Monday, April 14, 2008

Random Thoughts on Critiques

Hans Holbein the Younger,
the Louvre, Paris.

The Sword Cuts Both Ways:
I mentioned last week how writers spend part of their time huddled in a corner with their arms wrapped around their heads, rocking and moaning.
A position sometimes assumed in early stages when waiting for critique, in anticipation that, when our paltry words are weighed and found inadequate, the reviewer of those words will likewise dismiss the author of them as a deluded parvenu in the world of publishing and say to themselves: tree waste -- this person writes crap.

But you know, people who provide critiques worry about the same thing: that their appraisal of a piece of work will cause the recipient to make judgments about their intelligence, competence and critical abilities.
Their words and wee behinds are hanging out there too, and their anxiety level may be almost as high.
Both parties feel the risks. Something in our self-absorption we sometimes may forget to respect.

The Libra Factor:
When we provide critiques, we often confine ourselves to making note of faults and failures, with some casual and general carrot about nice voice or whatever to balance the stick.
The main purpose of a critique is to find the weak spots, right? To make the piece stronger? That anything not mentioned is fine -- that's why it's not mentioned.
Not really, the writer is just as apt to conclude -- especially in the face of a litany of faults -- that anything not mentioned is yawningly mediocre. At best.
So, bright blessings on those critiquers who are as specific about what works as they are about what doesn't.
Such are gold.

Paying Forward Contest:
Still open. See Friday's April 11 post and submit your entry in comments for the draw.


Savannah Jordan said...

Been there, been critiqued so hard my asscheeks were stinging. Praise is a wonderful unctive for the cutting comments, but in the end, if those words hurt, I feel there is work to be done. A nip here, a tuck there in the next book. To me, growth is sometimes painful--but pain can be good.

On the flip side, I have been working with a new editor under my *cough* real name. She is brilliant and of the mind to comment on what needs to be fixed, and not so much, "I love this line!" While I remember the praise from other editors, I think it is the stricter ones that help me grow.

So...give me a firm hand with the spankings :P

writtenwyrdd said...

Firm hands with spankings are all right, but I just read a critique on my WIP from a crit group member and thought 99% of his comments were incrediby lacking in understanding (to put it mildly). He insists that commentaries that are character thoughts are "show don't tell" worthy, and that one must use "said" for dialog tags every single time. I personally disagree with that latter when the tag not being 'said' improves the voice/ mood/ understanding/ whatever. It's my writing style, and I get to decide. *sticks out tongue* I do appreciate hearing his thoughts on the matter; but, ultimately, I'll ignore the line edits, which I eye rolled at, every one.

And re getting good feedback, Bernita, I find that in my own critiquing, no matter how I try to keep kindness in mind, what works comments are generally far fewer (and more of the lame 'nice line' style) because the focus is naturally on 'finding what is bad.'

It's very difficult to avoid getting enthusiastic about criticism when setting out to look for problems; so I figure it is reasonable to find a significant portion of negative comments to be discarded or considered and, ultimately, ignored by the author.

Even the comments one disagrees with help one to think about the story and improve it, for me anyhow.

As far as your contest goes, I still can't think of a memorable line.

Jaye Wells said...

Excellent point about the critiquer's anxiety. Always, always tell people what works for you. Not just to soften the blow of what doesn't work, but also to help them understand what's resonating with readers.

BernardL said...

Critiques are invaluable if you have confidence in what you write. A writer in the Snark's contest queried with a submarine story, Snark liked, until she buried him about not starting the story in the submarine. I pointed out if it were Tom Clancy writing the submarine story, you wouldn't have heard about the submarine until page 243. :) I hope the writer had the confidence to write the novel anyway, and file away the criticisms as guidance rather than gospel.

StarvingWriteNow said...

I've been on both ends of that stick. And I have definitely spent an inordinate amount of time rocking and worrying! Fun post--nice voice! ;)

Bernita said...

Helpful to know the editor's particular modus , Savannah, to keep perspective.

Dear me, he does sound rather fixative.

From what I've seen, Written, you strike a very good balance in your critical approach.

"Even the comments one disagrees with help one to think about the story and improve it, for me anyhow"
I find that very true, Written.

I agree, Jaye. Writers need their strengths noted as well as their weaknesses.

Savannah Jordan said...

Okay, Writtenwyrdd, I agree tht not ALL critiques are beneficial... perhaps I should have prefaced it with 'educated' or 'constructive'? It's up to the author, their confidence, and their ability to accept or reject what applies to them and their story.

Chumplet said...

I've seen both sides and it feels like a roller coaster ride. Most of my early writing days were filled with screams of terror.

Nowadays, it's more balanced, and I've learned to pick and choose the suggestions that work for me.

