PART 2: THE POWER OF THE POSITIVE, THE POWER OF THE NEGATIVE, DO’S and DON’TS, and FINDING A GOOD READER FOR YOUR WORK
Suggestion: Read “Giving and receiving critiques, part 1” (here) before you get into part 2. Just a thought.
Most writers are vulnerable, defensive, touchy, thin-skinned. Of course we are: we identify with our work. So assume the person you’re critiquing is nervous about being in the hot seat–and yet he’s opened himself to hearing your crit. Treat him kindly. Use the power of the positive.
Bad: I know you’re trying to get this chapter to work, but I thought it was way too confusing. I didn’t understand what was going on at all. You should have worked on it a lot more.
Good: It’s really clear that you’ve been working on this chapter–you’re definitely on the way. But I had a little trouble following the action, and it might be a bit less confusing if you took the action step by step, in a more linear way.
Good nails the problem and offers an option for change, while trying to help the writer achieve his goal; Bad just tells him he’s done something wrong.
What about the power of the negative? One nasty comment on the color of your new sweater is the one you’ll remember long after ten people tell you it’s beautiful. So be careful about making negative remarks about a writer’s work. Never say “I hated that scene” or even “I really disliked that character.” First, those comments are too general to be useful. Second, that’s just your opinion–is it relevant?
Instead, you could ask: What were you trying to accomplish in that scene? Or you could say: I had trouble warming up to James, but you might want to ask if other readers felt the same way.
For a few lucky people, constructive critiquing is intuitive, but most of us have to learn the do’s and don’ts.
DO find the positives and state them sincerely–what you enjoyed, what you thought worked well, lines you liked, dialogue that felt real.
DO ask questions: If you don’t get it (whatever it might be–plot, dialogue, facts), ask about it because it’s not fair to crit things you don’t understand. If something confused you, ask for clarification. If you don’t understand what’s going on, ask for the bigger picture: What are you aiming for? Where is this novel going? How does this memoir end?
DO say what you’d like to know more about: the way the character looks; the events that led up to the conflict; the family history; the town the detective lives in.
DON’T be crabby or argumentative. If you are, it’s likely that the writer will dismiss your remarks as…crabby and argumentative and not much help at all.
DON’T pound the writer, belaboring what you think is wrong with the work. You don’t know what’s wrong or right, so back off.
DON’T nit-pick. That’s not the best use of anyone’s time. Make your nit-picks on the manuscript or give the writer a short list of nit-picky problems you’ve noticed–for example, the overuse of “but.”
DON’T argue with or question the writer’s basic premise or themes. If he’s writing about World War II, don’t tell him it’s not an interesting subject for a book. Work with him, not against him.
DON’T pile on! Watch out for herd mentality or ganging up on someone, especially in a writers’ workshop. Very bad, very unfair.
DON’T be bossy, like saying “You should do such-and-such with that character” or “This scene should end with something-or-other.” Far better to say “I thought this character was a little generic. Maybe he’d work better if we knew more about him.”
DO offer options, not solutions. It’s the writer’s job to consider the options and choose the ones she thinks are right for her work.
And let’s always demonstrate respect. Respect the work, regardless of what you think of it. Respect the process: the writer has kept at it and had the courage to hear critique. Respect the person, as you would in any social interaction.
DANGER ALERT: Work you don’t like may make you angry. You might think it’s not worth your time and attention. You may feel sadistic impulses to be mean or sarcastic. If you consistently feel that way about a writer’s work, you should not be critiquing it.
The takeaway: You, as a critiquer, should accept what the writer presents and work with that. To critique effectively you have to see through the writer’s eyes and enter into her vision.
Now let’s switch places: you’re on the receiving end of critique. There’s real pleasure in getting a useful critique. You come away feeling understood, cared for, inspired, and eager to get back to writing. You feel as if you’re on solid ground, with good notes to work from. So you must do your part to make sure you get good crits, and that means finding reliable readers for your work.
Critiquing is personal and intimate, but it also requires objectivity. You should not ask for reading and critique from just anyone. Your partner, your spouse, your sister, your BFF–these are usually not-so-great choices. These folks may want to help you, but they’re unlikely to be able to give you unbiased opinions. Why not?
1. They’re often not writers; they may not even be readers.
2. They have too much at stake because they have complex relationships with you.
3. They may have hidden agendas not even they are aware of.
From an inappropriate critiquer you might get a totally positive crit that makes you feel good, but might not advance your work at all. Or you might be stealth-bombed by a negative crit that stops you in your tracks. Be careful whom you ask for critique.
Consider finding a writing partner, someone whose work you read and who reads your work. (Be sure you’re actually helpful to each other and respect each other’s writing.) Or think about hiring a professional writer or editor to give you a more objective, experienced crit.
Giving and receiving critique, part 3: the unhelpful critique; the Narcissistic Bubble; surviving critiques
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Bloomsbury Books, Ashland OR
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