So, I'm continuing to explain some of the jargon I used a few posts ago. I had been assuming that only my fellow writer friends and the occasional relative was reading my blog, but I now know that isn't the case. Several people have popped out of the woodwork to comment either to me or on my blog and it's been rather a surprise for me to learn they are reading it. Anyway, let me go ahead and explain what a critique is.
Critiques are opinions given by fellow writers on what is and isn't working in a story. The slang term for them is "crits", and many professional writers are members of crit groups. Mine is called Critical Mass (yes, I know, very punny) and is probably one of the best ones out there right now because of its longevity (we're going on, what? 9 years) and the success of its members. For example, S.M. Stirling had a solid career when he started, and is now hitting the NYT extended list (means it's a bestseller, but not yet in the top ten) and his last contract was for precisely one and a half craploads of money. Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, and Daniel Abraham had all either not sold a novel ever, or in Melinda's case, hadn't since their previous writing career (many people have a few rounds of moving in and out of the business.) All three have sold multiple novels to major publishing houses. I hadn't sold a single thing, ever. I was admitted to this group, which is pros only, under the Clarion exception, meaning I could play because I was a graduate of the Clarion West workshop. I remain their least accomplished regularly attending member, with only a few short story sales and some small press novels. I don't mind being below average in such a group :-).
Anyway, how do crits better people's careers? The obvious answer is that they show people their weaknesses and explain fixes, but there's quite a bit more to it than that. Science fiction and fantasy have some longstanding crit techniques that can be traced back to (to my knowledge) the Milford Workshop, and this same technique is used at the Clarion workshops and most critgroups and forums. It works like this: You write your story or book and turn it in to the group by a deadline. The group members all read and then you meet for critiques or post them on a forum. In a face to face meeting, everyone has a time limit and you go around the circle. People present their crits orally and may also give the writer written notes. Crits can be quite brutal and demoralizing. Once they are presented, the writer may do three things: 1) ask for clarification of points 2) ask for suggested fixes and 3) thank the critiquers. What they may not do is argue with a crit. Readers rule in writing. If the reader didn't get it, you didn't write it, regardless of what you think. You can't call up an editor who rejects your story or your readers and argue with them. What's on the page is all you have, so you have to get it right.
The Clarion Workshops are six weeks of constant writing and critiquing, as is Odyssey. Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp and others are shorter, but the same idea. If you aren't sure you want to do one of these, or don't have the time, and there's no regular critgroup in your area, then you ought to go to the Online Writer's Workshop ("OWW") or Critters (also online). Both have produced professional authors and have many adherents who swear by them. If you don't write science fiction or fantasy, well, that's a little harder. This form of critiquing is almost unique to the genre.
I run my science fiction and fantasy through Critical Mass first, and then my insanely loyal friend, Char. CM gives me crits from the writer perspective, and Char from the reader perspective. Others have also done the reader crits, but Char remains constant because a) she's always honest. We used to be roommates and so there's no artificial politeness there. If it made no sense or irritated her, she'll tell me. And b) because she's got some sort of weird literary deprivation syndrome that makes her crave the written word, even if it's my awful, rough draft prose. She reads voraciously, and is usually wanting way more than I can produce. Other members of CM use her as well. My LDS fiction goes straight to Char and my husband. I'm not sure why it works better that way, it just does. If I had to guess, I'd say because the LDS market has its own conventions and rules that are foreign to CM. Other writer friends and I will also swap crits, meaning send each other stories and each crit the other's, when that's convenient. So, Ben Rosenbaum and Samantha Ling critted Time and Eternity, Ling critted the short story I just submitted to an anthology, and I critted hers (written for the same anthology), and that kind of thing is pretty common.
Anyway, that, I hope, explains critting. If you want to write in the genre, consider finding a critgroup. I'll just add one caveat. Critting isn't for everyone and many pros don't do it. If the dampening effect of all that criticism interferes with your ability to get up the energy to write, then it probably isn't for you. Every writer has to find their own way. For me, critting has been essential and I've maintained a lot of the contacts that I have through critting, so I can't imagine launching a career without it.