Critiquing Can Be Hard Work, But…

When critiquing the work of colleagues, whether in a critique group or just between friends, the hardest thing is when it's a topic, genre or style you don't normally enjoy reading in your leisure time. It isn't often spoken about, but it's true. It can sometimes be an interminable slog to try to read and critique a colleague's work when it's not something you would have chosen on your own to read. It's not that they're a bad writer, in fact, they could be the best writer in the world, and it would still be like a trek through a vast, barren, hard-pack, salt-flat desert.

Actually, I take that back a little - I enjoy reading the writing of a really talented writer whatever the topic. But let's face it, most of the critiquing we do is for fellow travelers on the journey to becoming great writers, who, like us or like we once were, may not quite be there yet.

So how do we get through the torture of reading for critique something that, to our tastes, is either bitter or bland? I have five suggestions below. These are the same tactics many of us used when studying in school, reading chapters of a dry technical manual or textbook. Maybe they won't make it easier, but they should help us stay motivated to get through it.

  • Sooner begun, sooner done. It's as simple as that - the sooner we just knuckle under and get through it the sooner we will be finished and on to something we do enjoy. Don't watch the clock, stop glancing at your watch and just do it.
  • Set goals for yourself. If you're doing a full-manuscript critique, set goals of, say, one chapter, then take a break and do something you enjoy. BUT be sure to set a time limit on that break, and stick to your schedule. A half hour of TV, then back to the next chapter. Eat lunch, then back for the next chapter, etc.
  • Imagine someone who enjoys the topic or genre. What might they be thinking as they read this piece? How might they feel, what might strike them as exciting or interesting about the work?
  • Play archaeologist. This a text you found in a deep dark tomb somewhere, and inside it you just know is a single nugget of truth that could cure athlete's foot (or whatever) and if you read it you might be the one to find it.
  • Pretend you are an Audiobooks performer. Read the text out loud like a narrator, adding tone, accent, and timber to each voice, making the dramatic moments breathless and the moments of discovery triumphant.

Can you think of other ways to make the slog more palatable? I'd love to read your ideas in the comments below.

Kevin Paul Tracy
Kevin Paul Tracy, writer, philosopher, and all 'round raconteur, has traversed half the globe and both sides of the equator. He has SCUBA dived under ice and snow, and in flooded craters hidden deep underground, and he has done just about every odd occupation you can think of, from cave spelunking guide to wildlife photographer to interstate courier. His fiction tends to deal with themes of bravery and fortitude in the face of extreme adversity, most often featuring very ordinary men and women forced into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to plumb the hidden strengths and resourcefulness they never knew they had. Kevin currently lives in Colorado with two very charismatic St. Bernards.

Don't miss Kevin's latest twisted thriller Presence of Malice, as well as his other books, the startling and engrossing Kathryn Desmarais Gothic Mysteries Bloodflow and Bloodtrail and the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller Rogue Agenda. More about Kevin on his website and on Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Critiquing Can Be Hard Work, But…

  1. Thanks, Kevin! I didn’t think I would be laughing out loud at a blog about critiquing, but you got me!
    Since this is about critique, I took the liberty of pulling a phrase from your blog: “…and it would still be like a trek through a vast, barren, hard-pack, salt-flat desert.” The cadence and back-load power of this sentence (as well as its content) is remarkable! Hahahaha

    I like your strategies! I have one that helps, too. It’s not as entertaining, but it’s heart-felt. If it’s really rough and laden with grammatical and punctuation errors, irritation comes to visit along with reluctance. To overcome this, I need to suspend my disbelief and pretend that they’re doing the best that they can. Then I set a goal to find the three biggest deficiencies. By moving from a mental state of repugnance to one of evaluation and ranking, I can be helpful. As you so clearly demonstrated with this blog, you’re in that camp, too, as are all of my critique partners. 🙂

  2. I’m lucky because I read so many genres that most of the things my critique group members submit are appealing in one way or another. I was put off a bit by graphic horror, but you know, reading and critiquing that kind of work broadened my horizons a bit and led me to read authors I never would have looked at before. I do use your suggestion of reading aloud when I find my mind wandering from a piece.

  3. Your timely post got me at suggestion #1. I already use #3. I have four books to read and judge before the end of August. They aren’t my normal genre, but like Pat and you, my reading cuts a wide swath. However, I must thank Janet Lane for her strategy. Along with your first one, hers may save me. Back to reading. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, Kevin! I agree with Janet: If you’re reading something that needs a lot of work, tell yourself to focus on the three biggest issues. If you try to tackle everything at once, you’ll go crazy! (And you won’t be much help to the writer.)

    I also find it helpful to pace myself by dividing it up by pages. If I have a 300-page manuscript to read, and I read 30 pages a day, I’ll be done in a week and a half. That way, if I’m going through a particularly tough section, once I hit that page count I can call it quits for the day and still feel good about it–or, if I’m reading a particularly engaging section, I might blow by my goal and then feel even better!

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