But first you have to learn critique speak, a nondescript mode of communication in which what people say is not always what they really mean.
Critiquers told one of my clients, “You need to start with an establishing shot.” Establishing shots are used in the movies all the time: the camera pans mementos in a room, the streets of a town, or, from a helicopter shot, a protagonist lost deep in thought on a cross-country bus ride. Anyone who’s hung around modern writing instructors knows that such openings are passé. So why would her critique partners tell her such a thing, and what does she do with this information?
What the critiquer really was saying: “I feel lost in this story.”
What that meant was: “I need greater orientation to this story through additional characterization and setting detail.”
Must the author address this problem through the use of an establishing shot? Absolutely not. But if she knew how to listen for the underlying meaning, it was great feedback.
I once shared a memoir essay in which I was trying to weave together several story threads to reinforce one complex concept. One critiquer told me, “You can’t do that. Take the part about your best friend out. It’s too much for one piece.” I knew she was wrong. It might not be her bag, but this sort of thing is done all the time in short pieces with the kind of depth I enjoy reading. And the addition of my friend spread the significance of the story event across additional shoulders.
What the critiquer was really saying: “I’m trying to help, but this isn’t my genre. It feels like too much.”
What that meant was: To win over this kind of reader, I’d have to streamline the piece so she didn’t have to work as hard to draw the connections between the story threads.
I read the first chapter of my memoir to a group of women at one of my writing retreats. The women said they loved the action in the piece, about a woman who insists on divorcing her husband after his suicide. But they didn’t need all that “stuff about the farm.” Problem was, the piece, "Standoff at Ronnie’s Place," was absolutely about the farm. My entire intent was to write a piece in which the setting carried the bulk of the emotional weight of the piece.
What the critiquers were really saying: “The setting description is getting in the way of your action.”
What that meant was: I had not yet achieved my goal of using the setting to support the action. I went back to the drawing board, and the piece got published.
Why don’t critiquers just say what they mean, like editors do? Unlike editing, critiquing is a social activity, and no one wants to admit any sort of personal weakness in front of a peer. Instead of admitting she didn't get what you were trying to do, she’ll either critique your grammar or suggest a fix born of what might be her limited experience.
But if you learn to speak the underlying language, and work to improve the piece based on that, you’ll get more bang for your buck when you hand your piece over to your editor.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.