My general sense is that critique questions are working poorly for us, and that this is unlikely to improve significantly, barring a drastic change.
I'll get the obvious issues out of the way first:
- Site guidelines aren't enough to keep questions focused. Partially because they're not very visible; a random newcomer won't know to look for them. And partially because judging what constitutes a single focused question is really tough - it's tough for long-time members; for new members poking around the site without knowing Writers.SE and Stack Overflow, it can be nigh incomprehensible.
- Finding an appropriate focus is extremely difficult. Once the guidelines are properly understood, it's still very hard to ask "the right question" about your piece. The focus guideline basically demands a diagnosis and asks for the cure - but the diagnosis might be wrong, or maybe OP's asking because he hasn't managed to find a diagnosis that works. For this reason, critique questions can easily go astray - either by asking the wrong question, or by getting answers that try to address larger issues that OP doesn't ask about.
- Over-localized. Critique questions are, by nature, of little interest to anybody besides the OP; this can lead to cruft on the front page, numerous questions with indistinguishable "Feedback on story beginning" and unsearchable content.
- Appealing primarily to newcomers. I might be wrong here, but I think most interest in critique questions will be coming from amateurs, whatever the site's expertise level may be. Amateurs go, Cool - these people will tell me what to fix in my writing!. Meanwhile, more experienced writers will be more wary of posting work for public critique; they also usually have no lack of friends and contacts who they rely on for feedback. I don't have any problem with some (or even many!) amateur questions, but if the entire tag is geared primarily for low-quality questions, that's a problem.
But there's a larger issue here.
Are our critiques doing what critiques should do?
What is a critique meant to accomplish? Why are writing critiques so helpful; why is it so important for us to incorporate them into our site?
Critiques are the fundamental form of mentoring in writing. Two major reasons for that are:
- A critique is an attempt and an opportunity to capture the effect of a piece on a reader. The whole point is that the reader can react to anything in the text - not necessarily to what the author thinks is good, or bad, or important. It's nice that the author wants to improve the fluidity of the battle scene, but that's irrelevant if the reader thinks the entire fight is pointless and the characters should get back to smooching already. An insightful reviewer will notice issues that the author would never think of - both flaws and virtues.
- Fiction needs to be read as a whole. You can examine a small piece of it, but it's inherently non-modular. You can't possibly critique the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey without having gone through all the movie up to that point. The dramatic showdown between the Sicilian and the Man in Black has been built up to for chapters, and relies on the particular tone and atmosphere of the rest of the book. That's why critiques take the entire piece, and review it in its entirety - because that's what it takes for the reviewer to understand the piece, to be able to give constructive advice that's tailored correctly.
With Writers.SE's current guidelines, we miss both of these. We're left simply offering our opinion about a specific issue in the text - which may be helpful, of course, but it's hardly the comprehensive critique that the author would presumably find most valuable.
And you know what? There's no shortage of review forums and critique circles and the like. When it comes to getting a critique of your work, Writers.SE simply can't hold a candle to the competition. If getting critiques at Writers.SE requires a gamut of rephrasings and contortions, while other venues are actually dedicated to providing critiques and some of 'em do it pretty darn well, and they're all offering ten times as much bang for your buck, giving you a real critique instead of taking one cherry-picked question - well, then Writers.SE does not seem like a very good place to focus on critiques, does it?
So I think that's where I am on this. I think that it's in our best interests to either find a much, much better way of dealing with critiques, or else take them back off-topic. The present situation, where critique questions are an odd quisling that newcomers stumble over again and again, does not seem tenable to me in the long run - if we don't find a way to improve it, I don't think it's going to improve.
I know there are members here who strongly support critique questions, and to these members, I apologize if I'm coming across as overly negative. I recognize the value of providing a place on our writing site to post your own writing, and I would truly love to hear more about the value and potential of these questions as you yourself see them.
The reason I am posting, and so critically, is because I strongly feel that we've missed our mark with critique questions so far. Now, that might simply mean we notch another arrow and try again. But to do even that much, we need to know what we're aiming for.