Sunday, August 9, 2009

To Critique or Not to Critique . . . .

A lot of people look at writing as a solitary profession and, in a way, it is. Unless you are working with a co-author, you tend to research and write on your own. If you're like me, it's difficult to write if there are too many distractions. I don't mean if there's too much noise, etc., but too many demands on me by family members and friends. The phone calls during the "business" day when I'm trying to write. The "requests" that something be done around the house. Because of that, I tend to pack up the Eee, my notes and my iPod and run off to one f the lcoal coffee shops or the library for a couple of hours to write.

That said, for me, there is one aspect of writing where it is no longer a solitary profession. That's when it comes to critiques. I don't know about the rest of you, but I much prefer an in-person critique group. There is something about the face-to-face interaction during a critique session that I need. It's part social, part getting immediate feedback on my stories without the possible misunderstandings that come from email.

It's been a long time since I've been part of a "live" critique group. There are several in my area and my reasons for not joining them are myriad. Then the local library decided to start a critique group and asked me to head it up. This is a new role for me and one I take seriously, especially when it comes to the actual critique part of the group. And that sent me to the internet looking for a how-to guide on critiquing.

One of the best, not only because it follows my own philosophy but because it is SHORT comes from a guest blog at Nathan Bransford's blog. Rick Daley sums up the art of giving and taking a critique very nicely. When giving a critique, you should follow what he calls the "sandwich technique": start with a positive note, give your honest opinion about the work and then close on a positive and encouraging note. One of the best things he says, in my opinion, is to be careful when rewriting part of the work you're critiquing. Changing a word or phrase is one thing, but rewriting whole passages is more than critiquing, it's changing the voice and that is not what you want to do.

So what should you not do when critiquing:
  • don't be too apologetic because it undermines what you're trying to say,
  • don't hunt for something to crit. Sometimes the work really is good.
  • don't limit your critique to just saying good things if you see something that needs to be worked on just because you are afraid of hurting their feeligns. You don't help your critique partner that way,
  • on the opposite side of the coin, don't be a jerk about the critique either. Your critique partner will get much more out of your critique if you don't go into attack mode.
I'll add something else to this list: don't get personal with your critique. If you don't normally read or like the particular genre of story/book you're critiquing, let the author know. And don't start out with something along the lines of, "I really hated this story...." It does nothing but put the author on the defensive and undermines anything you might have to say in your critique.

When you are the one receiving the critique, what should you do?
  • don't pout if you don't like what you hear,
  • wait until you get all the feedback before considering changes
  • seriously contemplate your changes. Take your time and think them through.
  • look for common threads in the feedback and start from there
  • if someone provides a rewrite as part of their critique, consider it and try to figure out what they were getting at, but don't just copy it. To do so may change the "voice" of that particular passage,
  • ask for clarification if you don't understand something said in a critique,
  • thank the people who took time to read and then offer a critique of your work.
I'll add one more to that list: don't argue with those giving you a critique. I know it's hard to hear that the book or story you've been writing might not be the next best seller, but you asked for the critique and they might actually see something you don't.

There are some other sites offering suggestions on how to critique:
So, what rules do your critique groups follow? Do you prefer an in-person group or on-line, or do you do both? Most important of all, what do you expect to get out of a critique group? I appreciate your help with these questions because I really do want to help make the library's group a success.


Anonymous said...

I joined Critters a few weeks ago and have been getting a lot of value out of critiquing other people's works. I sort of naturally feel into the sandwich technique you mentioned.

Most people that reply to critiques give a standard thanks etc., but I've had a couple who'll come back with a point by point rebuttal of everything I've said. However, I've yet to respond with a critique of my critique's critique.

Jim McCoy said...

I'm taking a creative writing class this summer. There are only four of us in it, and it's really the first critique group I've ever been part of. We use the sandwich technique a lot, but otherwise we just try to be honest with each other. To me, tho only truly critical part of the entire thing is honesty, because it's the only thing that works.

Let me provide an example. The first thing I wrote for the class was a memoir. The professor for the class, who was a magazine editor at one point, suggested that I should submit my story and try to get it published. This was after I had made some changes that had been suggested.

The next assignment was a satire. Both the professor and my classmates read my offering and very politely informed me that it sucked. I reread it. It did suck. But I rewrote the thing. And I don't mean tweaked, I mean _rewrote_. I eliminated one of the four characters, changed the ending, improved the hook and completely changed not just the wording of the dialogue but for the most part the 'feel' of it. When I turned in my final project, the answer I got back was much more positive, indicating that my problem now was not the weakness of my story, but the lack of a market for it. It seems had written it to be too racy for Reader's Digest, but too tame for Penthouse. That's a problem I'm not really sure how to overcome, but then I didn't write the thing with the intention to publish it anyway.

In both cases my story was critiqued by these people and in both cases it came out better. Honesty in the first case helped me improve a story that everyone involved seem to think was pretty strong already. In the second case it helped me turn a lousy story into a pretty good one.

Both times it was because they told me what I needed to hear. They told me that something stunk when it stunk. When I offered a good piece, they helped me improve it, but no one felt that it was necessary to bash the thing just to do it. Those are the rules you need to apply.

C Kelsey said...

I've never been part of a critique group that I trusted to be honest (such a group is hard to find). I pass my writing to people I know and more often than not I receive a "this is great, publish it!" response. Very unhelpful.

