With critiques coming in, and one beta reader nearly finished reading the novel, I’ve been thinking about how I receive critiques. Partly because I’ve also been watching others receive critiques, in various face to face groups or partnerships. Some people handle negative feedback better than others.
The way I look at it, is the whole point of this is finding out what’s still broken that I can fix and make the story better. In which case, the negative feedback is useful and much appreciated, and I try to let my critiquers know how much I appreciate it. Because getting the feedback is a means to an end – the point is making the story better.
It’s different from a review – a review is when you get the book published and people say what they think sucked and what was good and whether or not other people should bother spending money on it. It’s a reflection of what someone thinks of your writing skill. A critique, on the other hand, is not supposed to be a reflection of your skill, but a tool to improve. A stepping stone to better writing, so that when those reviews come in, they won’t be as disappointing as they could be.
One big factor in how I see people receiving critiques is the writer’s perception of how good they are. Most people in critique groups think they’re a lot better than they are. I won’t say most writers, because the writers who think they’re worse than they are, generally are too embarrassed of their work to join a critique group. But, especially with a newly formed critique group, with members who don’t know one another well enough to want to spare one another’s feelings, there is often that first time critique that’s received with a disappointed frown.
Sometimes the person has had much more positive feedback from a more supportive, but possibly less honest environment (my mom says she liked it/my fanfic is well received by my following). It can be hard for those people to hear a more honest opinion from a less invested stranger.
I find it’s never a good idea to have close friends or family critique your work. I did give my novel to my mother in law to read, but I didn’t expect her to offer a lot of negative feedback with the honesty of an actual critiquer – she just wanted to read it. The reason family and close friends are a bad idea is because the relationship will get in the way of the feedback – the person giving feedback will be afraid to hurt the writer’s feelings, and if they value the friendship, they are very likely to hold back. On the other side, if the writer values the friendship, their feelings are likely to be hurt even more than if the feedback were to come from a stranger.
I do have one very close friend with whom I trade critiques, and we are brutally honest with one another. When we started trading critiques though, we weren’t friends yet – just fellow writers who met at the day job and who made a mutually agreeable arrangement. The friendship grew out of that, but the brutal honesty in critiques remained, because we both know the other has a very thick skin and can handle anything we say.
We also know that critiques are only opinions. She’s a great copyeditor, but every once in a while, she makes a suggestion of a style change that would change my style to hers. I just ignore those. I appreciate the suggestion, and sometimes her more formal style would suit the character I’m writing, and I’ll make the change anyway, so I’d just as soon she point it out as not, so that I can make a choice. But we have very different styles, and not everything I suggest is going to be something that works for her either, and we both respect one another enough to not get hot under the collar if we disagree on a point.
But in closing, if you’re one of those people who’s heartbroken at receiving a critique that points out weaknesses in your work that you didn’t realise were there, don’t be. It’s not a review – the work isn’t published yet, and it doesn’t have to be perfect yet. No one expects brilliance in a critique group. Take that feedback as it’s intended – as a tool to help you become a stronger writer.
Thoughts on giving critiques
Some thoughts on critiquing the work of others
1. Critique is not review (as Lindsay says). It’s collaborative not adversarial, it’s supportive rather than judgemental. It’s about making the work you are looking at better. That means the provider of critique needs to be helpful. Saying ‘this is rubbish’ is unhelpful and saying ‘this is good’ without saying why, is almost as unhelpful. If you think somethings wrong you need to say why, and if appropriate point out a solution.
2. Honest critique and civility are not mutually exclusive. You can provide critique and be courteous. Be honest but be considerate. And I mean you can be absolutely straight, say what you think and why, respect the author as a human being, show them some decency but don’t let them kid themselves. Sure they need to hear the truth, and you need to tell them it, but speak the truth in love.
3.If something seems obviously wrong think for a moment before you change it. So for example assuming you are writing in English you can only spell the word ‘sword’ as ‘sword’ and ‘cat’ as ‘cat’ – if you see a typo, sure change it. But think carefully – so don’t change all of their spellings of ‘favorite’ to ‘favourite’ if you are a Brit critiquing someone from US/Canada/… that’s how spelling works there! And vice versa of course.
