PART 1: CRITICISM vs CRITIQUE and FIVE BASIC RULES FOR CRITIQUING
In October 2011 I spoke at the New York Society Library, for the members-only “Writing Life Daytime Talk Series,” a program run brilliantly by Assistant Head Librarian Carolyn Waters. My talk was called “Giving and Receiving Critiques,” adapted here.
When I’m acting as editor or teacher, part of my job is critiquing a writer’s work. It’s my responsibility to get inside the writer’s head so I can give her feedback that will help her achieve what she wants to achieve; I want to foster her originality, her talent, and her vision. When I’m back in my role as a writer, I’m on the other side of the table–the one being critiqued by a writing partner, my writers’ workshop, my agent, or another editor. Most writers wind up on both the giving and receiving ends of critique. Shouldn’t we be good at it by now?
Easier said than done, since critique can slide into unhelpful criticism. Critique is defined as a detailed analysis and assessment of a piece of writing; criticism is a judgment of its merits and faults. In an ideal world, all writers and editors would learn to critique instead of criticize.
The goal of a responsible and perceptive critique is to send the writer back to work energized and excited, eager to improve her piece and get to the next draft.
Here’s a story for you: A couple of decades ago a writer wrote a first novel (it took her four years) and asked her agent to show the manuscript to Editor X at a major publisher. Editor X and the writer had done a few nonfiction books together, and X had often urged the writer to try fiction. So the writer felt fine–if nervous–about letting X see the novel. Besides, the two women had a personal relationship: they were friends; the writer thought she was safe in X’s hands.
X read the manuscript, bypassed the writer completely, and sent a novel-trashing letter to the writer’s agent.
I was the writer, as you’ll have guessed, and the criticism (when I finally saw the letter) paralyzed me. For a very long time I couldn’t write a word of fiction. It was the end of my friendship with X, not least because she had bad-mouthed my work to my agent instead of just politely declining to publish the novel. But in part it was my own fault. I should never have let my agent offer that manuscript to that editor: X was mercurial, competitive, and too conventional to accept a novel like mine. It was a rookie mistake, but I was floating around in what I call the Narcissistic Bubble (more on that in Part 3), convinced that my novel was so good that no one could fail to love it.
In retrospect I see that it wasn’t the worst critique and X wasn’t completely wrong in her analysis. But she had little feeling for what I was trying to accomplish, however ineptly. She preferred a nice protagonist, sweet romance, and an easy ending–none of which were my goals. Instead of trying to help, X wanted me to ditch my story and write the book she preferred.
Learning how to give a useful critique to a writer and how to receive a critique of your own work are equally important because you learn from both processes. Giving a critique forces you to be analytical about writing, to think carefully about the piece and why it is or isn’t working. That helps you with your own writing. Receiving a critique tells you what your reader is finding in your work, but it also teaches you to be analytical about that critique: Is it useful to you? Should you pay attention to it?
Receiving a crit also toughens you up and reminds you to be sensitive to the next writer you critique. You will never be totally immune to negative comments about your work, but if you toughen up, at least you might not burst into tears and run from the room.
One more story: I was in a writing group with five other fiction writers. It was my turn to receive critique on my rewritten short story. One of the other members started his crit by saying, “I’ve read this story before and I don’t like it any better the second time than when I read it the first time.” He ramped up to a pretty insulting evaluation, which included the words “I hate,” and after a few minutes I told him to stop. “That’s enough,” I said, “I don’t want to hear any more.” The takeaway: Don’t tolerate abusive criticism.
Five basic rules for giving critiques:
1. Before you critique, read the work twice.
2. During the crit, stay on point. Focus on the writer’s work and don’t wander off into irrelevant anecdotes.
3. Your job is to be helpful to the writer, not to show how smart you are or score points off the writer’s fumbles. Give comments and ask questions that help the writer improve the work on her terms.
4. Start your crit with something positive, which helps the writer stay open to hearing everything you have to say. Starting with a negative comment will shut him down in a nanosecond. And keep this in mind: when the writer rewrites, he needs to know what was good so he can keep it.
5. Go for the big-picture crits first. Address larger issues (like voice, tone, plot structure) before you get into pickier ones (like a particular bit of dialogue or a misuse of language).
Giving and receiving critique, part 2: the power of the positive; the power of the negative; critiquing do’s & don’ts; finding a good reader for your work
Giving and receiving critique, part 3: the unhelpful critique; the Narcissistic Bubble; surviving critiques
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
The Owl & Turtle Bookshop, Camden ME
BookTowne, Manasquan NJ
Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston TX