The Value of Writing Critique

Critique is more than dismissing influences or praising effort, and finding the right group is essential.

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I’m a big fan of critiquing—both critiquing the writing of others, and having other writers critique my work—and I take part in critiques as often as possible. I have to confess, though, this hasn’t always been the case.

I studied Fine Art at degree level, and during my first term I met (for the sake of this essay) Tweedledum and Tweedledee, my two main tutors. They had a double act that did little for my wellbeing. Dum strolled around the studio, waltzing past and throwing out artists’ names. Dum accused us of either copying or being derivative, and for the first few weeks that was all Dum did. Dee led the tutorials, with Dum leaning against the door or popping in to circle our easels and leave. Dee’s first words to us painters were, “You are not unique. Not original. You have nothing new to add to art or, for that matter, the world. Absolutely everything you think or do or are about to do has been done. You are in no way special. We have seen it all before.”

During the third week they started to team up and critique, yet you can probably imagine the level of genuinely constructive criticism that came our way. There was no guidance or advice. I needed more. I needed suggestions and questions. I needed answers.

Eventually, a few of us started to talk to each other in quiet parts of the day. We took to holding our own critique sessions and to asking for advice from the studio assistant, who offered helpful, practical ideas. We went sideways and learnt to ask and answer questions that were sometimes quite uncomfortable, particularly the ones that highlighted weaknesses or our own vagueness and indecision. There were no set times or orders of business or even great depth, but three of us became close and it was more than just coping in the face of callousness or indifference. Our critiques were, at times, furious and comical, as we were passionate but ill-informed. However, running through it, stitching it all together, were pointers that made us reflect and, where necessary, adapt to improve our art.

Unfortunately we were young and inexperienced. Our talks were based on gut reactions and, in the long run, would not make us outstanding. We just didn’t have the background, the depth of knowledge, or the skill. What we should have done is asked more experienced artists for help, or at least a way to work things to our advantage.

Alongside drawing, I’ve enjoyed writing poetry and prose since I was very young. This continued well after leaving university, yet didn’t get me anywhere. Clearly (and unfortunately) Tweedledum and Tweedledee had left me with an unwillingness to listen to anyone who immediately compared me with other creatives.

With writing, it’s easy to ignore being influenced or avoid advice. Writing is, in the main, a solo, private act. You can stay in your room for years, write for yourself, never show anyone, never get criticism levelled at you, never perform, and I’m sure—if you are your only audience or driving force—be quite happy. However, it’s unlikely you will improve, or if you do, it will not be at a speed or level that will be of benefit. You have a real chance of missing out on that sudden discovery you will need for your own work to, well, work.

The point of departure—that feeling that you need to look further, read better books, or take on the advice of others—will be different for each and every one of us. For some it will come with the desire to do something outside the home, for others it will be a need to share or submit their writing, for the rest it will be to simply become a better writer. All of these are valid motivations, and often arrive in combinations.

For me, there were a multitude of sparks that catalysed my need for proper critique: the frustration of being unclear, feeling like I was stuck-in-a-rut, self-doubt, and friends enjoying my work but—judging by their comments—maybe not understanding the core of what I was trying to say. I was writing more and more and painting less and less, but at times I found myself being accidentally unclear and felt decidedly below par.

I joined an adult education creative writing class, and after four weeks I had taken copious notes, diligently completed every homework assignment, and been applauded (as, without fail, everyone had) for aping Dickens, Fleming, Dahl, and Doyle. There was no criticism except, “Hmm, not quite right at the end there, don’t you think?” I still wasn’t getting the critique I needed to improve.

Upping the ante, I tried university again to look at how to stretch myself, look at form, use white space, define a voice, phrase, deliver; the list went on—and still does. I wrote both poetry and prose and, this time around, felt I was at least learning a little about how to challenge myself. Plus, I was meeting a lot of writers. I had some good teachers but with sixteen in a class the level and time given to criticism and feedback—constructive or otherwise—was woeful. I needed to get better, clearer, more ambitious with both my prose and poetry. It was not enough to get smiled at or a good percentage, especially when it felt like a poor relation to some of my peers, so I looked around for like-minded souls and discovered other students who found the criticism wanting and thus had set up their own group to deal with it.

After much nagging, I was allowed to join Luigi Marchini’s SaveAs Writers. That was fifteen years ago and—alongside a rare romance and a few writing endeavours—the best decision I have ever made.

Every writer needs critique to get better, but it is important to find a group that works for you. There are plenty of excellent writing groups around, including one run by Thanet Writers, the aforementioned SaveAs Writers, and my own group, Dead Hoarse Writers, plus plenty of others in the local area. Try them out, visit a few, see which one suits your needs.

Because of groups like these, I now love critiquing—both for myself and for others. I have a lot of creative interests that I could not survive without—such as collage, photography, assemblage, even bad singing—but alongside the initial writing of a poem or piece of prose, or helping someone edit a poem, critiquing is my favourite thing to do. I love it. I cannot stress that enough: I love it! I really rate what it can do to help writers, and what it could do for you.

I cannot shout loudly enough about how important such groups are if you want to improve. Find one. Join it. Now.

Gary Studley is a writer, artist and teacher. He co-runs SoundLines and two live-lit nights at The Jolly Sailor and The Lighthouse.

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