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  • Tracey Kelley

The value of quality critique

For as long as I've written, someone is ready to critique the work.

Maybe a copywriting client who had a particular vision in mind, and no matter how in-depth I conducted the initial inquiry, I didn't move the needle, and revisions are necessary. Or a magazine feature editor who liked my approach, but requested more details in a particular area.

In these and other areas of business writing, I fully expect each project to be a collaborative effort, with messaging crafted with care and purpose.

For creative writing, the aspect of collaboration shifts slightly, but exists all the same.

I take a pretty hard line regarding sharing creative writing: if you expect others to read and appreciate your stories, you write for yourself--after all, it's your art--but also to connect. On a reader-writer arc, the writer has to meet a reader about halfway. Too far beyond, and the reader has no room to explore, as the writer's ideas are "over-determined." Too short of the middle, and a reader might struggle trying to understand the story, because it's become what's called "private writing." (By the way, this is a greatly-condensed snapshot of the brilliant reader-writer arc explanation by Frank Conroy, former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He passed away in 2005.)

In order to effectively connect, writers need to understand a potential reader's perspective of the story. This is why many--but not all--writers have critique groups. This collective of ideal readers may provide story insight in a variety of ways. And while most people think criticism is the point of evaluating the work (and I've used that word myself), the real point is constructive critique. Constructive implies simply that: the story is being built.

Critique is, as mentioned above, an evaluation of the story. Criticism finds the story lacking, and says as much.

It's a delicate balance. In most writers' groups, the point of progress is to move through constructive critique until the story is complete. using this method is what often clarifies and refines the reader-writer connection However, there's also a moment when criticism is the only perspective someone may have of your story. What to do? You try not to take it personally and hopefully, these trusted readers are providing valid critique as to why the story is lacking. Remember: build, not tear down. It's easy to get defensive, especially if members of the group aren't being kind with their word choices and using a lot of "you" statements, criticizing the author rather than addressing the work. Ideally, you're in a group with members who care about making your work reach quality potential and believe in your ability to do that. So these moments are few. Is it necessary to have a group to progress with your writing? No. Often one other person will do: the one person you trust to always provide quality insight and establish connection. The value of constructive critique is immeasurable, both in professional and creative writing. Offer it freely and it's returned to you in kind, I've found. I'm fortunate to have many critique partners over the years who seek improvement. Together, we have a vibrant exchange of ideas, examination of craft, and intent of purpose. It's especially gratifying when members of your group read and write different things, but still place value on your story. That's golden.

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