Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Get Critted

There are so many people writing about how to critique other people's work, but a scant amount write, in my opinion, on how to receive critiques. So permit me a few minutes to contribute to the dialogue.

When I was in college, a fellow student walked up and said: "Read my paper and tell me what to change. It sucks." I looked at him and looked at the paper. I asked if he were sure he really wanted the feedback. He insisted he did. I took my pen and X-ed out four or five paragraphs, made numerous scratch marks in others, and then handed the whole thing back to him.

He looked upset.

The lesson he should have learned is: "If you don't want people to give you feedback, then don't ask for it." The lesson I should have learned was: "While many people ask for feedback, want they really what is applause and unconditional approval."

I never learned my lesson. I doubt that student learned his.

I have been in numerous writer's groups and I have found the feedback experience repeated on numerous occasions. In one group a rather irate woman who fancied herself a poet wagged a finger at me and said: "What right do you have to critique someone else's work?" I smiled and responded: "I'm a reader."

Obviously a person giving feedback strictly as a reader is going to have a different perspective from a fellow writer, but I would argue that the reader's point of view has significance. After all, who are you writing for?

In another writers' group [ where people seldom actually wrote] three people were voted to edit the submissions for a would-be anthology. Those three people would work independently and make comments to the author about what would be needed to make his or her work acceptible for publication by the editorial board. The response? An unhappy group of would-be writers who felt personally attacked. Or to quote one author: "This sucks! You don't know what you're talking about!"

So, if we all agree that critiques should point out the positive as well as the negative; that they should be specific about what can be improved; and that they not in any way be personal---then what can we then say about those receiving the critiques?

Don't personalize. While you may have poured your heart and soul into a story, you owe it to the person reading your work to assume that it isn't a personal attack. If you don't trust the person doing critiques, then either don't give him access to your work or ignore whatever is coming out of his mouth.

Pick and choose. Only you know what your intention is when you write. It could be that the person critiquing is totally off base. It could be that person doesn't like the sort of writing you do; it could be that person isn't your audience. If that's the case, maybe accept what they may have to say about grammar and discard all else. Pick and choose.

The Three People Rule. If you have three people telling you something about your work, and they arrived at their conclusions somewhat independently---listen to them. For God's Sakes.
If three people tell you that you're an ass, then start looking for that tail.

Thank Your Critic. You asked that person to look at your work. YOU. It doesn't matter what they said, they took the time to read and make comment. That has to count for something.

It's Still Your Work. One woman whose short narrative had at least six different points-of-view looked in horror at me when I suggested that she narrow the points-of- view to one person. "If I make the suggestions you want, it won't be my work." It's your work, people. Even if you change things around and radically tear it down and rebuild it...it's your work.
People let me promise something right now, if I submit a work and an editor asks for dramatic changes, I will probably do whatever is asked without question. I don't care. Call me a whore. If I don't want to make the changes...then I can take my work somewhere else.

Critiquing other people's work and having your own work critiqued is essential to a writer's development. By critiquing someone else's work, it helps you reframe your own writing by seeing the craft through another person's eyes. By having someone read your work, it allows you to get other perspectives and to question ways you are doing things, not necessarily to say that something is wrong but how that something might be better.

One extremely unpleasant woman, who is a member of one of the groups, leaned over and at the mention of critiquing, responded: "I don't like critiquing. I don't want to put my work up there for people to pick apart. I've had nothing but bad experiences." After reading her work, I can understand why. Still, even that person could have benefitted had she chosen to break out of her shell and tried to forge ahead. The responsibility is on the writer, not the critic. The critic can only make suggestions or offer feedback, the writer is the one who decides how to handle it.

Anyone who writes and expects to be published had better be willing to write, rewrite, and edit their work according to feedback from others, and most importantly according to that internal critic. And finally, they had better develop a thick skin.

The reality is that people submitting their work for publication will often receive several rejection letters.

Lots and lots of them.

13 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

This is a very good breakdown of what a writer needs to do in the critique process. Newer writers should also be aware that even if they never get peers to critique them before they are published, that readers in the big old world are often only to happy to do so. I've gotten plenty of unsolicited advice/criticism/commentary from readers. Occasionally my feelings have been a bit hurt by such, but then again, at least they did read it.

Jon said...

Critiquing is tough. You have to consider who the writer is and where they are in learning the art. You need to think about the kind of critique they want/need.

It is wise for the writer to ask for specifics when they ask for critique. If someone asks me what I think about a piece and it's rough, unclear and loaded with technical errors, I'll tell them that it's rough, unclear and loaded with technical errors. But if they had told me that it was only a rough first draft and they were, at the moment, interested in the quality of the dialog, I would have responded to answer their concern.

One other danger in critiquing is that I have found myself telling the writer how I would have written it. I guard against that now.

