Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Critique Etiquette

or, The Care & Feeding of Good Criticism

"Tell me what you really think. Don't sugar coat it. I need to know if it's any good."

I've often heard such sentiments from writers who want me to be a beta reader for them, either as a writing coach or critique partner. They believe they mean what they say. But they lie. What they really mean is:

"Tell me it's brilliant. Tell me you couldn't put it down, that you lost sleep over it, and that you can recommend an agent or publisher who can get it into print by the end of the year."

Writing is, after all, the practice of indulging one's dreams.

When I critique others' work and when I facilitate critique groups, I stress that criticism is essential to improving one's craft. That means that suggestions for perceived improvement are made by the Critiquer and said suggestions are thoughtfully considered by the Critiquee.

It is the Critiquer's responsibility to look for ways to make the work better. It is the Critiquee's responsibility to handle such suggestions with grace and diplomacy.

Honest criticism provides proof that someone was willing to take the time to read and respond to your writing. Though critique methods vary according to personal preference, time, knowledge base, and the level of manuscript completion, a useful critique has three major hallmarks:

1.) It appraises the work instead of the writer. All critique comments should focus on improving the readability of the work. Personal forays questioning the writer's psyche, motivation, or competence are inappropriate. Writers have a difficult enough time separating themselves from their work. A critique should help -- rather than hinder -- that separation.

2.) It indicates how the written work affects the reader. A reader's views on how the words affect him or her without authorial intrusion provide invaluable feedback for how well the writer has executed a scene.

If the author feels compelled to explain away something that crops up in a critique comment, such explanation is usually better served in the source material, instead of in a face-to-face diatribe.

3.) It highlights strengths and points out weaknesses. Too often, people confuse "critique" with the most negative definition of "criticize." A critique does not merely identify problem areas. It also indicates those sections that work well and engage the reader. Knowing what works can be as useful to the writer as knowing what needs fixing.

What To Do With A Critique (Once You’ve Got It):

Upon receipt of a critique, the writer has several responsibilities. Chief among these is to not pitch a diva-esque fit.

RESPONSIBILITY #1: REMEMBER YOUR MANNERS

It is imperative that you take the critique graciously. Say "thank you for your time." Say "I really appreciate this."

Do not say, "clearly you are an imbecile for failing to recognize my genius and suggesting that I make changes to this obviously perfect work of art."

RESPONSIBILITY #2: KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Realize that a critique represents only one person’s opinion, BUT:

  • Look for trends. If several beta readers find fault with the same thing, it behooves you to re-examine it.
  • Consider the source. Criticism from a beta reader who reads or publishes widely within this genre holds more weight than comments from someone unfamiliar or dismissive of the category.
  • If you choose to reject a suggestion, be able to articulate why. People rarely take the time to comment on something with the intention of making it suck worse. This does not mean that all comments must be acted upon. However, if you disregard specific comments within a critique, be sure ego is not involved, and ignore the suggestions advisedly.

RESPONSIBILITY #3: BACKUP YOUR ORIGINAL

Remember, the original draft will not self-destruct if you do a re-write. So, do a re-write. Stretch yourself. Try new things. See if addressing the critiquer's improves the work. You can always revert to the Starter Draft, if the muse chooses.

RESPONSIBILITY #4: LEARN AND GROW

A critique is not an exercise in hand-holding. It is not Story Crafting 101. It is not Remedial Grammar and Punctuation. It is not free proofreading for lazy gits.

Critiques will often identify weaknesses that pervade a writer's work. These weaknesses may be in sentence construction, character-crafting, story structure, pacing, or general execution. If a weakness is mentioned once or twice near the beginning of a critique, it stands to reason that the weakness probably exists throughout the manuscript. (Often, such a weakness may be a shortcoming of the author's that bleeds into other projects.) The critiquer should not be expected to point out every instance of a weakness. Once the weakness is identified, it is the writer's responsibility to apply this new awareness and strengthen the entire text.

If a suggestion for improvement makes sound sense, apply it to the rest of your work.

RESPONSIBILITY #5: NEVER EXPLAIN YOURSELF

When reviewing critique notes, avoid the temptation to say, “What I meant here was.” It you have to explain your work, it needs work.

Tips (For Beta Readers) on Dishing It Out:

1.) Critique with benevolence. Be kind. This doesn't mean that you need to use kid-gloves, or sugar-coat your criticism. However, bear in mind that sarcasm rarely translates well in print. And always remember that no matter what we say, we writers are terribly thin-skinned. It's sad, really.

2.) Look for GENERAL areas of both excellence and weakness. If a writer routinely punctuates incorrectly or exhibits redundant word use, by all means point it out. However, saying things like, "I think you used the wrong word here. And you missed a comma here," is not a critique. That's a copy edit.

Some general things to consider include:
• Paragraph clarity, construction and appropriate breaks
• Dialogue – flow, understandability, use of idioms, believability, speaker ID
• Use (or overuse) of description – tighter prose keeps the reader turning pages. If something appeals to you, mention it. If you start skipping entire sections of description, mention that, too.
• Tense / time consistency
• Consistent voice
• Consistency in chronology
• Attention to details – historical happenings, facts, characters & settings

3.) If you mark an area that you feel needs work, be willing to offer concrete suggestions for improvement. Saying, "the second act falls apart," is not terribly useful. Saying where the writer lost you and articulating ways in which you would like to recapture the magic of the narrative can be invaluable.

4.) Realize that nothing is perfect. Labeling a work “wonderful” or “piece-o-junque” does little to help the author grow. Look for individual sections that are outstanding either in their brilliance or in their need for re-writing.

Ever received (or given) great criticism? What's been your experience as you wrestle your words into shape?

6 comments:

trudymorgancole said...

Really good tips. Another one I use (upon receiving critiques) is to pay attention to the criticism that resonates with you at a gut level -- the thing you knew deep down, but were trying not to know consciously. If you did something that you kinda sorta feared wouldn't work, but you hoped you could "get away with it" and your beta reader tells you it didn't work, pay attention to that.

trudymorgancole said...
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Megan Frances said...

Excellent guidelines for both receivers and givers of critiques. You're right about the thin-skinned part - I'm embarrassed to admit I'm guilty. I'm sending this link to the members of my fabulous critique group right away - and tweeting it too.
Happy to find your blog.

Heather Kephart said...

Excellent tips, thank you so much! Love the bit about general comments vs. copy editing. So much helpful advice there.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Trudy, Megan, & Heather,
Thanks so much for your kind words. Blessings to you all with your writing!

Cyn Narcisi said...

Thank you so much! This was really helpful!