What I’ve Learned after a half-year as a Critter

It’s almost half a year since I become a critter, a critiquer on critters.org. For those who haven’t found it, it is a place where writers can critique each other’s work. It’s nearly all science fiction, fantasy and horror but there are small amounts of other genres. You earn a place in the queue by critiquing at least 3 stories per 4 weeks, not a very onerous bar. Eager for feedback, like any good critter, I was happy to find a place to have people I didn’t know read my work but not really sure what it would entail. I’m happy to say it has been a very positive experience.

For the mechanics: I tend to write about a 800-1200 word critique (minimum recommended is 500 words). That has proved to be not hard to sustain, even while writing a novel and the occasional blog post. Critiques are due by end of Tuesday and Burt, the kind gentleman who runs the site, sends out a note on Saturday as a reminder with a list of any stories that don’t have at least six critiques already. I try to choose ones that are low on critiques, knowing full well the pain of being overlooked, but I do avoid submissions over 5000 words and chapters 2 or later of a novel. You have your pick of what to critique and I must confess, I do tend to pick the more mature writers with a first paragraph that engages me. That does make the critiques go more quickly 🙂

I can’t say critters introduced me to any writing technique or aspect of the craft that I didn’t already know about although I’m sure I’m forgetting something. But what it has done is help me think more like an editor and make the basics second-nature. There’s nothing like seeing a lot of “tells” to make you appreciate why an editor requests more “show”. Or how the absence of sequels makes you appreciate how it saps reader engagement. You can do this for published fiction, of course, but the strong stories give me the chance to reflect on what worked and the other ones, the chance to dissect where it falls short for me. Especially since I try to pick stories where something appeals to me it becomes a “I liked this but what kept me from liking it more?” exercise, which is useful for my own writing and hopefully of use to the writer getting the critique.

Another thing I already knew but now I really get: a reader’s response is very personal. You may love a story that others hate, or vice versa. This is the nature of fiction but seeing someone gush over something I thought wasn’t really ready or someone be very critical of something I thought was quite good drives that home like nothing else.

Plus writing so many critiques for strangers, where I take to heart Burt’s advice to be extra diplomatic, has helped my critiques of my wife’s writing: not just content, but tone. Constructive criticism is hard to receive and making it clear that my critique is just my personal opinion (and not an absolute rule or ‘the way something must be done’) goes a long way to making sure it falls on receptive ears.

I’ve sent two things through the queue so far, chapter 1 of both my previous and current projects. I also received a complete read of my earlier book (and offers from several others to read but I wanted to hold off until I had another revision in place). The critiques have been very useful. They vary from fairly high level to more line-by-line but as both general encouragement and actionable things to work on, they have been quite handy. Thankfully, I didn’t get any that were cruel or useless but you occasionally see the 2 line critique (too short to be of any real value, I think) or some that push the envelope of decorum. There was one, not for mine, thankfully, where the critter essentially said “this sucks but if you do this, this and this it will be great” and proceeded to recommend, in great detail, what to cut, what to move, and what to re-write. Burt doesn’t look kindly on those critiques and does try to coach the critters where necessary.

Overall, a great resource and one I intend to keep using. I’m about to send my next piece into the queue (a revision of chapter one on the current project).

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2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned after a half-year as a Critter

  1. One thing I learned was that I am not a good critter! You are right that reading a story, offering feedback and then reading what everyone else had to say is eye-opening.

  2. Pingback: Tips for Critiquing Other Writers’ Work « Writing Tips

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