Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Dos and Don'ts of Writing Critiques

Following the A to Z blogging challenge, I'm back to my usual fortnightly writing schedule on this blog, but do feel free to check out Flight of the Dragon where I post 2-3 times a week. 

This was originally going to be my 'E' post for A to Z until I wrote some fiction and posted that instead. I have a few of these lying around.

In my opinion, there are rules of etiquette governing both the giving and receiving of critiques. So here’s my take on it. 

Asking for critiques:
  • Be aware you are asking a favour; you are taking up the time of someone who could probably be using that time to write their own stuff;
  •  Offer to critique in return. People are more likely to help you if they know you’ll help back when they need it. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be necessary, but none of have unlimited time, and most writers have a day job too!
  • Above all, be grateful. I don’t care if your work comes back covered in red scribbles, this person has given their time to you, probably more time than it took you to write it, because explaining what’s wrong with a line or a scene takes far more time than spinning it out.
  • Don’t argue with your critique partner. You don’t have to agree with them, but take their advice away, think about it, and if you still don’t agree, just don’t use it. It’s unnecessary to start a flame war over differences of opinion. Definitely don’t start abusing them. Story-telling is a subjective matter, and not everyone has the same opinion. But at least consider their advice – you’re so close to your baby it’s entirely possible you can’t see what’s wrong with your own work (see ‘What I Learned From Rejection… and A Fortuitous Workshop’). If you don’t understand something, by all means ask – nicely!
Giving Critiques
  • Be honest – your critique has no value if you don’t point out problems or if you just stroke the writer’s ego. In fact, you are probably setting that writer up for disappointment when they discover the truth – and ultimately they will. I recently came across a writer who gave me a story he had paid someone to edit and which was to be published in some magazine. Now I think his money was wasted on that editor and I don’t know what the magazine was because that story was littered with POV issues, characterisation issues, lack of conflict, lack of tension, shifting tenses… the list goes on. Perhaps that editor only did a copy edit, but they did this writer no favours!
  • Be honest – but don’t be cruel. You should be straightforward, and time constraints likely mean you aren’t going to sugar-coat it (and heaven knows I am painfully blunt, a technique I sadly learned from my first critique partner), but don’t be mean or spiteful.
  • If the writer got something right, tell them. Getting feedback about all the negative things can be dispiriting, so it can help to know the story isn’t a total waste of paper! This doesn’t mean stroke their ego, it just means give positive encouragement at the same time as setting their manuscript on fire.
  • If you commit to doing the critique within a certain timeframe, make sure you meet that deadline or give the writer a heads-up if you can’t.
As always, these are mostly common sense tips, but not always followed. Though I’ve been fortunate in my choice of people to do critiques for, and the writers have always been most grateful, I know people who have been less fortunate, including writers who have flamed their critique partners and cut them off entirely. 
 
Be polite. Don’t be, not to put too fine a point on it, a dick.


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27 comments:

Dan Wright said...

This is a good post Ciara. I think the same can also be said for book reviews. I just started doing reviews on my blog and I always try to be as a fair as I can. I will never post a negative review - but at the same time I will point out flaws constructively if I see any.

Good post and food for thought :)

Shelley Munro said...

Great advice! Critiquing requires trust and goodwill from both sides.

Ella Gray said...

Great post, Ciara! I'm new to the whole critiquing thing and really nervous about how to go about it once my WIP is finished. I'll definitely keep your advice in mind :)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I've started the policy of advising authors who ask me to review books that if my review is going to be negative, I won't post it. I DO feel negative reviews have a place in helping consumers to make informed decisions, but those reviews are better placed on Amazon or Goodreads. There's no benefit to me, my blog, or the author in me slogging through their book just to write terrible things about it on my blog and then flog it through triberr! In that case, I will offer private feedback if they want it. This also saves me having to finish the book. OK, so there's some self-interest there....

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Absolutely, and it's very important a writer goes into it knowing what to expect (no ego stroking) but the reviewer also undesrtands their role, or it's wasted time.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks Ella! I personally LOATHE getting feedback but I make it a habit to do it regularly and I try to be good about the feedback I get. I don't always take it onboard (sometimes you can't - two of your critique partners might vehemently disagree) but I always listen.

Robin Peacock said...

I do have time to critique if anyone wants one.

MoonShineArtSpot said...

I just started reviewing as a hobby on a blog, not a professional. I point that out to begin with. My background is actually in graphic design & illustration. I have sadly discovered that many authors also think they are cover designers and illustrators. To me, that is like me sitting down with no prior knowledge other than being a reader, & deciding ... I will write a book today. We learned some common sense "polite" ways to critique art in college & I only offer a common customer's opinion & mention things that bug me. I agree with your points, not being mean etc. some of the writers have seemed very ungrateful & even annoyed that I went to the extra effort of marking their many, many errors. It's like they did not even proof it themselves & were mad that I noticed. I am afraid many of these people are going to be very unsuccessful because of their lack of professionalism.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

That's very generous of you, thanks for making a public offer :-)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I would distinguish a critique from a review in the sense a critique is solicited, provided in private, and provided for the purpose of improving the work prior to publication, whereas a review is a public recommendation (or not) to buy/read the work, and not intended for the improvement of the author (although it can also serve that function).

