The first time I remember being judged by a group of my peers occurred on a dark, dreary day in the second grade at Winegard Elementary School. It was the annual second grade spelling bee for which I had studied for weeks. Although confident that I had earned my way to the final two spellers, my clammy hands gave away my nervousness. The final round. I looked out over the crowd of my classmates watching intently (the classmates of the winner received an ice cream party — a lot was at stake).
“Spell kite,” the librarian-turned-spelling-bee-moderator asked the cocky boy standing nearest her. Looking over at me he answered her without hesitation. “K-I-T-E.” The students in his class cheered, fists pumping high into the air.
This was it. It was up to me. Spell one more word right and I catapulted us into overtime and another chance to win. Get it wrong, and it was all over.
“Spell web,” the wiry-haired librarian asked over her thick-rimmed rose colored glasses. I swelled with relief and confidence. I know this. With a smile on my face, and a knowing nod of reassurance to my anxious classmates, I announced my answer: “W-E-D.” It was over. But why is Angela shaking her head? Where’s the applause? Then as I glanced at my opponent, now expressing himself with some kind of silly dance with arms flailing about like one of those plastic dancing creatures outside used car dealerships, I realized what I had done. One silly letter.
Other than Angela telling me it was no big deal, most other students from my class judged my error with jeers and sneers on our long walk back to the classroom. For years, in fact, this tiny insignificant mistake followed me around. One particular unkind boy who had been in my class that year to witness the tragic loss still teased me about it in high school. “W-E-D” he’d taunt. Oh, how our judges and juries can follow us around!
This story serves as an antidote for how we as writers often approach being critiqued. We painstakingly pour our time, talent, and even sometimes tears into crafting stories that we finally get to a place of being ready to let others read it — similar to studying the spellings of second grade words until we feel undeniably certain none will trip us up. You may simply ask your mother, friend, or significant other read your pages. Chances are that’s not going to yield anything too traumatic. If you’re like me, however, on your way to publication you’ll eventually join an organized critique group of amateur and professional authors, some of whom are even published already.
I’m in the midst of completing an email-based orientation course for the Scribes critiquing group offered to members of the American Christian Fiction Writers. Once finished, I will be able to join in the practice of critiquing others’ works and submitting my own for review. I am decidedly nervous. Other than a few of my family members and my editor, I’ve not yet released my novel to anyone else. Judgement is coming. Or is it?
Upon thinking about my slight nervousness at submitting my novel for critique, I realized there’s a very important difference between being judged and being critiqued. While Miriam Webster’s definition for critique begins with “an act of criticizing,” which sounds negative, when being done in the context of authors critiquing authors, I believe we should try and trust that our partners in critique are there to help. Deb Read, the Scribes Orientation Facilitator, suggested we authors look at it this way:
The whole idea behind critiquing is to help each other see what we can’t in our own writing. We all tend to see our own babies as a little prettier and a little sweeter than they really are. We need others to help us see our babies as our readers will see them. Just because something is clear in our own heads doesn’t mean we’ve conveyed that same picture to a reader who will be miles away from us.
So there are two things at play here when we critique someone’s manuscript. We want to help move them closer to a publishable form, but we also can’t come right out and tell them how ugly their baby is. We need to be bold with our comments, but also loving.
To me, judgement is based more in handing down a unilateral declaration of how something is believed to be. Judgement is rooted in making one’s opinions or expertise overpower, overrule, or even encompass its subject. That’s not helpful. Judgement is not open for discussion. Judgement’s goal is not to help make its subject the best it can be.
The unforgiving boy I dealt with from time to time judged me for one mistake I made as a nervous child during a 20-minute spelling bee that no one else likely remembers. I know that now. I also know that my critique partners will have my novel’s best interest at heart. They will love my “baby” with the admiration and affection a nanny or caretaker might — enjoying their chance to influence, in even a little way or for a short time, the sweet-natured, kind, interesting final draft that will hopefully one day grace the shelves of a few (or many) bookstores.
If you’re a writer, or really a creative of any kind, I encourage you to find a partner or two whom you can trust to join your “team,” whose goal is to make your work the best it can be.
Don’t judge me. But, by all means, critique me.