What’s it to you? About writing critiques

This is a post I’ve long thought about to write, about the purpose and consequences of critiques, about critique psychology, if you like.

Like this post? I’ve collated this, and some other posts with other information I’ve gained in more than six years’ extensive membership of critique groups, into a book: Stripped bare – a lighthearted guide to getting the best out of writers’ critique groups. You can get it here

What prompted this post?

I think there is a stream of thought out there that as long as you are crit buddies, you can say ‘anything’ to each other, be as brutal as you can, that with ‘buddies’ you don’t need to observe the critiquer’s creed. I think that is misguided, and content and delivery are two entirely separate things, and probably even more so with people you wish to stay friendly with.

Once, a writer gave me a long piece of critique analysing a few novel chapters. From the critique I came away with a very clear sense as to what I needed to look at. It wasn’t until much later that I realised this writer had told me that the excerpt was a piece of shit.

As soon as I figured that out, my first thought was that giving critique like that is an incredible skill, as skill a writer should have, because above all, a writer should have an inkling of the emotional impact of words.

Another fact is that if you want someone to hear your words and consider them rationally, making them angry is just SO going to be effective (not).

First of all, before you read this, it’s absolutely mandatory that you put your tongue in cheek. Not too far, mind, because some of the below is at least halfway serious. But in order to make a point, you sometimes need to exaggerate it, sometimes a lot.

So: why do give someone a critique?

1. you’ve promised
2. you want to give them a reader reaction
3. you want to help them
4. you want to show them how much more you know
5. you want to make sure they piss off and don’t cross your path again
6. you want to understand why you thought their story worked/didn’t work

Some people say that critiques that are about the writer of the critique are bad. I’d say that this is untenable, holier-than-thou bullshit. Critiques are, per definition, about the writer of the critique. In the process, the critique may do one or more of the above things, but it is my opinion that should never be an intended aim of the critique. As such, I think that point 6 is the only valid point on this list. Hence: a critique is one reader’s analysis of the story.

Well, but some of those other aims sound nice, warm and fuzzy.
You promised? Bad, bad reason. You should write a critique because you think you have a meaningful analysis to make, something that’s not either I adore this story, or I hate this story.

Give a reader reaction? That’s pretty harmless as far as aims go, but your critique will do that anyway.

You want to help the writer? Oh, heavens above, what on all of the freaking earth makes you think you are either qualified to ‘help’, or that the writer is in need of help? Where ‘help’ is synonymous with ‘reader reaction’, OK, but if not, then point 3 becomes synonymous with point 4, which everyone will recognise as an obnoxious aim. This form of ‘help’ assumes a power imbalance, namely, that the writer of the story knows less than the writer of the critique. Bad, bad reason.

Aim number five should be handled with care, obviously, but if anyone tells me they ‘never’ give such a critique, I’ll stick my fingers in my ears and go latidatida, because I won’t believe a word they say. This critique type does not need to be rude in any way. In fact, there is no reason why you should ever be rude or sarcastic in a critique. This is the critique type where you get to add little snooty remarks such as:

You certainly have a story on your hands (meaning: I’m at a loss as to what else to say about this).
You certainly have wonderful ideas (meaning: but your writing is shit)
I have a feeling English is not your first language (never, EVER say this to anyone and expect them not to retaliate, cut out your guts and string them out all over the internet, even if English indeed isn’t their first language).
I would recommend that you read [insert title of writing book] (because obviously you think the person needs it badly)
I couldn’t read more than one page of this (if you really can’t for whatever reason, then don’t comment at all – this is why promising a critique is a bad idea. No single story is ever liked by everyone)
And sign off with:
Don’t give up and keep writing (because, you know, your work is so bad it’s sure as hell going to be a long, long road)

Don’t, however, give any such commentary if you expect the person to be your friend afterwards. But, that said, some writers are incompatible, and no friendly, goopy, slimy critique is ever going to change that.

Next thing: what do you aim to be the result of your critique in terms of your relationship with the writer?

