Critiquing: an absolute necessity

The third thing you absolutely must do if you intend to write novels is to critique them.

I didn’t say you need to get your own work critiqued, though you do. But you must critique other people.

I wrote every day for almost a year back in 2013, generated about 200,000 words, and didn’t improve that much. I thought I was hot shit (most writers teeter-totter between absolute arrogance and cringe-worthy low self-esteem and I am no exception) and I continued believing that because I had no idea what I was doing.

There’s a thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.* Basically what that says is that a lot of people think they’re better at something than they are. For example, most people think they’re above-average drivers, but that’s statistically impossible. I suffered from DKE back when I started seriously writing, but that’s because I’m generally good at grammar and had mostly gotten As on my essays and papers in school. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you should be aware of when it’s happening to you.

Once you become aware that there are things you don’t know, you stop believing you are very good at whatever it is you’re doing. Maybe you get into several car accident, all your fault. Maybe your novel is rejected 250 times without any personalization.** Either way, you get hit with the cold water bucket of humility and you start to learn. Eventually you become better and then your belief in your skill begins to match your skill. If you have impostor syndrome,*** you probably aren’t experiencing DKE.

So what’s that got to do with critiquing?

Critiquing taught me that I had a lot to learn. It punctured the bubble of my own personal expression of the DKE. That was a valuable lesson, but I learned that in 2014 and I still critique today, so there has to be more to it.

As of today, I have critiqued at least 353 works averaging a length of 3000 words per work. Most of them are chapters in full-length novels. In addition to that, I’ve critiqued a few full-length novellas, several letters and personal essays (“why you should accept me to your school” or “Dear school board”), blog posts, and other miscellaneous writings. When I started critiquing, I suffered from the DKE there too. Because I’m generally good at grammar, punctuation, and spelling, I thought critiquing was just about those things. But then I began to notice that other people’s critiques were less focused on mechanics and more on content, and I began to learn. Today my crits are pretty good and some people have even sought me out to give them.

Yay, accolades. So why should you critique a lot? What will it give you?

First, critiquing the works of other people will help you put your own in perspective. Is yours better or worse? What can you learn from the other person’s work?

Second, when you catch a problem with someone else’s work, you have to articulate that it is a problem, why it’s a problem, and (if you’re knowledgeable) how to fix that problem. That forces you to use several different parts of your brain, which results in learning. The more I articulate the problems in someone else’s work, the more I’m likely to see and fix those problems in my own.

I’ve found that critiquing the works of others has improved my writing like literally nothing else, including writing daily and receiving the critiques of others, has done. It is the quickest and best “shortcut” to writing well. You must set aside the time to do it.

*The Dunning-Kruger Effect is at least in part cultural. Western culture invites us all to think we’re better at things than we are. People in non-Western countries don’t seem to suffer as much from it. I believe it’s also a characteristic of the fixed mindset.

**You know you’re getting publishable when your rejection notes are personalized. A personalized rejection note either means your book is publishable but they don’t want to buy it right now, or you’re this close to publishable. Form rejection notes mean you have a way to go.

***Impostor syndrome is when you think you haven’t accomplished something that you have. Neil Gaiman famously spoke about meeting Neil Armstrong at a party. Armstrong kept wondering why he got all this praise about going to the moon, when he just went where people sent him. Armstrong exhibited impostor syndrome, and his made Gaiman feel better about his own achievements, because Gaiman was feeling impostor syndrome too. Many people suffer from impostor syndrome. I certainly do as a teacher; people tell me I’m good but I don’t think I’m more than mediocre. Amusingly, you can suffer from impostor syndrome in one field and the DKE in another.

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