I’ve often mentioned that blogging, for all its time-suck-ability, has been the best resource for me as far as a writing circle. Most of my beta readers, whom I adore and are the most helpful giving people ever, have started as blogging buddies. In those scenarios, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the course of months, and in some cases years, and developed email relationships that surpass regular blogging relationships (and some of those can be pretty tight, too).
That type of writing relationship works for me because I have a good idea, before work is exchanged, what they’re looking for in a crit and they have a good idea of what type of things I’ll point out... except maybe for Travis, because I couldn’t find a single thing to tell him might need work, and I doubt he knows how rare that is for me.
In my experience, every crit partner offers something a bit different. Some come at it in an overall type of way, giving you a feel for the characters or themes that hit and miss but not necessarily specific lines or places that lose them in the story. Some crit partners will focus on the specifics and let you worry over the larger things. And, like any relationship, you’re not going to get along with every crit partner and not all of them will have a benefit on your work – usually I think this has more to do with personal conflicts than with the actual writing.
I’ve had a few crit partners that I didn’t particularly mesh with, and I think in most scenarios it’s because either the type of writing we’re into aren’t similar enough that we’re any help to each other, or because we don’t work the same way, sensibility wise.
I had one crit partner, a while back, that made a particular impact on me... partially because I should have seen the storm brewing and walked away before I lost my temper, and partially because I still feel like my specific crit wasn’t the problem. I didn’t know this person in the real world, and they weren’t a blogging friend, so we pretty much exchanged some long emails before getting down to the critique work... After the first few exchanges, I started omitting things that I would normally have mentioned – that should have been the red flag. I didn’t want to hurt feelings, and it shouldn’t have been about that.
Like any relationship, the minute you have to omit things to be ‘kind’ is when the honesty breaks down... when the honesty breaks down the tension begins. From my end of things, over the course of many exchanges, I started to get the feeling that this writer felt that I was beneath her. When I commented on grammatical issues, the response I got basically gave me the impression that she had better educated sources to go over that, I was there to look at the overall, and more specifically, to point out mannerisms to flesh out the scumbag characters... okay, so you can see how I felt slightly insulted.
But looking back on this now, I doubt that she understands why I was so insulted. At the time, I was pretty sure it was intentional... there are still comments ringing in my ears that couldn’t have been meant as anything other than an insult, but in retrospect, some of that was after the relationship had become more than tense.
Like any failed relationship, I think it’s important to learn from it. The writer in question isn’t a bad person or a bad writer – in fact she’s a rather good writer, to be fair. The problem was, we have very different mindsets about writing and about life. Had we bumped into each other in person, or met at a writing conference or something like that, I doubt we would have clicked personally – and that’s okay. Not everyone has to like me... and here we get to the heart of what went wrong.
Honesty. Honesty is essential in critique. It is. It is sometimes painful to hear and you need to approach it with tact, but it’s a waste of time for me to read someone’s pages and not tell them the truth. Honesty means that not only will I give you my honest opinion, but I will not take offense if you find that it doesn’t work for you. Critique isn’t a mandate, it’s an opinion.
So, for me, I’ve taken a valuable lesson into all of my other writing relationships. If I start to feel that I need to sugar coat things or can’t be honest, then I can’t work with you. That doesn’t mean I’m going out of my way to be mean, I’ll phrase things as nicely as possible and I always include things that work, because I think it’s helpful... but still, life is too short to work with people that irritate you (and vice versa) especially for free. It also means knowing that their critique is valid and they will point out what they see, which is not necessarily the thing you’re concerned about... but in the long run you’re getting fresh eyes on the ms. That can see things you might miss... So, I take all crits into consideration... that doesn’t mean I use all of the advice, but I at least give it careful thought.
So how about you guys? Have you ever had a crit relationship not work out? Are there specific things you look for in a crit partner, or specific things you want from a critique? Are there specific things you hate for people to crit (for instance, do you hate it when they’re nitpicky about grammar or tense, or do you hate it when they don’t mention these things?) How do you crit?