Baen's slush was helpful initially, but I made mistakes in how I took the advice. Also, between a full time career and all the other things I do, I have zero time to read and comment on other folks stuff. That means that they don't devote time to my stuff (entirely reasonable). It's not easy.

Patience has been the key so far. It is those whom I least expect to critique my work (i.e. Dave and Amanda) whom I get the most benefit from. The honest "this is what is bad and good" (yes, the bad IMO is more important than the good for me) is the most helpful.

A person simply cannot advance in writing (if they have the goal of eventually being published in mind) without taking truly constructive criticism. That sort of criticism is really rare though.

Kate said...

When it comes to getting a critique, the thing I want most is honesty. I don't want snarky 'tear them down' critique, but if it sucks I want to know. And "ooh that's wonderful" is kind of useless even if (rarely) it's true.

The mix of good and bad helps, and when I'm giving a critique I try to aim what I'm saying according to what it seems to me that the writer is attempting to accomplish.

Beyond that, it's different for everyone. One person's "too harsh" is someone else's "useful".

Amanda Green said...

Anton, Critters has been one of the more successful of the online crit groups. And I'm glad you've had a good experience with them so far. But you've had some of the responses that I've seen destroy crit groups before -- the rebuttal of everything the critique. That and taking the critique as a personal attack can put a real damper on any group, online or face-to-face.

Amanda Green said...

Jim, first off, congrats on taking the creative writing class and on having fun with it. You're right, honesty is what we all want from a critique. But that honesty can be couched as constructive criticism, as it seems yours must have been, or as attacks. I think we all can get something positive out of constructive criticism, something that can help us make a story better than when it started.

The problem with attacks cloaked as critiques is that they not only help undermine the confidence of a writer but can cause him to actually make a good work bad. I won't even go into what it does to the dynamics of the critique group.

Good luck with the class and have fun.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, you really have hit the issue of critique groups on the head. While I respect the Baen's Bar slush group, there is an awful lot of "this is great...I really enjoy it," and grammar and punctuation corrections, but not always a lot of substantive critique. It is, however, a good place to start.

And you're right that it is hard to find a crit group where you can feel safe enough to really trust the critiques. It takes time and effort and, imo, a lot of that is the socialization part. You need to know who your crit partners are, what makes them tick, etc. At least that's been my experience.

Like you, I've gotten my best critiques and continuing help from unexpected sources -- Dave, Sarah, Kate and all because Sarah twisted my arm, bullied and cajoled me until I finally sent her something I'd written.

You are also right when you say you need to know the good as well as the bad. Otherwise, you don't know what you need to work on and what you need to leave alone.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you've hit on a point that I probably should have discussed more in the original blog. If you ask someone for a critique, you need to listen to it and consider what they say, be it good or bad. Critiques do no good if all you're looking for is adulation and folks telling you how good you are. For one thing, there are very few of us who are that good. For another, you'll quickly find yourself without critique partners if you argue with them or completely toss out what they say just because they don't think you're the next great American/Austrailian/British/Canadian/World novelist.

Kate said...


That actually raises the question of why you want the critique - assuming that you do actually want a critique and not an ego stroking session.

I've found when asking for crits I'll often ask for them at different levels, depending on where I am with something. Amanda and Sarah are often my "sanity-check" crit partners who get chapters of my current novel-in-progress hot off the first draft. At that stage, I'm not asking for more than "is this working okay?" and "have I lost my marbles?"

Later, I'll ask for more detailed criticism of how the whole piece fits together, and only then will I ask for line edit-type stuff.

In any case, if you're looking for a sanity check, a line edit isn't as helpful as it would be if that's what you're wanting. And if the sanity check comes back that you've wandered into a plotting dead end, a line edit ends up being somewhat less than useful.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you're absolutely right, and you've pointed out one of the potential pitfalls of any critique group. There needs to be communication from writer to crit partners as to what stage the passage to be critiqued is at and what you're looking for. I think that is where so many critiques actually fall down. Everyone assumes everyone else is at the same level or wants the same thing when it comes to crits. So I guess the moral of the story is, figure out what you want from a critique group or partner and make sure they understand. And be prepared to critique open and honestly and fairly in return.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I've always tried to follow the 'say something good and something bad' idea when giving critique. I think its a balanced way to approach things. I really like the sandwich technique idea, and I guess only now realise that this is exactly what I do.

It is rare to find people who will give good critique though. The more opinionated the person the harder it is to get them to give balanced critique.

I think this sort of thing can be fostered in a group and I think if you are starting one it would be beneficial to talk about the guidelines up front - for both giving and receiving critique. This supports those who will naturally try to be constructive, gives those in the middle a nudge in the right direction - and keeps the egomaniacs under control.

Amanda Green said...

Hey, Chris. You're right, of course. If everyone in the group knows the plan, it makes things easier. The problem comes when one of those egomaniacs happens to be in charge. I had that with the first crit group I joined. We were none of us ever as good as she was, no matter how good we really were. There was never any constructive feedback from her, always only what we'd done wrong. If we tried to stand up to her, she'd threaten to disband the group. I guess that's why I'm so concerned about making sure this new group gets off to a good start. I don't want to do to these "new" writers what that gal did to us.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. You shouldn't underestimate the postive value of what your are doing. Providing a safe and constructive environment like that could have massive positive flow-on for the whole specfic community. It will really make a difference for those newbie writers too. I think we all remember how crushing the first over-the-top crit was!