We have a rule in the workshop I teach: we’ll critique any work as long as the writer has not yet submitted it for publication. When it comes to discussion, we’ll discuss any piece of writing published or not. Why this distinction between critique and discussion? And what exactly is the difference between the two? It all comes down to focus: critique centers on the writer while discussion is all about the reader.
The purpose of critique is to help the writer improve certain aspects of a piece. Sure, the readers offering critique might give their impressions of the work or how they interpreted certain things, but ultimately the goal of their comments is to help the writer make the piece stronger.
If the point of critique is to help the writer, then you might be wondering why I don’t allow critiques of submitted work in my workshop. After all, isn’t any feedback ultimately useful? Yes and no. When a piece of writing has been published or is on submission, then getting critiques and suggestions for improvement will only serve to stress out the writer. What writers need at this point is readers, and that’s where discussion comes in.
This scenario is a bit different from critique. Rather than giving feedback on a work, discussion is when readers get together, read a story or book and share their thoughts about it. Think book club rather than critique group. In discussion the readers share their interpretations of the work–what they liked and what they didn’t care for–but the goal now is to talk about the book as a piece of literature, not as a work-in-progress in need of improvement.
Discussion is very different from critique, even though the two might look similar on the surface. With discussion, the goal is not to improve the piece of writing. At this stage the piece is already out there in the world and it is what it is. Critique would only serve to put strain on the writer, to make him or her worry about problems in the piece that can no longer be fixed because the piece has already been shared with readers. At this point in the process the writer doesn’t need critique. Rather, the writer just needs to share the work with readers and let them experience it for what it is: the good, the bad, even the ugly.
The Critique Relationship
Ultimately, the difference between critique and discussion has to do with the relationship between the writer and the readers of the work. In critique, the relationship is writer-to-writer, with the goal being for these colleagues to help that writer improve his or her piece. In discussion, the relationship is author-to-audience and that audience is there to experience and take in the work as it is, not to offer suggestions for improvement.
Of course, the distinction between critique and discussion is not clear-cut. There is a murky area where one blurs into the other. There are moments in a critique session that might veer into the discussion end of the spectrum. Similarly, a writer might gain insights from hearing readers discuss a piece that can help that writer improve future works. In the end, it’s important to remember two things:
- What is the relationship between the writer and the reader? Is it writer-to-writer or author-to-audience?
- What is the goal of the conversation? Is the purpose to help the writer improve the piece at hand? Or is the focus on the reader and his or her impressions of the work as it is?
Be Honest With Yourself
As a writer, you must be clear about the type of feedback you need on your writing. Are you looking for critique that will help you improve the piece or is what you really need an audience to read and enjoy your work? This is very important because not only will it help you seek out the type of feedback you need, it will also help avoid straining your relationship with your readers.
If what you want is critique and all you get from your readers is discussion, then you won’t be satisfied and your work won’t improve. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an audience and what you’re getting is a critique group, you may get frustrated with the continual criticism (however constructive it may be) and your readers may get annoyed because they will feel like you’re not hearing what they have to say.
Some time ago, I ran into a situation where a member of a critique group didn’t actually need a critique group, what she really needed was an audience. While this writer said she wanted input from the group to help her improve her book, she never actually implemented any of the suggestions the group offered. This dynamic ended up putting a strain on the group as a whole. The writer was discouraged because to her it felt like the group constantly criticized a book she thought was finished and wanted to get out into the world. The group was frustrated because this writer submitted chapter after chapter without ever revising previous submissions. Members of the group felt like their suggestions were being ignored and the writer was wasting the group’s time.
Eventually, I sat down with this writer and had a conversation (one of the hardest conversations I’ve had). We talked about what this writer’s goals were and what type of feedback she really needed on her book. In the end, the writer realized she wasn’t looking for a critique group, what she needed was to get her writing out into the world and into the hands of her audience. It wasn’t that this writer was bad for the group or that the group was bad for the writer. Instead, the problem came down to a misalignment between the goals of that writer and the purpose of that group.
When establishing a relationship with readers, you need to be clear about what type of feedback you want (if you’re even looking for feedback at all). Do you need colleagues to help you improve your work or an audience to discuss your piece? Chances are, your answer to this question will change multiple times during your writing career, depending on the stage of a given piece. After all, every writer can benefit from critique but sooner or later we all need to release our writing into the world.