Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting the Most out of a Bad Critique

Reminder: the Critique Contest is open until tonight! We've had some very exciting entries so far... it's going to be a tough choice! In the meantime, back to Critique Week:

So yesterday I talked about good critiques, but unfortunately not all critiques are good. Today I want to talk a little bit about bad critiques, both how to receive them and how to avoid giving them.

Vague Critiques

These kinds of critiques are frustrating to receive. How can we know what we need to fix if we don't understand the comments? Critiques we can't follow aren't helpful. But the good news is that these critiques are often quite possible to resolve.

It's always okay to ask for clarity. Part of learning to give critiques is learning how to explain a concept in more than one way. If you ask for clarification, chances are you're doing your critique partner a favor in disguise! Be willing to dig around a bit and ask questions to uncover the root issue.

And if talking to your critique partner doesn't help, find another reader for a second opinion. Try explaining the comments you received and ask your second reader if he or she has any insight about what the original critique might have meant.

On the other side, if you're giving a critique, think hard about what isn't working for you. Saying “I don't like this character” is a lot less helpful than saying “this character's voice sounds flat to me.” If you tend to have trouble pointing out what is bothering you in a piece, consider reading up on editing books. (More on that tomorrow.) And keep practicing! Learning to give good critiques is a process.

Disparaging Critiques

Negative critiques can be very disheartening. I've had my share of them, and they certainly don't feel good. Nobody likes being told that their work is trash. But what do you do when you get one of these critiques?

First, take a deep breath and center yourself. Negativity happens to everybody. That's part of the process of developing that thick skin everyone always talks about. Your story isn't all bad—that's almost guaranteed. The person writing your critique may not have had the decency to bother pointing out the good parts, but that doesn't mean there weren't any or that you're doomed to failure.

But once you've dealt with the sting of negativity, look back at the comments and try to glean something from them. The critique may have been worded badly, but it might still have some good points. Can you learn anything from it? Can you make any positive changes to your writing. If so, focus on the positive aspects of learning from the critique.

And if you're the one writing the critique, remember that the person on the other end might have delicate feelings. Until you've developed a relationship of trust, brutally honest critiques might cause more harm than good. That doesn't mean you need to lie! But remember to word your comments carefully. And always sandwich your critiques with praise. Pointing out the good in a story gives the writer enthusiasm to keep working.

Conflicting Critiques

But what happens when a critique that gets everything else right also says something that feels completely wrong? These critiques can sometimes be the hardest of all. Once in a while our critique partners might have suggestions that we just don't agree with. They leave us with the feeling of “now what?”

Well, don't panic! It's not the end of the world. It's okay to disagree. What appeals to one person won't always appeal to another, and sometimes those differences in preference show up in critiques. But do ask yourself why you don't agree with the critique. Is it because the person giving the critique didn't understand the vision of the story? Or is it because you're afraid of “murdering your darlings”? Be honest with yourself—that's the only way to move forward.

And again, you are free to ask for another opinion! Give the story to another reader you trust and see where that person stands on the issue. Herein lies the value of a strong critique group. Trust among critique partners is priceless, and each person brings different strengths. Knowing your critique partners' strengths can help you determine the best course of action when you receive conflicting advice.

As the person putting together a critique, one of the most difficult things to accept is that the person receiving the critique won't always follow every suggestion. But remember, the story isn't yours. The dreams you have for it aren't necessarily the writer's dreams for it. Of ten we can get wrapped up in a story we're critiquing, particularly if we're putting a lot of effort into our critiques. But remember, even if our comments are ignored, we're becoming better critique partners with every critique we write. And our own books will improve in the process.

What challenging experiences have you faced in giving or receiving critiques?

1 comment:

  1. Great tips on how to handle critiques! I received a vague critique once...the critiquer said, "I don't get it." And that was it. Even when I tried to clarify what they thought worked or didn't, they gave me the same response. NOT helpful, LOL! At least the disparaging ones give me something to work on. ;)