When I critique, I tend to stick to the practical side of things without attempting to mess with the author's voice. If a comma is missing here and there, if they made their characters leave the room while chicken is frying on the stove... stuff like that.

When a line strikes me as particularly amusing or poignant, I let the author know how good it made me feel.

Bernita said...

"the criticisms as guidance rather than gospel."
Right, Bernard. They are opinions, not laws.

Most critics remind writers of that fact, incessently.

Bernita said...

Sounds like you are another like Written who recognizes the need for balance, Sandra.

Bernita said...

"Fun post--nice voice!" Hee, WriteNow.

Sorry, adle-pated this morning. Just realized I hadn't added the day's image.

Robyn said...

Finding out what doesn't work is the reason you have a critter. But it's kind of like going to the doctor- he'll usually tell you the good things you're doing as well as the bad. And if the diagnosis is particularly awful, you get a second opinion.

Charles Gramlich said...

When I do give critiques I try to give both positives and negatives. I don't think I do a very good job of salving wounded egos, though, because, while I'm often asked to do one critique, I'm seldom asked to do another by the same person. Even when I've thought the piece was overall pretty strong. I should focus more on the strengths probably.

pjd said...

Trying to provide truly helpful critiques has been one of my best learning tools the past few years. This is also true for commenting on other people's fiction or poetry on blogs.

When I critique a piece I think is just OK, I force myself to comment in the "sandwich" method: Positive, then constructive criticism, finishing with another positive.

When I look for the true positives, often I find the wheels-within-wheels that underlie the text, often seeing subtle connections or meanings that perhaps the author did not even create intentionally but upon which they can build. Often, looking for these positives helps me frame the "negative" in a way that becomes much more useful for the author.

Critiquing well is a selfish act if done properly.

ChristineEldin said...

Bernita, You're so right!!
I remember doing my first critique. I wanted to feel so smart! HA!! The emotions do run both ways.

I need to know what works as much as what doesn't work.

WW, Editorrent had a recent post about "said" tags. Might be worth a look. Agrees with you.

Bernita said...

Good analogy, Robyn.

There may be more than one reason for not being asked for another, Charles. They might feel it would be abuse of your kindness to ask for another.

PJD, I agree, giving a critique can be a wonderful learning tool.

Right, Chris, we need both directions.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yes, I read that one this morning, Christine. Edit torrent does a lot of great posts. In fact, I'd already written a post based on that post for later this week.

spyscribbler said...

I'm kind of weird. I worry about a critique while the person is reading it. It makes me neurotic! I hate thinking of people reading what I wrote.

On the other hand, actually receiving the critique is nothing. It's like a different part of the brain, like receiving a laundry list. If there's any emotion, it's relief that I have some knowledge on how to improve my work.

I'm working on the contest, but I realized that so many great lines I've read, lately, are great because of the context. Choosing just one line is hard!

Ello said...

All I ask from a critique is that it truly analyze the work. You can savage me and I won't mind. I would much prefer a savaging then faint generalized praise. However, I completely agree that telling a writer what did work is also extremely helpful. And I do that giving a good critique is an art form in itself.

Gabriele C. said...

The best critique partner strive to improve your story, not write theirs. And they are a rare species.

Dave F. said...

I've been on both sides of this with technical publications. I once had to do a "tattoo" job on substandard and faulty research (to make sure it never got published) AND, I've received reviews that were nothing but critical remarks, hundreds of them (tiresome but this type of pickyness is easy to dismiss).

You are so right, Bernita.
The best critiques of the technical stuff I used to write had both positive and negative remarks. That has to be true with fiction.

When I read a critique and my temper alarms go off (or I start screaming obscenities at the computer screen), then I know to put the critique down and get my mind in order. Either the reviewer saw some problems I didn't see or they're full of it. I tend to think that I've got something wrong there. That takes time to work through. And that's a point to remember, take time to see if the remark is true, or has at least a grain of truth.

Not that I don't get defensive and over-talk and over-analyze the story. A coworker once said I was the man of a thousand word "yes."

Bernita said...

I get the twitches myself, Natasha.

Ello, we're conditioned to feel that "faint praise" is damning.

One of the first things a recipient has to figure out is where the critiquer is coming fron, Gabriele.

Yes, Dave, I feel the same - that even if the critiquer is way off base - something made them single out a particular word,line or passage, and that needs to be explored, not dismissed automatically.

SzélsőFa said...

I've never would have thought of that, but now it seems quite obvious: those who evaluate our works, those who dare to spit into the cheeks of our little babies are sometimes un-balanced humans, too.
It's interesting to see things from the other side. Thanks, Bernita.
*words from someone who's never submitted any work for editors and or critics*

Sam said...

A good critique is worth its weight in gold (pardon the cliché) - but a bad critique is no help at all, detrimental, and best put in the circular file where it belongs.

raine said...

