on critiques.

| Monday, March 1, 2010
Today's Tune: Since U Been Gone/Maps (cover)

Critique groups have taken over my life, I think. Reading and listening and note-taking and explanations and discussion and revision and occasional wounded egos... I'm fairly certain this stuff is coming out of my pores.

Critiquing is tough, both for the critique-er and the critique-ee. There are so many things to keep in mind! How to come off gently, how to keep defensiveness in check, putting suggestions through a filter, all that. In order to get the most out of critiquing, there are certain things to keep in mind.

For critique-ers:

Be kind, but don't be flimsy. We don't want to be a complete asshat, so we of course avoid attacking or mean phrasing, a la "Wow, that passage totally blew. You DO know that the passive voice is weak, right?"

At the same time, it really doesn't do the recipient any favors not to be firm in our suggestions. I've been known to do this. Oops. If we say, "You know, I liked this a lot! I kind of got a teensy bit confused here, but it might be just me. You could maybe try clarifying, but totally up to you! Don't feel like you have to!" I think (I hope!) it's more or less a given that the writer doesn't have to do squat if they don't want to. This response gives them the impression that it's not the writing, it's the reader. If it's no big deal, why change it?

Gushing is great (yay, you liked it!), but unhelpful. When we read something we adore, we want to tell the writer so! "This was AWESOME, I LOVED this part!" This makes the writer feel ten feet tall and is lovely to hear. But remember that a critique group isn't just about lavishing praise. It's also about improving. So give the praise, but also help a writer find their weaknesses so that they can be even MORE awesomesauce.

On the flip side, don't be totally negative. When all you have to say about a piece is, "This didn't work for me. Strengthen this. Cut this. Your adverbs are over the top. Why is this character even here?" It can really do a number on the writer and make them feel like a failure. Criticism is important (and, really, kind of the point of critique), but cushioning the blow goes a long way toward receptiveness.

Don't half-ass your critique. If you didn't have time to read ahead and get a good grasp of the piece, or you really don't have much to say about it, be honest. Just say you're sorry, but you didn't have a chance to give it the going-over you wanted to. It's not very fun to have someone pick at a few superficial spots in the work because they didn't fully read it.

For recipients:

Listen. Try not to respond to critiques as they're being given. The point of critiquing is to get a sense of what readers are going to think of your work without your input. It's so tempting to go, "No no no, that's not what I meant!" But that's just the thing - if people aren't getting it, there's a reason. After you release your work into the big bad world, you're not going to be there. Plus, it can be offensive to the reader to be interrupted and talked over while they're giving their opinion.

In addition to this, be mindful of going into "I don't care if you don't GET IT, I'm KEEPING IT" mode. Which brings us to...

Don't get defensive. Some of the critiques might sting a little, but unless the reader is really being an unreasonable jerk, they aren't trying to be offensive. They're trying to help. It's not personal. They're judging the words on the page, not you. Even if it feels like it.

Work on your filter. Don't immediately leap to change a passage every time someone comments on it. Some things are going to be a matter of opinion, and you are the creator. Ultimately, what you say goes. You have to learn to filter the advice you can use from the advice that doesn't work for your piece. But that doesn't mean you should scrap everything you don't agree with. Take it all in, let it roll over in your mind for a day, and THEN decide if it has merit.

I'm still working on a lot of these points myself. It's a ride, that's for sure. Heh.

6 comments:

{ KarenG } at: March 1, 2010 at 4:20 PM said...

Good tips here! I like "don't be defensive" and "don't rush to change everything" and "don't go home and cry and vow to never write again" Oh wait, that wasn't there. Do you think there's cases where a critique group can do more harm than good?

{ Tiffany Neal } at: March 1, 2010 at 6:41 PM said...

This was a great post and extremely informative! Thanks!! :)) Critting and recieving it is definitely hard work.

{ maybe genius } at: March 1, 2010 at 7:40 PM said...

Karen - I think they can sometimes be harmful if you're not careful. For new writers just finding their voice and style, it can be really tempting to just take every suggestion that comes their way. In doing that, they can lose their own fingerprint on the work.

A lot of critique-ers use the phrasing "If it were me, I'd do it this way." The suggestion itself might be helpful, but we don't want to write like someone else. We want to write like us! That's why learning to filter the usable critique from not is so important.

Tiffany - I'm glad you found it helpful! :D

{ jjdebenedictis } at: March 2, 2010 at 12:57 PM said...

This is a great post; thanks for assembling such a solid list of the basics of giving and accepting critique.

One extra thing regarding getting defensive: Moments when someone says something, and it makes you irrationally angry, are very instructive.

The anger comes because you're insecure about the issue they pointed out; they just hit a nerve.

And that probably means that deep down you know they're right, but you desperately don't want to admit it to yourself--likely because you know it will be a lot of work to fix the problem.

In other words, those moments when you get defensive are valuable--provided you can turn off your anger and study them. They shine a light into your most pernicious blind spots.

{ maybe genius } at: March 2, 2010 at 1:16 PM said...

Great point, jj!

{ Paul } at: March 3, 2010 at 7:21 PM said...

Good piece, Steph. Unfortunately, many agents fall into the "totally negative" category. I know- I've been there. I got rejected by 20+ agents, and about 40 publishers. Maybe it's because they are overworked, and maybe a little jaded. I look at it as a learning experience. I realize now that they were right- my novel WAS weak, and probably not publishable. But I still enjoyed writing it, and that's the important thing to me.

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