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I run a critiquing group once a month and I've had several of my members say they aren't sure how to tell when their work is ready for critique. I'll be covering this in a workshop tomorrow night, but I figured I'd toss the question to you guys as well. How do you know when your work is ready for critique?

Note that I don't expect anyone to be submitting perfect, polished, ready-to-publish pieces (say that five times fast). It's fine if they still need some work; if they didn't, what am I critiquing it for? But where's the line between the first draft and ready for critique?

Update: I compiled most of these answers into a single document and presented it to my critique group as a workshop. We had a good conversation and I think we all learned a lot. Thank you! If you're interested, the document (and some subsequent notes) can be viewed here.

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Everyone else has great answers, but I'm eager to add my thoughts.

How do you know if you're ready?

There are two major factors which I think tie into being ready for criticism.

  • You think you're crafted of diamonds and your ink is molten gold.

I believe that if you think your writing is some of the best around when it hasn't been looked over by another, you're wrong. You need to be criticised and have other people look at your work because they might have different beliefs to you. One of my favourite parts about English Literature is hearing other people's interpretations. It's essential to hear other people's interpretations of your work rather than your own all the time.

  • You can't see what's wrong.

Once again, it's the same as the last one. If you physically think your work is perfect but still haven't got it critiqued, you need it critiqued. It's all about hearing other people's interpretations.

  • Before you do final edits and polishes.

This is what I do whenever I write anything. Even if it's a short story that I'm never going to publish, I edit it several times and give it to someone who can critique me. It's good practice. I think the best time to give your work to someone to critique, in my experience, is before the final edits. With what you learn from the critique, you are able to apply that in your work and improve it as much as possible in the final revisions of the manuscript.

How do you know if you're not ready?

  • There are grammar issues.

This is a huge one for me. I have been asked to look over people's work before, and within the first 500 words there's at least one spelling mistake/grammar mistake. Comma splicing can be a very big issue if you do not identify it. When you actually do try and get published, if you have issues with grammar and spelling you're going to be put to the side. If you're trying to get critiqued, you don't want to critique to revolve around your grammar and spelling, rather the writing. It's so important to get rid of as many issues like these as you can to get the most out of your critique. Removing grammar and spelling issues also assists in getting your meaning across clearly.

  • You haven't edited.

This is quite self-explanatory and ties into the last one. If your work is unedited it will be of exceptionally low quality and unable to impress anyone. There will probably be ten thousand comma splices, five hundred spelling typos, six hundred little places where it loses flow. Also, if you're wondering why I comment on spliced commas, I have an issue with them so I have to pay immense amounts of attention to them during editing stages to make sure I haven't a single one in the finished product.

Conclusion

Getting critiques can be really exciting because you're able to hear other people's interpretations of your work. If you think your work is gold without any critiques, then you're wrong. It only appeals to you and not others.

I hope this helped.

  • I read this post twice and could not find a comma splice... – Michael Hampton Jan 5 '17 at 23:15
  • Maybe they're an old issue. I haven't found as many in my work now (close to none) as when I first started writing @MichaelHampton – Daniel Cann Jan 6 '17 at 5:50
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It is not so much about the work being ready for critique as about the writer not being able to make it any better without an outside critique.

So, a beginning writer, or a poor reader, who can not see the faults in their work needs a critique at the point when the story is in a much weaker form than a more experienced writer, or good reader, who can make their story much better before they need the help of others.

In short, it is ready for critique when you can't make it any better yourself.

Of course, the hidden fear behind that question is often that people won't like the piece. The writer is showing their work to their first ever audience and they desperately want it to be liked. This is natural, but it misses the point of getting a critique. The point of a critique is to find out what is wrong with a piece, not to receive praise for it.

A successful critique is not one in which everyone loves the piece. A successful critique in one which that you to realize what is wrong with the piece. If all you are getting from a critique group is praise then you are not in a critique group, you are in a mutual admiration society, which may be good for your ego but is certainly going to be bad for your work.

If you don't come away from a critique group meeting with a new appreciation for what is wrong with your work, you are wasting your time. This does not, by any means, mean that every criticism you receive is correct. Many of them will be completely bogus. The point is not that you hear people describe the faults of your work, but that you see them yourself.