Here's a question I have asked when delivering an eighty thousand word novel for critique: "If you had spend $28.95 for this book, would you have felt you got your money's worth?" Because, after all, as you say, Stewart, ultimately we write for readers.

SQT said...

I feel lucky in having written for newspaper publication. I'm somewhat used to having my work rearranged on a regular basis. It's just the nature of the beast if you want to be published.

The best advice Stewart gives is to not personalize it. That is easy to say, tough to do; but so important. The valuable lesson I learned was that there are people who know more than I do about what sells, and if I want to sell it behooves me to listen to them.

Susan Miller said...

My thought is always that nobody can be as hard on me as I am. I've always figured that I am my worst critic in most everything.

Of course, I am not issuing this as a challenge to any of you. ;)

As far as critiquing something I am definitely a reader...not a writer. I go with how I feel after reading it and am always grateful that the writer shared it.

Found that video, Stu.

Crunchy Carpets said...

I have learned to tread verrrry carefully when critiquing my hubs work.

He gets very huffy..tells me I don't know what I am talking about...then reads it all later and takes some of the advice and discards the rest.

Someone else's perspective is hard to take...but I think a necessary step.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Amen, Stewart. I was once in a writing group (I'm sure you know the one Stu. wink wink, nudge nudge, he nods knowingly) where people had taken critiques of their stories for an anthology so personally that they assumed they were all rejected.

As an editor for a magazine, it's this kind of thin-skinned mentality that keeps me from making more personalized comments in my correspondence. Even though people ask for comments, 9 times out of 10 they're going to gnash their teeth on a blog when I make the effort.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Every writer I know has experienced criticism and rejection. Before I send a short story to a literary journal, I read it to my class and carefully study their responses. I teach in a prison, so the comments I get are brutally honest. Sometimes I hit a nerve in my listeners which tells me I'm on target. Sometimes I'll get one or two students wanting to read the story for themselves. Thanks for sharing this information. I'll definitely be back to the "House of Sternberg." Good luck with future writing projects.

miller580 said...

What a timely topic. I just work shopped a short story to 16 writers and it was somewhat painful. At this point, I think that all writers should take a class on giving and receiving productive critiques because I think there is an art to giving a critique as well as receiving. But this post isn’t about giving a critique, it’s about receiving. (Stewart, maybe we can collaborate on the giving a critique. Boy do I have good stories to tell). As a writer, when I receive a critique, I try not to react right away. That’s not easy, as you know most writers’ first instinct is to defend the work. I typically need a week or so to let the comments settle in and make themselves comfortable, then I reread the work having that new knowledge by my side. More times than not (at least on the big issues) there is some truth to the comment. Something is not right and needs fixing. It may not be exactly what the critique called for but the problem gets addressed. OK, I gotta say this too. I think one thing I try to do when I critique is to critique the story. For example, I say “The story’s plot could be developed a little further,” rather than “Your story’s plot could be developed further.” I’d like to think that by doing it this way I am clearly critiquing the story not the writer.

Lori Witzel said...

Amen to all y'all.

When I was an illustration student, we were fortunate to receive very intense critiques from our prof. Because he was a really solid craftsman, most of the students respected what he had to say.

Two things that stuck with me:
"When you leave school, you'll be competing for work with people who've been successful. You will not get work if you can't work at that level. There's no exception just because you're a beginner."
...and...
"If your work is published on the cover of a magazine, you won't be able to stand next to every issue and explain to people why parts of it aren't as good as you would have liked to make it. The work has to speak for itself."

I appreciate Jon's reflecting on the recipient's stage in craft -- what medicine is needed, and in what dose.

Sheila said...

That is so true. I used to be afraid to ask anyone to critique my stories but then I thought, hey it's the readers who need to like it and so I ask a few people to get different opinions and sometimes I do get offended (my story is my baby) but I just smile and take a deep breath and say, you asked for this so it would help, they aren't saying you suck they are helping you improve.

Pythia3 said...

I will be re-reading this post daily, I assure you. This breakdown is so very helpful.

But, for now, I want to drop in and wish you and yours a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving.
I can't wait to read all of tomorrow's postings on family dinners! Should be hilarious, frightening and at times, sad.

All the best, Lindy

Pythia3 said...

Stewart, thanks for the Lions comment on my blog . . . I can share it with my brothers-in-law and we will all have a good holiday belly laugh!
Happy Thanksgiving

And Dear Lord I pray for Stewart not to be disappinted this day! Amen.

Barb said...

You make some very good points here. I know some bloggers who were ready to take their (very pleasant) blogs down due to a remark from one person.

Don't we all critique in own minds when reading? I am an avid reader. With every book I read I am thinking whether or not it's good enough to read again, to refer someone else to, etc.

Thanks for dropping by my blog.