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The Wide and Wonderful World of O.P.B. (Other People’s Brains): On Giving Critique

photo by Derrick Tyson [1]
photo by Derrick Tyson

I just finished doing something that I’m certain has nudged me a step closer to writerly competence. As I mull its effect, I find myself wondering how many others consider its value. You may have guessed by the title that I’m talking about reading and critiquing a fellow writer’s work in progress.

I’ve seen a few threads on the WU Group page [2] asking for members’ most valued tools or best craft advice. It seems, beyond the “butt-in-chair/just-do-it” layer of advice, having your work critiqued and learning to accept criticism are high on most writers’ lists. But I don’t recall anyone advising reciprocation. It’s understandable. Early on, having my work read, coming to terms with feedback, and utilizing it, were at the top of my own list. I’ve even written an homage to my beta readers [3]. And of course I still consider having my work read and critiqued to be important. In spite of its importance, my appreciation for being on the giving side of critique continues to grow. So in the spirit of giving, I thought I’d share my growing appreciation with my community.

Prudent Pairings (A Caveat): Reading for others is time-consuming and can be taxing. Finding good matches for beta-reading can dramatically enhance the value of the critique, for both the giver and receiver. I’ve found the best reader-writer relationships are built on an existing foundation of trust and respect. Asking someone you don’t know well to read your work is a risky proposition. You may get lucky, and find a generous and insightful soul. But you may also never hear from them again, or find someone who has absolutely no interest in your genre. In the case of the latter, their feedback is not likely to provide much utility. The same logic holds true for agreeing to read. It’s prudent to choose to read those you trust to be dedicated to growth. And choosing someone who writes the types of fiction that you enjoy reading is likely to enhance the value of the experience for both writer and reader.

The Wide and Wonderful World of O.P.B. (Other People’s Brains): Reading the work of my fellow writers has provided an amazing window on the breadth and depth of the human imagination. The manuscript I just finished is a perfect example of this phenomena. My colleague, a fellow WUer, has an marvelously creative mind. I was astonished by the vast array of fantastic concepts and elements she introduced. In fact, in the early going, I was caught between admiration and overwhelm (and, I must admit, a tinge of envy). It was like being introduced to a team of beautiful and spirited colts. I was certain they were all winners. It was just a matter of getting them into the harness to pull together. They simply needed reining, not restraining. What a wonderful problem to have. Her work left me inspired in many ways, not least of which was to remain open to the wonder and limitlessness of human creativity.

The Excitement of Interactive Reading: I’ve found that when I feel worn down by the grind of harnessing and training my own unruly manuscripts, there’s nothing like visiting someone else’s race for a command of their ideas to remind me how exciting this gig truly is. We’re creating stories! Stories worthy of being shared. What a worthy endeavor! (Perhaps a topic to explore in another essay.)

Of course one can make the argument that any ole’ book will offer a peek into an OPB. It’s true. But there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of reading a work still in progress. It’s like being on the writer’s team. It’s stimulating to the mind to have some skin in the game. You’re not just reading, you’re helping the team, influencing the outcome, pulling together for worthiness. If you’re doing it right, you’ll know you’ve had a positive effect. And that’s a great feeling.

Unboxing Instruction: I know we’re supposed to be unboxed writers here. But if you’re anything like me, you tend to leap from one box to the next. And the boxes are usually of my own making. I sometimes feel I go from one micro-managed revision to another. I’ve undertaken entire rewrites just to grapple with a single element of story or technique, only to find that I’ve ignored or created another issue.

I’ve found reading for a colleague changes my perspective. I’m not sure why (and it doesn’t seem fair), but other people’s boxes are much more apparent than my own. Not only do I feel I can perceive their micro problems and their macro issues, but how they interrelate. The change of perspective along with pondering how the writer can get themselves out of their box is bound to help me perceive my own, as well as offer guidance—and practice—for unboxing myself. Striving to see the big picture for others helps me to better perceive my own.

Forcing the Issue: Competent and useful critique is never about simply finding what’s wrong with a written piece. My experience on the receiving end of critique has taught me that the best kind of feedback is objective and constructive, a mixture of what is working and what isn’t. Just as I have been after receiving outstanding critique, I want the recipient to be encouraged and invigorated by my thoughts (versus being made to feel frustrated, defensive, or defeated). Finding my way to constructive feedback forces me to examine the work with the broadest possible outlook. I’m forced not just to list the positive and negative attributes, but to examine what makes those attributes work or not work, and to weigh those pluses and minuses against one another. Being constructive forces me not only to seek my colleague’s vision for their story, but to strive for possible solutions which remain true to that vision.

Basking In Reflected Illumination: For me it’s taken time and experience to appreciate the value of reading and critiquing my fellows. Perhaps you already consider it a tool and a boon. But I think I needed a certain level of competency just to gain my appreciation. As I said, reading and critiquing others is time-consuming and taxing. And it also requires tact and patience. It requires us to quest beyond our instincts and preconceptions, often in ways our own work doesn’t necessarily demand.

Outside of our time and energy, critiquing others asks the best of us—our thoughtful consideration, our empathy, our generosity. But as with most endeavors rooted in giving of ourselves, we are well rewarded. The exertion increases our ability for self-appraisal. The illumination we seek and find in the work of another is sure to reflect well on our own efforts.

How about you? Do you give as well as you receive? Did you already have an appreciation for critiquing others? Please tell us about your experiences with critique, and the benefits you’ve found in helping your fellow writers.

About Vaughn Roycroft [4]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

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