EDIT: Critique is not proofreading. It is not about your grammar, syntax, and spelling. It is about your story. You are looking for a response from your readers are readers of stories. Your MS is not ready for critique until all the mechanical issues with the text are dealt with.

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    This is a good benchmark. It's ready for another set of eyes when you think you can't spot anything else wrong with it. (or, for the first draft, when you're sick of looking at it.) – Lauren Ipsum Jan 4 '17 at 22:29
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    This would absolutely be my benchmark. There is one other case I'm familiar with -- when you use a critique group as motivation to get writing done. In that case, you can definitely feel like you're not done on the story, but you want to have it discussed anyway. But in that case, you and the group needs to be OK with critiquing things that are partial or unpolished, and the question of "is my work ready for critique" is less of an issue. (Really, a group like that should set its own standards of "what's our minimum demands of a story in order to be critiqued.") – Standback Jan 5 '17 at 7:27
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Many of these answers are wonderful for determining when a work itself is ready for critique, but I think an additional metric should be added: Am I ready to receive criticism? If receiving negative feedback on this work would enrage you or make you burst into tears, you are not ready.

I find this is most often a problem for new writers and writers who are writing based on real experiences, but I will sometimes have issues with this myself if I'm having an "this sucks, therefore I suck" kind of day, or with my poetry, which I use as an emotional outlet. Sometimes I just need a day or so worth of distance before I'm ready to let someone else touch my work, even after taking time to edit and polish it as much as I can on my own.

So ask yourself how you would respond to truly biting criticism. If your first instinct involves refusing to change anything at all or scrapping everything, you probably need to create some emotional distance from your writing before you are ready for a critique.

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    Very true. Critique should always be relative to a purpose, and that purpose should generally be commercial publication. If your reason for writing is cathartic rather than commercial, critique is simply the wrong venue for it. A critique group is not a support group. Or rather, a critique group is a professional support group, not an emotional support group. Think of it as a group of literary entrepreneurs giving each other frank feedback to improve their chances of business success. – Mark Baker Jan 5 '17 at 19:29
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A wise teacher told me that any critique has to come with instructions for the reader. Do you want me to give you a high-level review to make sure you're on a good track? Do you want a sentence-level proofing to check for grammar and spelling? Do you want to just be told you're brilliant with no other critique? (I've asked for this on pieces that I don't want to mess with anymore.)

So, to answer your question, I'd say that a piece can be critiqued at any point, whether it's a final draft or a first draft or a smattering of scenes in search of a plot. Though it depends on your group and your intentions for it.

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    Personally, I would not call proofing a form of critique. Critique seems to me to be to be something quite different from editing. It is all about a reaction to the piece as a whole from the perspective of a reader. In fact, I think one of the criteria for ready for critique is that the proofing has been done so that the reader is not distracted by errors at that level. – Mark Baker Jan 4 '17 at 22:30
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    @MarkBaker I would disagree with you — not on your definitions, but on which to do first. I do both content editing (critique) and line editing (proofreading) and I usually tell my book clients that we shouldn't bother with a line edit until the content is sufficiently sturdy. There's no point to tuning the perfect phrase if the entire scene is out of character and needs to be dropped. The copy should be minimally proofread to eliminate gross syntax errors, but not letter-perfect. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 5 '17 at 16:01
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    @LaurenIpsum but the point of critique is to find the flaws in story that you cannot see yourself. But if your readers are distracted from examining your story by mechanical issues, you get editing feedback from them, not story feedback. You can ask them to ignore these things, of course, but that is very hard to do. It is like trying to see through a dirty window. – Mark Baker Jan 5 '17 at 16:57
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    @LaurenIpsum (& Mark) While I would agree with you, I wonder if there might be a point where the writer needs proofing help, and where that's a legitimate thing to ask for in a critique. I sat down with one of my writers and went over how to punctuate dialogue, how to break up a sentence, and the repetitive sentence structures he was using. He really appreciated it and has been trying to do better. Obviously it won't be as high-level as a content critique, but some writers need low-level help. I would agree, however, that if your "window is too dirty" you won't /get/ high-level help. – Jerenda Jan 5 '17 at 18:35
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    @Jerenda Oh, of course. AFAIC that's a perfectly legitimate project if that's what's negotiated for in the first place. I would have no problem with a client coming to me and saying "help me with some of these basic issues" as long as that's what I'm being hired for. What I was saying earlier was that if the client wants to hire me for a content edit and the writing itself is so poor I can't get to the content, it doesn't make sense for me or the client for me to take that job at that point. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 5 '17 at 18:53
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The experience of a writer dictates their ability to gauge when they are ready to be critiqued and when they are not. This means that beginners, should try to get critiqued as soon and often as possible, since that will help them learn what they lack quickly and also about the process to get feedback, specially when they are ready for it.

