Levels of Critiquing
I’ve just been talking to one of my students about critique groups. They are good to go to, even for our students over and above our own workshops. But there are so many possibilities. Here are a few:
Tea party. It makes you feel nice. “I really like the way you talk about the trees bending in the wind.” It’s good to have that once in a while. But is it actually productive?
Harsh. Every conceivable problem with the piece is discussed. Nothing good is acknowledged. There is even discussion about how publishable the text might be. It can make you want to give up sometimes.
Balanced. The good points and the bad points are mentioned and you can come out of that feeling okay. However, you can never be sure what the balance actually is.
Genre specific. This can be useful, as you can concentrate on the particular requirements of your field. However, cross-fertilisation is also good.
My brand: I say what is good. I say what works less well. I give advice about how the piece might be improved. I summarise what I’ve said – emphasising the positives. It’s a nice method, but doesn’t paint the whole picture. I use this also with my students in workshops and always try to pick the comments the most useful to them.
What is the most important thing that they are doing right?
Which fault is pulling the work down the most?
Which is the most effective step they can now take to improve their work?
Maybe there is an argument about going to a variety of critique groups:
One that makes you feel good.
One that tells you how it is.
One that is genre-specific.
One that is balanced.
I also argue that there is much to be gained by showing a finished piece to someone who has never seen it before. Critiquers can lose objectivity if they see a piece several times.