Where you won't get critiques, and how not to use them

Copyright © 2001 Philip Brewer

This essay was prompted by a couple of different recent (mid-2001) on-line arguments about the appropriateness and usefulness of macro-based rejection letters. (That is, rejection letters that are thrown together from a stock of pre-written paragraphs, each describing a common flaw found in manuscripts.)

Despite having been prompted by those arguments, I don't actually have much to say about macro-based rejection letters. I can see an editor noticing a single typo and including the macro that says, "watch out for spelling, punctuation, and typographical errors." It's probably not helpful to the writer, but you can't really argue with a generic statement like that. (Well, actually, I suppose the arguments I've seen serve as an existence proof to the contrary, but the statement is still good advice for anyone.)

This essay is more about where not to get critiques and how not to use them.

Where not to get critiques

You won't get critiques from editors. Even if you could, a single critique like that wouldn't be much use (as I explain in the second half), but it doesn't matter, because you're not going to get them. The notion that you even might is ludicrous.

I've kind of known that for a while, but coming to Clarion has really made it clear for me. I'm halfway through. I've critiqued a lot of stories in the past three weeks. You can ask other folks here whether or not I'm any good at it, but accept for the sake of argument that I'm a fast reader and a fast critiquer. I'm not the fastest. Kelly Link is certainly faster. (She read all our submission stories and all the stories from the first week, in addition to reading all the stuff for her week!) But take my word for it: I'm one of the fastest critiquers here this year.

We've been averaging about 4 stories a day, and the stories are averaging about 3000 words each. I can read four stories, decide what I want to say about each one, and type it all up in about two and a half hours. And that's fast.

Do the math: No editor could even consider doing such a thing.

How not to use critiques

How not to get them is almost beside the point. More important is the fact that even a really good critique is useful only in an oblique way. I've gotten about 20 critiques on each story I've turned in. All the critiques were great. They let me know what's working in the story and what isn't. But almost all of those critiques, taken individually, would have been misleading. And those are good critiques--the best I'll probably ever get in my entire career.

Nearly every critique provides a useful bit of information, but almost none of them provided me with a single, key item that all by itself brings the story to the next level. (Actually, exactly one critique did that.)

You can't assume that any particular critique was right about anything. You can't even assume that the critiquers are right when they speak with an almost unanimous voice. (When that happens there is almost certainly something wrong, but it is very possibly not the thing that they all want you to change.)

There are two things that critiques are really good for:

  1. They locate good stuff.
  2. They demonstrate problems.

It is easy to locate the good stuff--the telling detail in a description, the spot where the language mirrors what's going on, etc. It is hard to locate the problem, because where it shows up is not always where it is. But a good set of critiques, such as from a good critique group, will demonstrate the problem because they'll be unhappy or confused or frustrated about something. But you can't just blindly fix what the critiquers didn't like. You have to figure out what was really wrong.

If you get a critique that locates some good stuff and demonstrates some problems, you've gotten a good critique. That's all you can hope for. And it's far more than you can expect from an editor.

Here are a few other articles about writing and attending Clarion:

Philip Brewer
East Lansing, Michigan
25 June 2001