Blogger doesn't like me today. :(

Interesting point about the blade swinging both ways, Bernita. No wonder I have an aversion to volunteering for the job, lol.

A good critter is worth their weight in gold. And I do think part of their duty is to point out the good with the bad and the ugly. Unless that author is chock-full of confidence, or you have a special relationship, yes, it's only fair to note what works well as well as what doesn't. Doesn't need to be equally balanced, but if you can't find something positive to say, critting may not be your cup 'o tea.
I always make a point of it, as I imagine some poor author reading over their critique and groaning, "Gawd--did I do anything RIGHT?"

Bernita said...

That's right, Szelsofa, some critiquers are just as nervous about being thought idiots as the writers are nervous about being thought idiots.

A bad critique, ie. one off the wall, is a waste of everyone's time, Sam.
And if a critiquer hates everything about a piece, then they probably shouldn't critique it.

"Gawd--did I do anything RIGHT?"
That's exactly the helpless feeling a writer is likely to get when all comments are negative, Raine!
Of course, if the pair are familiar with each other's style, irks and quirks, then negative comments have context.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

My heart is STILL in my throat everytime I punch "send" on a story I've edited. You just never know how people are going to take it. Generally, I've been fortunate. The thing I've learned with editing over critiquing is that every cut or re-word is done to make the strong stuff stronger.

We do face-crits in my group, which helps soften things. Still, it's important to pay close attention: has the writer heard enough? Are you repeating what's been said three times already, or can you just say, "I agree with them"? Most importantly, are you actually qualified to be making the statement? (Or is it something you just read in a book last week?) Sometimes it's ok to say "this didn't work for me, though I'm not sure why."

Bernita said...

"(Or is it something you just read in a book last week?)"
That sort of crit, the embrace of a sudden revelation via the latest how-to - when applied indiscriminately - both annoys and amuses me, SS.

Steve Malley said...

Wise, wise advice.

As always.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Steve,

Anonymous said...

I take criticism badly. Private tears, anger, magnificent monologues to empty rooms. And I save critiques of my work for years, repeatedly savouring and hugging the positive comments to my chest while forever snarling at the negative ones if I don't understand where they came from.

Knowing how extreme my internal response, I try to be even-handed in my critiques. I'm honest about what's iffy AND what's yummy. I try to make my critiques detailed so that the victim will never have to wonder, like a dumped teenager, What Went Wrong?

Feedback is precious. Feedback is a drug. I believe in it. But it has to be meaningful or the recipient will see through it and feel cheated. No placebos please.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to sign myself.


Bernita said...

"But it has to be meaningful or the recipient will see through it and feel cheated."

And that goes for the positives as well as the negatives, Asa.

"No placebo, please."
Damn good line and attitude.

archer said...

I'm posting this so I can have the cheap nerdy thrill of standing in someone else's limelight. Besides, it's on topic and pretty cute. It's from Moliere's The Misanthrope.

Oronte. If you have any business at Court, I have the King's private ear--you can count on me. And, as you are a man of brilliant parts, I come to read you a sonnet which I made a little while ago, and to find out whether it's good enough to publish.

Alceste. I am not fit, sir, to decide such a matter. You will therefore excuse me.

Oronte. Why?

Alceste. I have the failing of being a little more sincere in those things than is necessary.

Oronte. The very thing I ask! In fact, if you held back, I would think you remiss.

Alceste. In that case, read away.

Oronte. [Reads]Sonnet...[Looks at Alceste] It is a sonnet...[Reads] Hope... [Looks at Alceste] It is to a lady who flattered my passion with some hope. [Reads] Hope... [Looks at Alceste] These are not long, pompous verses. They are mild, tender and melting little lines...

You can read the whole scene here.

Jon M said...

You're right, you've got to know what is working as well as what is. It's human nature to focus on the negative but if you don't see the positives, how are you going to keep on doing the 'right' things too?
Cor that was a bit thoughtful!

Travis Erwin said...

I agree. a good critiquer is worth their weight in gold.

Shauna Roberts said...

I rarely feel hurt or angry by a critique. I'm eager to make my work better, and I have a tough skin.

The flip side to that is, it's hard for me to judge how someone with tender feelings might feel about my critique of their work. I worry that what seems like a mild criticism to me might seem harsh to someone else.

Bernita said...

Thank you for the link, Archer. Fits perfectly.

Thank you, Jon, Travis.

A mutual risk, Shauna.

Demon Hunter said...

I am awaiting a couple critiques on my WIP. I have gotten some feedback and it's been rough, but I appreciate it because it can only make my work stronger. :*)

Bernita said...

So true, my Demon.
I find that - even if I discard the advice - it forces me to examine the point in depth to make sure my reasoning for use is solid.