Updated: Oct 27, 2019
Why You Want It
Bear with me, ‘cause I am a massive fan of analogies.
If critiques are like a puzzle, the picture on the box is your critique partner’s lens. Everybody has their own, relatively unique lens, so understanding their biases, preferences, ‘objective opinions’ – even just how well your partner can put a point into words – helps you to solve their puzzle that much faster, ‘cause now you know how it’s supposed to look. Sure, there’s still a hundred pieces you have to sort, but you now know what piles to put them in, and if that blue is meant to be the sky or part of some guy’s shirt at the bottom.
A lens won’t tell you if a puzzle is particularly ‘worth’ solving. 99.99% of all critique partners will give you something useful in their feedback, but maybe only half will say it in a way that’s easy for you – and specifically you – to ‘get’. If there’s a real gem buried in one of those ‘No Corners, Ten Thousand White Pieces’ abominations, knowing a better and faster way to solve that mess is what’s going to kick your motivation up to at least an, “Eh, why not.” It might still not be enough, but it takes you away from automatically avoiding it.
Your goal: to make sure no good advice is (necessarily) left behind.
How to Get It
Face-to-face critiques are fantastic, but they put a layer of fuzz onto each critiquer’s lens through noise. An in-person group of any kind has to manage its members’ shyness, interruptions, side-chatter, or general volume from the room you’re all in. A good moderator can help guide you through it, but that noise can really scratch up the picture on the puzzle box you get.
The good news is that you get to watch how that puzzle box is scratched, and how each critiquer’s lens becomes fuzzy. Actively, you can read somebody’s body language, ask people to repeat themselves, or go back to the first speaker when they’ve been interrupted, but passively – and this is where the lens fits in – you can also track the circumstances like someone running out of talk time, how they critique others, or whether they had so many or so few notes prepared that they weren’t able to elaborate anything.
Passive tactics are especially important when you’re dealing with feedback you’re still not too sure you understand, no matter how many times you’ve asked, and/or with a partner who’s not comfortable, confident, loud, or clear enough to explain what they’re getting at during the face-to-face.
What It Really Is
Each critiquer’s lens is made up of biases and preferences, like I said, but along three key categories: who they are as a reader, who they are as a writer, and who they are as a critique partner.
Who they are as readers will shape their personal absolutes – the ‘You should’, ‘You must’, ‘You always’, and ‘You never’ lines of feedback. It’s based on what they like to see or are used to seeing. To figure it out, ask what genres and sub-genres they know. Do they stick to the classics or follow the new stuff? Do they remember these stories from childhood, or did they grab their latest book last week? Have any stories left a bad taste, or are they uber-hyper-fans of all of it?
Who they are as writers shapes their personal rules of thumb – ‘Typically you don’t’, ‘Try to aim for’, ‘Too many’, ‘Not enough’, ‘What I normally do’ feedback. It’s more based on what they’ve had or witnessed practical success with. This time, you want to learn what genre(s) they’ve actively applied these rules to, and how long they’ve been involved with those. What have they studied about writing? How formal is their writing process? Are they published, looking to publish, or writing for themselves?
Third, what they generally critique shapes the natural focus of their feedback. This is based on a mix of personal circumstances: the time they have, the time they want to put in, egos, experience, education, work, and all the way up to a real hope for reciprocation on your end. Are they (or do they think they are) experts in something? Brutal non-experts? Do they like, love, or loathe giving feedback on pacing, SPaG, high-level concepts, continuity, banter, realism, descriptions, world-building, internal consistency, or something else?
The key to tying these three together is knowing that none of them put points on a scoreboard. There’s no objective or consistent mix of traits that always give the best critiques. Even the same person critiquing the same excerpt, depending on the feedback you’re looking for this round, might have been great before but a total mismatch in this new arena. This goes for experience, too; sometimes, what you want is a fresh pair of eyes, and all the genre-experts you’re working with are just a little too stuck in the tropes and traditions.
As important as ’99.99% of all critiques can give you something useful’ is, there’s the other timeless saying that ‘A broken clock is right twice a day’. A critiquer’s lens is what you use to look beyond the surface of the actual critique (like its tone, its clarity, and detail) to get to the real advice. The faster you know who you’re dealing with, the sooner you can use the right tricks to solve their particular puzzle and take what you need to better your writing.
See It in Action!
Adam is a huge fan of your genre, and he’s been reading it for years. Pro: He can spot a cliché from a mile away.
Con: Because it seems like a cliché, he doesn’t think you should have it under any circumstance. (“Every writer and their mother has their protagonist start by waking up. Don’t do it.”)
Pro: He knows a ton of stories that touch on your ideas that he can refer you to.
Con: If you’re not doing it the way those stories did it, he doesn’t think you’re doing it right. (“Everyone knows dwarves drink ale. You can’t just change that to be special and still call them ‘dwarves’.”)
Pro: He can point out common mistakes or concepts that readers have historically gotten too hung up on.
Con: He refuses to believe you can write in this genre without adding certain ideas or plot points. (“Traditionally, if there are dwarves, you should have elves, not just orcs. It isn’t real fantasy if you leave elves out.”)
Bertha has never read your genre, beyond the bits and pieces that float through pop culture, but is a great writer in other ones. Pro: She can tell you if your ideas still logically ‘fit’ your world or come out of nowhere.
Con: She can’t draw on your genre to know whether that’s a ‘thing’ that should be common knowledge among your targeted readers. (“What’s an elf?”)
Pro: She’s a fresh POV, and can give you examples from outside genres you might not have considered.
Con: She might frame a lot around outside, irrelevant genre concepts. (“I know it’s a funeral, but if this was a mystery, you shouldn’t even know this orc was dead yet.”)
Pro: She can help you point out the issues that crop independent of any genre, like purple prose, ‘talking heads’, or confusing description.
Con: She might insist on some techniques are equally universal to every story. (“You have to engage all five senses for the reader in every scene, or else you haven’t described the setting properly.”)
Carl’s got no idea about your genre, and in fact, doesn’t even regularly write in your format (he’s the poet of your short story critique group). But he has just published his first collection of poems, and in-between creative writing courses, he’s watching and reading all types of experts and learning their tips.
Pro: He has a massive wealth of knowledge when it comes to techniques and tricks.
Con: He doesn’t necessarily check if a technique applies, just passes on advice because it sounded good. (“You have to start the scene by shocking us. Readers won’t flip the page until they’re emotionally confused and maintain action beats every three paragraphs.”)
When I'm not running OWC critique circles, I'm writing my own serial at TheOtherKindOfRoommate.com!