A couple of things about critiques

  1. If you are looking for a critique to tell you that your work is good or bad, you’re looking in the wrong place. Rarely does a piece come up in a workshop where the most useful thing we can say is “It’s done, send it out” or “It’s awful, it’s unredeemable, trash it.” If a class is focused too much on evaluation – evaluating whether a piece as a whole is good or bad – it has the result of embarrassing and discouraging the weaker writers (who need and deserve encouragement) and puffing up the stronger writers (who need and deserve encouragement, but also, aren’t writing perfect stuff and still often need help making their pieces stronger.)
  2. When you are critiquing a piece you find weaker, you might often feel like you’re caught between being kind and being truthful. You might often feel as if the person you’re critiquing needs to hear certain harsh truths. “Your piece is bad” is not a harsh truth your critique partner needs to hear because – see above – evaluation is not that useful. Instead, find specific areas the writer could strengthen. Not “your story is bad” or even “the characterization could be stronger” but “I really wanted to know more about what made Elaine decide to kill the horse.”
  3. Don’t assume that every writer who asks you feedback is looking for the same things! In the early stages of a piece, for example, enthusiasm and encouragement may be more helpful than advice (especially small-scale stylistic advice). It’s helpful to ask the writer to articulate what they’re looking for.

Authority in writing

There is a sense of authority that I often get from good writing. It’s a feeling of the writer’s confidence in their own work. But it’s not as if readers are psychic; all they see are the words on the page. The words on the page don’t know what you felt like when you were writing them. So even if you don’t feel that authority, that confidence, you can fake it. You can write as if you had confidence in your own work.

A couple of first lines:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

That’s a sentence with some authority – it’s declaiming (albeit with some irony) a universal truth!

“I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” – James McBride, The Good Lord Bird.

Here’s a narrator with authority – he’s giving commands to his readership!

“They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.” – Patricia McKillip, Alphabet of Thorn.

This is a story with a quieter, subtler level of authority, but it’s still there. Two things: the narrator has inside information, she thinks differently from “them,” so it’s an assertion of authority on the narrator’s part: I know something they don’t. It’s also leaving a lot unsaid (we don’t know who “they” is, we don’t know who “he” is) so this is an author who trusts herself to be interesting, and trusts her audience to come with her even if they don’t have the whole story yet.

In your own writing, watch out for weasel words (sort of, kind of, maybe, seemed) and watch out for phrasing that undercuts yourself by making a statement and then backing off from it with qualifiers.

Go back to your favorite books, especially the first few pages. See how they manage authority – see how they convince you on those first couple pages, “there’s a story here that’s worth listening to.”

It’s not a matter of how you feel on the inside – it’s a matter of craft, and you can learn it even if you rarely have confidence in yourself. In your own work, are you undercutting yourself? Gather up your Tony Stark energy, your Galadriel energy, and declaim that first paragraph like you expect your audience to pay attention.