Friday, June 13, 2008


From time to time I am given work to critique. I usually pause, my hand on the manuscript, and ask: "Do you want a hard read or a light critique". They always answer "hard". I proceed to take it apart then with a hammer and a crowbar. I often think to myself, "they should have gone with the 'light'."

However, I am now rethinking this approach. If a student gave me a paper to correct, I wouldn't pounce. Instead, I focus on one aspect. I might critique for paragraph unity. Maybe I'll look for run-on sentences.

I think when someone hands me a manuscript that I might stop offering the "hard" or "light" choices and instead just focus on one or two things. The problem I have with that is twofold: First, there is the danger of that person handing the manuscript back to me after corrections have been made. I don't have time to reread it, and in most cases, I don't want to reread it. The second problem with the above approach is that people might assume that the elements I've found to be flawed are the only problems in the manuscript.

Then there's a third option...stop critiquing. I won't do this, of course, I am too much a teacher.


spyscribbler said...

I always wonder about this. I mean, if I were teaching, there is no way I'd give them a list of everything they need to fix. They just wouldn't process and learn all that. It's impossible.

So, in crits, I try to focus on the biggest thing. I might mention a couple little things, but I'm more likely to point out several instances of the biggest thing.

I once judged for a contest and the requirement was that we make at least 45 comments. I was appalled. I might write a two-page critique, but no way would I make 45 separate comments. That was insane. Which one would they focus on???

Sidney said...

Do you find the people who ask for the hard critiques are the ones who get the most defensive? "But no, that's that way because..." Sometimes it's hard to take good critques, bu those are the ones that do the most good.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Spy, I think in teaching there is a goal and the student and teacher understand the goal. When a writer offers up work for critique, the goal is too often fuzzy. I also think there is a tremendous difference between fellow writers working together and the relationship that is teacher/student.

Sidney, that's exactly my experience. I think people need to find a critic they can trust. I have an easier time hearing the feedback of people who understand the genre than I do with someone who is clueless.

miller580 said...

When asked to critique, I also ask if they prefer a hard read. They almost always say the want "no mercy." And I dig in. The first thing I do, is let the writer know that I am going to review their work as a reader...not a writer. And that is try and do. I don't want to rewrite for the writer, so I suggest.
"I suggest you look at this character's times it seems flat."

"You might want to consider the use of motif"

Stuff like that. I think this dulls down the defensiveness.

Another thing I do (in my class) is when I return a draft, I ask the students to read the comments when they get home, then let the comments sink in overnight, and if they have questions or concerns to then email me or stop by and see me. And I have started to do this when I critique fiction for other writers.

I do this because I know how I react when I am faced with a critique. Yes, I can admit that sometimes I am reactionary and defensive. But I have found that by reading the comments and allowing my bruised ego heal a bit, alot of the feedback is understandable. I may not agree with it, it may go against what I am trying to do, but I understand where the reader is coming from.

I know it appears passive, and it is in a way. However, it does work.
Does this work for everyone. No, but it works well more than it doesn't.