Critique vs. Feedback

At first glance it may appear that these two words – critique and feedback – mean the same thing.  They don’t.  There is a subtle difference in them as they apply to the evaluation of writing; specifically, there is a difference in them as they apply to the knowledge of writing.

I was struck by this last night as my new writing group gathered to discuss the four manuscripts that had been presented for this month’s meeting.  I mentioned in my earlier post on critique groups that this is a fairly esteemed group; most of us have more than one book published, and two members have a book count in double digits. Several of us teach at the college level, some of us hold Masters degrees in some form of writing, and none of us has ever self-published or stooped to print-on-demand (the most recent form of vanity press).

In other words, we know a little about what we are doing.  Does this matter?  That’s a resounding “You betchya!” because in nearly three hours of evaluating manuscripts, no one ever had to mention a point of view slip, no one ever had to comment on verb tense slips, and no one ever had to talk about lengthy passages of flash backs filled with passive verbs and no dialog. 

What we did was critique.  In this definition of the word, critique moves beyond the surface level of feedback (“You don’t need a comma here,” or “I really like this character.”) and delves more into the intricate layers that make a good story into an amazing book.  Let me give you an example. We were looking at a story that deals with some intense, psychological elements – family secrets, a religious cult, deeply disturbed characters (really great stuff!). The writer is clearly headed in a dark, twisted direction – think Stephen King for the YA reader, only even better.  As a group, we focused on transitions between scenes to improve the story flow and continuity. We discussed the use of symbolism and metaphor that strengthened (or in one small case, weakened) the story line.  If we only offered feedback, we would talk about the strong sensory details the writer included, and say how much we liked them or how good and believable they were, rather than evaluating their importance within the context of the story, and even the theme presented by the story.

This particular group of people was hand selected. There are some writers, even those who are fairly successful, who couldn’t handle the intense level of scrutiny that accompanies a group like this. The names of several come to mind immediately. For these writers, any form of critique comes across as criticism; they take it personally and they lash back in anger – sometimes going as far as to launch their own personal attack on the person or persons they believe have “attacked” them.

Critique is an opportunity to grow as a writer, and if you’re not interested in that, you won’t survive in the industry.

We didn’t invite anyone like that to our group – though a couple of writers who fit this description are going to be begging to be let in, for certain. Others will just point at us and call us snobs, or some other less refined terms.  That will be jealousy speaking.

There are eight of us. We like each other (even the people we just met for the first time). We are happy with the composition of the group, and based on last night’s gathering, it’s going to work extremely well.

The group was intense, and it was fun.  We laughed, and we certainly got work done.  The first e-mail I read this morning came from one of our most published members, Ann Cannon (http://www.aecannon.com/). This about sums up the experience overall, not just for those who were being critiqued:

Well.  It’s midnight and I can’t sleep even though I have to be out of bed at 5:00 a.m.  My brain is just buzzing–

What I want to say is this—thank you all for your thoughtful responses to my manuscript.  You asked all the right questions.  Now if only I can answer them.

Next month it’s my turn, and I’m both nervous and excited.  I have been looking forward to this – even craving it – for months, and that’s a great feeling to me.  I’ve been working on a piece for the Secret Agent Man, so this will be perfect timing as I promised myself I’d have something polished by the end of October.

Certainly you’ll be reading more about this in the coming months.

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