4. Fact vs Opinion. If the writer keeps saying stuff like ‘a apple’ or ‘an pear’ you can zap them with the grammar corrector; but if it’s a matter of opinion – they seem to be using slightly more dialogue than you think they should, or they tend to use quite short sentences, or they rely on rather more adjectives than you would – well tell them but it’s opinion not fact. In critique facts are facts, but opinions are only opinions.
5. What stage is this manuscript at? To assist with a critique find out where the process the manuscript is. Is it first draft? Is it pretty much there? What is the process your writer goes through to get to final MSS? There is no point in the critic going nuts because they have to change all the spelling only to find out the writer consciously chose not to do typos till the end. Get your bearings before one of you ends up thinking the other is a complete idiot.
6. Commit. So I mean don’t say you’ll critique that 500k word fantasy epic if you haven’t got time, but if you do agree to do some critique then commit and do it. If you are half way through and just lose interest you are letting your author down. If you can’t continue for some reason, or you need a break, tell them. On a similar vein don’t start by giving epic crit in the first few chapters and then get bored and emotionally or intellectually ‘wander off’ half way through. Keep thinking about the material, stay engaged, and give it and your writer their due.
7. Intensity alert!! Delivering critique is intense, especially if you are thinking hard about the subject matter. Keep some perspective, I tend to think of the writer as a colleague to whom you have some responsibility to deliver, even if they are a friend. Keep it formal in the sense that you stay on task and deliver what’s required. It doesn’t mean there can’t be a bond, but remember what the primary purpose is.
8. I’ll give it and you can take it or leave it. I think the best basis to work with a writer is to agree that the critic can say whatever they like about the work, and the writer can take the bits they think are useful and dump the rest.
9. Structure it helpfully. I tend to provide two streams of critique, line edits and a separate page with more general comments. Check with your author what works for them.
10. It’s about your author and their work. Finally, remember critics – it’s not about you! You are helping someone else with their work, your primary aim is to improve your writers work, to assist them on the way to their objective, the focus is not the critique itself but the value provided, if you can really help your author to improve their work, you’ve done a great job 🙂
You almost sound like you’ve had some recent experience in giving critiques. 😛
Well, could be….;) and it’s been a good experience at that
As someone I know once said you can learn a lot about your own work from doing critique on he work of others.
As usual, you go right to the heart of the subject. Like you, I developed a friendship with another writer that morphed into a critique relationship. It’s worked out well! However, she doesn’t often read the genre I write. I don’t have access to those who do. I know good fiction is good fiction no matter what the genre, but I can’t help wondering if I should actively search out a science-fiction reader. Did you have this problem?
It depends on how far away the genre your friend writes is. If you write exclusively science fiction, and she writes memoirs, that’s something I’ve run into problems with. I had a face to face group that was writing literary fiction and memoirs and a little journalistic fiction, and they really just didn’t know what to do with me when I came in writing fantasy.
On the other hand, a group I’ve recently joined is a mystery writers group (with a loose enough definition of mystery that they let me in), and here I am presenting fantasy to these mystery writers and they *get* me, in a way the old face to face group never did. I find genre writers in general tend get other genre writers, and no matter how I try to explain why I think that is, it’s going to come across as genre writers tend to be more focused on telling a story, on plot, and purpose, and literary fiction tends to have more tolerance for meandering passages with no purpose but mood. That’s probably not fair, because I know lots of literary fiction does have good plot and momentum. I think maybe it’s that literary writers have more tolerance for a lack of story, while for genre writers, story is the important part, and mood and beauty and elegance of writing are second.
Which is kind of the case with me and my friend that I mentioned. She doesn’t write literary fiction, but she moves in more literary circles than I do, and likes to play with mood and pretty, with plot being secondary. But that means that she has a completely different set of strengths than I do, and we help one another work on our weaknesses. But she’s still a genre writer, so I don’t have to deal with the genre snobbery you often have to when dealing with “literary” writers who often think all genre fiction is worthless.
Thanks for your input.
My critique partner writes fiction with a dash of magic and a subtle nod to the mysterious side. So, she does get me. My writers group has a bit of everything, from memoirs to high fantasy. The one thing we don\’t have is literary fiction! I agree genre writers tend to be more open to one another.
Critique is an aquired skill. I’m continuously learning from my friend and vice-versa.