Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Importance of Self-Critique

By Andi Ward
2004, Andi Ward


The purpose of fiction is to communicate a story from the author's imagination to the reader through words. While storytelling is an art and a talent, the actual process of putting words down on paper is a craft to be learned, practiced and perfected. A normal part of that education is critique.

Like many writers, I send things out to writer friends for their commentary. When I was a new writer, I considered it their job to find anything wrong with the writing. It wasn't my job to think about mistakes, just to write. Afterward, I fixed what they told me was wrong and consider the book done. If no one mentioned a problem, I didn't think about it. That was the job of the critiquer.

After years of being frustrated because my wonderful books didn't sell, I realized there had to be something wrong. The first place I looked to place blame was my critiquers. They, obviously, weren't doing their job right if there were still problems in my book. What they told me was simple: You get from me what I get from you.

So I looked at the crits I did for them. I've been told they were detailed because I would get into line edits and specifics as well as the general "I like this, I didn't like this" business. They were right -- we exchanged pretty even critiques.

Then I realized that I spent an average of about a half hour actually writing up any given critique after I finished reading the book. During the reading, I did not mark down everything niggling thing I found wrong. I just hit the points of what really whacked me between the eyes.

That's when something whacked me between the eyes: Why was I expecting them to give me more than what I was willing to give them? That's when I became aware of my own arrogance in the matter. I expected other people to care about my work as much as I did, to put as much time, effort and energy into finding my mistakes as I did in putting the original words on paper. I expected them to be as excited about critting my stuff as I was to write it and as dedicated to bringing my book to perfection as I was.

Once I sat down to think about it, I realized I was just playing games with myself. No one but myself would ever care that much. Equally, I would never care about anyone else's story that much. Writing is too personal a thing.

After the exertion of writing an entire novel, the writer's brain is understandably tired. The writer wants to be done with this, wants to be on to something new and exciting. The last thing a writer wants to think about is picking this newly finished thing apart and finding the problems in it even though she knows that looking for flaws is the necessary next step.

Sometimes a writer finishes the book knowing where the problems are. Sometimes she has a gut feeling that there's something wrong with it, but can't pin it down beyond that. Some writers finish a book and think it's golden just as is.

Getting another pair of eyes on the work is a good thing, without question. Some people have the opportunity to enter contests and get critiques back from published authors and even editors. Some people belong to crit circles or writing communities, or just have friends who will offer commentary. If you have the ability to gain good critique, take it. It's all to the better.

However, as mentioned above, no one can ever care about your story as much as you do. No one will know the story that was in your heart when you sat down to write. A good critiquer can only guess what was in your imagination by the words you chose, and use that best guess to tell you how close you came. Good critique from another person will only tell you whether or not you came close to transferring your vision to their imagination. No critiquer is guaranteed to be able to fix any faults with the words because they can't know for certain what it was you really meant to say.

As you look to improve your own work, consider the possibility that the best pair of eyes you need on your work is your own.

As with any crit, step back from the fact that you know this author and you might want to spare their feelings. Know that giving your honest opinion will only help them as you sit down to read. Put aside any memory you might have had about how wonderful this was and concentrate on what is actually on the page before you. It's a difficult skill, but a good one to develop.

Once you can do that, take the experience the words gave you and compare it to the story you originally envisioned and see how they measure up. Is it better or worse? Where did you get a "That's not what I meant to say!" reaction? Make sure you mark it. Honestly sit down and critique yourself the way you would like others to critique you. It'll be time consuming, and most likely painful, but a good honest job will show problems and point you in a direction for improvement.

Self-critiquing also is a question of responsibility. Your book is your work. Do you really want to give the responsibility of deciding what's presented on the page to anyone else but you? The words there and how everything is phrased are what transfer the story to your reader. Whether you get published depends on what's on those pages. Make sure they're the words that fit closest to your vision of your story. No story made of words will ever fit perfectly, but it's wonderful when you come as close as humanly possible.

Your book is your work from your inspiration and imagination. Getting feedback should hone your vision so your story can be experienced by the reader as it is by you. Your own opinion is just as valuable, if not more so, than anyone else's. The final decision for everything in that story is yours. As you get commentary and continue writing, it's likely that your experience will equal mine: A writer's best crit bud is himself.