1. the other writer is a crit buddy of yours or you want them to be
2. the other writer is just a contact
3. see how much I know about this subject?
4. stay out of my way, you assassin of language (quote butchered from the Disney version of Dumbo, yes I know, I watched this crap too much when the kids were little)

Again, as above, all these aims are sometimes valid, although 3 and 4 much less often than 1 and 2. This is where the balance of power comes in. Points 1 and 2 assume a more or less equal status of both writers. But sometimes, that’s not necessarily the best situation. Who doesn’t remember that one writer who took the time to tell you, in quite strong language, that your story was overwritten to death, riddled with adverbs, repeated words like shots from a machine-gun and had no POV? And you asked them: WTF is a POV? And they explained. That’s where you stood at the bottom of the slope, staring up at the steep and slippery end of the learning curve. You needed to hear this stuff from someone. At that point, you willingly acknowledged that in the field of writing, that other person had more knowledge than you.

Similarly, if I write something about a subject that’s on the edge of my knowledge, I’m happy if someone comes along and declares him/herself a specialist in that particular subject. In that case, we acknowledge an imbalance in power, and I actively authorise this person to lecture at me. On the other hand, unauthorised and un-asked-for lecturing can be problematic, if you expect/hope the person to be a longer-term contact. You know, that’s why I’m writing this post, because I SO stick to my own rules (not).

Ultimately, a critique is a manifestation of a relationship, unless it’s completely anonymous, and anonymous critique can be useful, although it’s not usually what writers are after. People want to surround themselves with a number of writers who are of the same mould, of roughly the same level, and willing to look at your work without always asking something in return. And especially with these people, with whom you’d like to maintain a relationship, it pays to heed the old adage ‘Don’t do unto others…’

My take on what makes a low-conflict critique of a piece with which you have serious problems: highlight specific concerns, rather than make sweeping statements. Laundry lists tend to sound arrogant, especially when they contain numbered bullet points. Any writer can probably only improve on one or two points at the same time, so I’d limit my commentary to a few points that form units that can be tackled in a concise manner. For example, target POV and dialogue punctuation, never mind there are other points that may need attention. Dialogue punctuation is easy to look up ad fix, while POV needs some thought. Talk about the text, not about the writer. Talk about ‘I think’ and ‘the narrative’ or ‘the dialogue’ rather than ‘this is’ and ‘your writing’. Use the first person in a critique, but avoid the second person. If you find you can’t do this for a particular piece of writing, then don’t comment at all.

I think critiquing has the most value in situations where both writers’ abilities are similar. Don’t be afraid to politely decline and move elsewhere.

4 comments on “What’s it to you? About writing critiques

  1. Something I’ve learnt from my internship is that critiquing/editing is a very sensitive business. Don’t demand, but pepper comments with questions, ‘maybes’. Don’t re-write either – it’s their story, not yours.

    But also there’s a vast difference between style and something that’s wrong. In editing, if a capital or italic or spelling is wrong, they use pen. If it’s something that is a (very lightly used) suggestion or a comment, they use pencil to show that it is their opinion, not ‘wrong’ as such. Obviously can’t do that online with pens and pencils, but basically to say there is a difference between an opinion and dead-wrong.

    You probably know the difference, but I’ve found in the few critique groups I’ve been with, they often see their opinion as “right”, or else they write comments as demands. It makes for an unfavourable exchange.

    • Developing a non-offensive critique manner is really hard and something I’m still working on. To a certain extent, you expect the odd sarcastic comment when you join a workshop, but some people seem to be of the mould that ‘the more it cuts, the better’. Sure, critiques cut, but the part that’s doing the cutting should be the content, not the manner of delivery. A few days after receiving a cutting critique, you should be able to go back to it and analyse it for ‘meanness’ and come up with a negative. The critique I mentioned was an excellent example, where I didn’t even feel the cutting until I started to think about the content.

      It was given by a pro writer I respect, a writer who is obviously very much in touch with the power and emotional baggage of certain words. After that episode, the only thing I wanted was to be able to write critique like that. Not the gimmicky ‘sandwich’ stuff, the one-good-thing-one-bad-thing, but to write comments in such was that the reader focused on a point, and only that point, and could understand what I was talking about. Whether or not the writer takes it any further is not something I wish to influence.

      Writing critique like that is a true art form.

  2. great post. Humorous, insightful, and again, funny. 🙂 I know I’ve done a little of all the above. And I know I’ve received such critiques. Usually they say something like, “this isn’t my thing.”

    • I know I’ve done a little of all the above

      Heck, so have I. I’ve probably been a total d***head at some stage, and maybe sometimes still am. I think there are a number of things to acknowledge:
      – that we all goof up
      – that someone who pretends to be perfect is plain annoying
      – that it’s perfectly OK not to be compatible
      – that non-compatibility doesn’t equate hostility

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