Friday, January 14, 2011


This is sort of the flip side of the revision process: giving--and getting--critiques.  It is a challenge on both sides, and it can often lead to resentment and hurt feelings.

I know of writers who refuse to let anyone else read their work.  They feel that other people can't truly understand their work well enough to give a valid critique.  Plus, some worry that someone else might steal their ideas.  To which I would probably reply: dude, you're not that good.  I suspect most creative writers have too much pride to steal someone else's work.  It would be like admitting defeat: I'm not good enough, so I'm going to take someone else's work.  Plus, believing someone will steal your work means that you're going in with the assumption that your work is good enough to steal.  (Why would someone steal bad work?)  I think that's kind of a dangerous assumption, and leads to the kinds of writers who will dismiss critiques outhand without even listening to them.

I, on the other hand, firmly believe in critiques.  Why?  Because it's my intention to publish my work for an audience.  The people who critique my work act as a test audience for me, and before I submit my work to agents/editors, I want to know that it's as strong as it can be.

But I really, truly wish that someone would set up some rules for critiques.  Because I've heard good ones, and I've heard bad ones--and the distinction has nothing to do with the content of the critique.

And so, if I were the Master of the Universe (like He-Man!)

Beth's Rules for Good Critiques

  1.  Start out with what you liked, and preferably why.  Nobody likes having their work ripped apart.  When you put so much thought and effort into something, it's disheartening to hear, "It sucks."  I'm no exception.  But a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.  Tell the writer the things you liked first.  Ease him/her into the criticism.  Writer X may be more likely to take it if he/she doesn't feel like he/she's been massacred.  And if you can, articulate why you liked a certain thing.  That's not always possible, but it helps a writer to know what he/she did well.
  2. If you can't say something nice, maybe you shouldn't say anything.  This isn't always possible; I've been in classes/groups where you've been required to give critiques.  And at times, I've really had to scrape the bottom of the barrell for something nice to say.  (I haven't quite resorted to, "You've got pretty font and good quality paper," yet, but I've gotten pretty close.)  Sometimes--and I know I'm probably betraying my writer bretheren by saying this--something just sucks.  It may not have redeeming value.  But remember that a) what is good, and what sucks, is a matter of personal preference, and b) no matter how much you think something sucked, the writer still worked hard on it.  I've kept my mouth shut in my current writers' workshop more than once.  At times, I've piggybacked off of others' nicer critiques to offer my own more negative assessment.  I won't be dishonest, but sometimes what might come out of my mouth would be too harsh to be useful, anyway.
  3. Explain why you didn't like things, if you can.  "This sucks," is as useless as a critique as, "This is awesome."  Why does it suck?  What's wrong with it?  Where are the areas of weakness?  Why didn't you like it?  This will help the writer determine what can be improved and whether it's a valid critique.
  4. Be nice.  Back to, "This sucks."  Even if it weren't completely useless, it's also unnecessarily mean and hurtful.  When you critique something that doesn't work for you, don't be a jerk.  (It goes back to rule #2).
  5. Critique the work that is, not the work that could be.  I have a very bad habit, as a reader: I tend to insert myself into the place of the protagonist (or the main female character) and imagine how things should play out in my head.  But that's not my decision, in the end, and I know that.  You are not the author.  Don't try to rewrite the author's story for him/her.  I love reading fantasy and sci-fi, but I'm not much into straight romance.  If I was critiquing someone who wrote straight romance, I wouldn't say, "I think this would be better with aliens."  In a way, you have to take your personal preferences out.  Consider whether you didn't like something because it's not your normal genre, or because it simply didn't read well.

As a writer, there should be a few rules for accepting critiques, too.
  1. When you're on the receiving end of the critiques, listen to them.  Let me explain: critiques of your work will not be right all the time.  You will not take every criticism and change your work based on it.  (Since many could be contradictory, you'd be in trouble if you tried.)  But don't get up on your high horse and say, "Well, they just don't appreciate my style/my vision/what I'm doing/etc."  Maybe they don't.  But maybe you don't have an accurate view of the strengths/failings of your work, either.  Those people have taken the time to read your work, engage with it, and think about it.  The least you can do is listen to them and consider their perspective.
  2. Don't go into a critique group/writing workshop/etc. with the expectation of universal acclaim.  Writing is a very self-serving pursuit, I'll admit it.  Most of us have got some egos on us.  I'm no exception.  And I love the times when I read something and I get nothing but praise.  It's an awesome feeling.  But the next week, I could read something that will be torn to pieces and come out feeling bloody and raw (and believe me, I have).  It's the name of the game, and I've got to take it all for what it is.  Your writing is not The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.  You've come into that critique group/writing workshop/etc. of your own free will, and the goal of that situation is to get critiques.  Those people are trying to help you make your writing the best it can be.  They are not there to tell you how wonderful and great you are.  If that's what you want, read it to your mother, your spouse, your adoring 4-year-old child/grandchild, and maybe your dog--the people in your life who think your shit doesn't stink.  If you want to publish it, on the other hand, learn to take your lumps--because editors, in all likelihood, won't be as gentle as your critique group.
  3. Be gracious.  You will run into idiots.  People will critique your work whose very existence offends you.  Maybe their critiques are completely off-target.  Maybe they strike you as being a total moron.  Maybe they ran your story through an online translator, and accidentally read it in Pig Latin.  It doesn't matter.  Again, these are people who took the time to read and engage with your work.  Just because they didn't like it, or just because you think they're wrong, doesn't mean you should get all snooty and condescending (a personal pet peeve) or tell them to go f-themselves (which I could tolerate better than snootiness, honestly).

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