the book sold, so I was right not to comment on something I didn’t have the experience to judge. It’s good to want to help, but if it’s a book you know you’re going to hate or are unfamiliar with the genre, it might be better to pass.

  2. I’ve gotten really uninformed (IOW ignorant) feedback from readers who don’t read the sub-genre I’m writing to. Certain tropes and conventions require a huge amount of explanation that readers of the genre would not require (example, having to explain the title system for my “Regency”-based science fiction, where any reader of historical, or any European audience, or any person who read out of contemporary romance, would likely not have required all that. Same example part two: readers complaining of a character having ‘more than one name …’ If you don’t get the right beta readers you end up explaining things that don’t need explanation and that would bore your intended audience. That being said, readers outside of your genre can provide delightful insight into how a novice reader accesses your story. You just have to filter the crits for what will make your story better (as you always do).

  3. “Writing is universal…?” It’s as universal as music, and we all know what would happen if we bought top price tickets to see Madame Butterfly performed at the Met and the world’s most popular Psycho Billy punk rockers showed up instead. What would the crowd think if they went to a heavy metal festival and a somber cellist performed a 90 minute solo? Nothing is universal regardless of merit and I would never trust someone who does not read/write or enjoy the genre I write in to seriously critique my work.
    Look at it this way, if an author works hard to hone their skills, reads, studies and absorbs the nuances within their genre /sub-genre then they need to take the extra step and be selective about who will critique and shape their work.
    I’m not saying turn a deaf ear to outside voices, I’m saying don’t waste time and energy on people who would never read or appreciate the genre.
    BTW Greta take my advice with a grain of salt, I’m writing a vampire story and my last book had zombies…lol
    XXOO Kat

    • Oh, I loved this. You’d know better than to take it personally. 🙂 But yes, I think you’re right. I wouldn’t presume to crit your work.

      • Greta, I’m sure you’d be an exceptional crit partner, I’m just disclosing my erotic-romance, fantasy, vampire, zombie past, which is usually more than enough to crush my credibility in many crit-circles! lol
        XXOO Kat

      • LOL. I guess you’ve narrowed it down a bit. I’ve thought about this a bit more – and I think I would take on a vampire story from someone I knew could write. But then I’d temper my crit to suit. eg a scene that doesn’t make sense to me because I don’t know the mores of the genre. But that isn’t the same as the grab-bag samplers on a web site.

  4. oh oh, I have huge issues with this. I write in the fantasy genre and it’s sometimes difficult to get people to understand the genre well enough to provide concrit. “Be more realistic” is a really annoying criticism to get on my magical fantasy short story…

  5. It looks like we’ll all have to join ‘genre’ crit groups. Thanks for your comments

  6. Greta, I agree – if you have someone who’s not interested in the genre you’re writing in critiquing your work, then there may be some issues. Plus – once a writer reaches a certain level, they should be picky about who critiques their work. (An editor told me that one!) I stopped participating in crit groups years ago. They just don’t work for me, though I would kill to find that one person I could trust.

    Great topic!

  7. Carol Drummond

    It takes effort to make a thoughtful and useful critique. Someone who is a good critic should either like the genre or recognise their own biases and work around them. I think that Authonomy can be useful if the right people give their feedback but it should not replace a good critique partner or two who may also be a beta reader. I would discount an Authonomy critic who can’t get past their own biases. I can’t remember – can you view the profiles of the critics on Authonomy? If so, reading the profile might give a clue to the value of the critique.

  8. Imagine what would happen if you wrote a feminist themed book and far right Christian evangelists were asked to critique it. Some people are big enough to put their personal beliefs aside when critiquing other writers’ work. Some are not. If your critique group is of a very different mind set from you, you could end up with not only not-helpful critiques, but destructive critiques.

  9. If we write ourselves and we’re willing to crit the works of others, that implies (pretty heavily) that we reckon we’re capable of judging whether something does or doesn’t work. Extend that a bit and it suggests that we’re in a position to assess whether the opinions of others on our own work (positive and negative) are worth listening to and therefore benefit from the former and, after proper reflection, ditching the latter. My own personal experience has been that there are those who just don’t get what I’m trying (which is fine because it would be really hubristic to assume I was worth universal approval). Equally, though, there are others who have truly perceptive insights into how I’m writing and whether it works. I’ve made significant changes to a couple of my books and learned enough from criticisms not to perpetrate the same mistakes. The dedication to my book The Sparrow Conundrum was to ‘all my online friends who gave such useful feedback’. And I meant it.

    • Well, yes, I suppose comments can be valuable even if they’re off the mark because they make you think. But I think Orwell might have said ‘some critiquers are more equal than others’. Also, some genres are less influenced by ‘understandings’. SF, fantasy, erotica, paranormal – all the weird stuff. Don’t you think?

  10. That should have been ‘ditch the latter’ – so much for me as a writer.

  11. So very true, Maris. I try to be critical, yet I have at times been rendered speechless. And to be honest, I’ve had wonderful crits from people who don’t usually read SF. But I have a special relationship with those people who are wonderful writers of historical fiction in their own right.

  12. Instinct has a *lot* going for it – and at the end of the day, we have to do these things for ourselves, don’t we.

  13. In a small critique group where everyone is expected to hear and crit every piece offered. If it’s a genre I don’t read, I’ll say so up front then offer just general observations. They’re probably not very helpful. We try to avoid that by putting members in groups with like authors.

    As a crime writer, I preferred to be read by someone who knew my genre. Now that I write historical fiction, that desire has grown.

    But the worst crits a writer can get is lavish praise. They can swell your head, but worse, not search for some real criticism. I saw that happen in a weeklong workshop I did with James N. Frey. I read a piece I was proud of and everyone around the table agreed, telling me how strong it was. All I got from Frey was it did nothing for the story. It was all questions and answers, back and forth. I tore that scene apart and revised the entire book extensively. And it did turn out a lot better. But one thing he said stuck with me. Praise ruins a writer. Makes them try less.

  14. I was in a crit group and we got way off track and it eventually killed my voice. no one’s fault but my own. but I didn’t ‘know’ I had a voice and didn’t recognize it, so when people suggested changes, they made sense to me. but the effect was the same. My fault. but it came about because I wasn’t knowledgeable enough as a writer to know what made sense and what didn’t.. Now i’m more of a ‘send it off to Beta readers’ kind of writer – once the book is finished and edited.

    come to think of that I just realized this is a statement of confidence in my writing. I can fix it and make it right – for me.

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