However, there is an exception to this rule of thumb: When you feel that your experience grants you immunity to criticism then you are back to the starting point. You need to be critiqued as soon and often as possible.

Having said that, receiving critique is not the same as proof-reading. At the beginning, there will be instances when the aspiring writers will have to be reminded of that and there will be some when that's all that they will get (a proof-reading) which will prompt them to challenge themselves to improve their mastery of their language in order to thrive in the craft.

  • I'm still confused by the barometer by which the writer is meant to judge their work's readiness. You don't say anything about the criteria a more experienced writer can use to determine when their work is ready to be critiqued. And how often is "as often as possible" for a beginner? As soon as they finish their first chapter? Their first scene? Or just whenever their writing group happens to meet? Also, how does being critiqued often solve the problem of a writer feeling that they are immune to criticism? – Jerenda Jan 5 '17 at 3:40
  • @Jerenda The point is that part of the experience of a writer is to know when they are ready for critique, which can lead to writers thinking they never need to be critiqued. Every writer has a different process, which is why it differs from one to another; however, the most common point is when there is a first draft completed. Now, even for beginners "as often as possible" depends, if they are being coached and given "exercises" (there are writer clinics that provide you with "homework" and assignments) then a good point is when they have completed a first draft of their assignments. – Jorge Jan 5 '17 at 4:19
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    @Jerenda For beginner writers, finishing their first chapter might be too late. Pages and scenes might be better choices for "check points", if it is their first time they might benefit from it happening in the first draft of their first scene. The idea is to have them prepare to receive criticism without them delaying it until they feel they are ready (which might never happen) and understand it is important to receive critique and accept it. – Jorge Jan 5 '17 at 4:24
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    @Jerenda The problem from writers that feel they are above criticism is due to their perception of attaining an unquestionable mastery of the craft, that they have nothing else to learn. By being exposed to criticism often, they have to face the fact that there is always something new to learn from the feedback from others (be it a new perspective, a point that they might be missing, there is always something to be learned from a different set of eyes than yours). – Jorge Jan 5 '17 at 4:28
  • "The point is that part of the experience of a writer is to know when they are ready for critique, which can lead to writers thinking they never need to be critiqued." This is the question I'm trying to answer. I have some excellent writers in my critique group who still feel uncertain about how to know when their work is ready, and some new writers who charge gung-ho into asking for critique when their work is still really rough, and they don't end up getting the help they want. I don't think that being experienced as a writer guarantees you'll know when you need help. – Jerenda Jan 5 '17 at 18:28
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There are different types of critique/editing, and different benchmarks for each.

There is content editing, which can be more easily called critique, which deals with the actual story. Then there is line editing, also called proofreading.

You should first do your own line editing or proofreading to make the story as clean and legible as possible. A first draft can be rough, but it shouldn't be incoherent. That means spellchecking, correcting grammar, and generally correcting punctuation. If you know you have a problem with, say, comma splices, it's fair to ask someone to look over your manuscript just for syntax errors so that you can reach the next level.

That level is content editing, or critique. Your manuscript is ready for the story to be discussed when you feel like you really can't improve it any more without outside opinions, or in the case of a first draft when you're just sick of looking at it and you need to hand it off already.

If you are working one-on-one with a regular editor (that is, someone who looks at your writing regularly), it's okay for a first draft to have chunks of TK scenes — spots where you say "John waits for Mary in the aquarium with a loaded gun, she shows up and makes threats, and eventually he has to shoot her" and then take up from the next scene. That tells your editor what you want to accomplish even if you're not there yet. I wouldn't recommend this if it's your first time working with this person, or to do this with a larger group unless the group is okay with that kind of hole. But generally, you should have a complete, reasonably clean draft to present for content critique.

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