Ironicaly, most writers start out as readers who sit down one day and think 'I will write a book' and have no other prior knowledge (or very little). The ones who succeed most are the ones who study and learn along the way and get feedback prior to publishing. It's likely the writers you are referring to are mad because a) they regard reviews as a public attack and b) likely they never had any critiques done before publishing (or ignored them if they did) becuse they are of the opinion their work is perfect. Sadly there are too many of this kind of writer around. The other kind usually will not respond to a negative review and accept that every writer will usually get one or two along the way.

The etiquette of a review as opposed to a critique is likely similar to the etiquette of a critique, but the focus would be different. For example, a review must be a coherent piece of writing recommending (or not) the work with reasons why. A critique is more often scribbled comments and struck out words, and I would never make a critique public - it's too personal. A critique also has as its focus to improve, and therefore contains detailed explanations of the technical aspects of writing, whereas a review may gloss over these as readers are less likely to care about how the book is good than just the fact it is good (or not).

Steve Mchugh said...

A great post. Critiques are a hugely important part of growing as a writer. It's something everyone who has an interested in writing should do.

Misha Gericke said...

Great point!

After doing crits for almost a year, I've learnt to discern when my CPs have a valid point from when it's personal preference or opinion based on the fact that they forgot details that they read a while back.

Knowing that can be really important, sometimes.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Absolutely, Steve - I couldn't agree more! Even once published (however so achieved) a writer should have an ongoing relationship with an editor, so writers need to learn to deal with this kind of feedback.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I wish I could figure that out! It drives me crazy when I get two CPs saying the complete opposite. It gets harder as you get better I think - when you're just starting out, your CPs are better than you, and can give you feedback in technical terms. As you improve, and maybe your CPs aren't as advanced, the feedback you get is more general - they can tell you they didn't like something but not why.

Gia Murphy said...

I find it so hard to do a critique, really don't want to hurt someone's feelings. Also so aware that it is subjective, so start to second guess what I'm saying. I try to respond as a reader not as a writer, but then second guess that...

Amberr Meadows said...

Oh, yes, some people forget that you are doing them a favor, and that is incredibly annoying. People are so ungrateful.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I try to respond as a writer and not a reader because I can make it more objective. If I don't 'like' something, that's not to say someone else won't like it, but if there is a continuity problem, a POV problem, a passive voice problem - either there is or there isn't! I prefer that kind of feedback too. 'I don't like it' is too vague and fluffy for me. But then - I'm a lawyer!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Nothing worse than investing your time in critiquing someone else's work (and it's HARD work too) and then having them be ungrateful. Think of everything you could have written yourself with those hours!

Mina Lobo said...

"Be honest - but don't be cruel" is excellent - we should start a campaign to get that message out to the world at large. Seems some folks think they have to be tools to be impressive. Which leads me to another bit of excellent advice you gave, "Don't be...a dick." Hear, hear! ;-)

Some Dark Romantic

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I admit my critiques are blunt but I try not to be cruel. I won't mince words, but I also don't say things like 'Oh my god, what were you thinking' and 'This is terrible! Are you insane?' I tend more towards clinical feedbacl - e.g. 'There is POV issue in this chapter, I'm uncertain what POV you are using. It's wrong because....'

Glad you got 'hear, hear' right! I just tweeted about people saying 'Here, here!' instead!

Nina Benneton said...

So many insightful and helpful points.
My writing group is doing a big swap at the end of this month for critiques, and I'm going to share this blog with them.

On the day my debut novel was published, I sent my crit partner flowers. If it wasn't for her...

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Aww, thanks, I'm flattered you consider it worth sharing! As for the flowers, that is so totally awesome! The first time I had a manuscript professionally critiqued, I made a point of thanking the editor (even though she had told me I'd written my MS using the wrong POV character *slaps forehead*) because I figured she rarely got a lot of thanks while tearing people's babies apart.

Gia Murphy said...

My response as a reader is more 'what throws me out of the story'. When the character does something that doesn't match based on what has been revealed. When the author intrudes too much. Or when something is not right (factual errors). The things that I had to do in English classes. So that is more likely to be the continuity, POV, passive voice.....

To me, responding as a writer is more subjective, related to how I would write it.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I try not to inject my voice into my suggestions, and only observe where they have broken some craft rules e.g. head-hopping. Perhaps breaking the rules was intentional, in which case they'll know that and disregard my advice.

EB_Black said...

I never understand why people have the need to argue with critiques. When I disagree with a critique, I think about it and if I still disagree in a day or two, I just don't use it. I don't even bother to explain myself. I view the whole thing as a survey and these people are answering my questions and explaining how my book made them feel. I try to view their opinions as neither right or wrong. They are just suggestions.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I'm the same as you. Some writers just seem to be overly sensitive. Someone (a non-writer) suggested to be yesterday it's because all creatives (to some degree) secretly think (or hope) their work will be 'the next big thing' and so some ofthem don't handle the criticism well. I don't know if there's any truth in that, but I'll put it out there.

tonyl said...

Maybe it's because I'm still new at this, part of EB Black's comment got me. I prefer CP with whom I can have a discussion, explanations, of points raised in the critique. I have two wonderful CP, with whom I do have conversations of this type. While I would never argue about a critique, I believe discussion can add considerably to the value of the critique. For one thing, it's an avenue to work out misunderstandings that I have perpetrated on the reader. All that said, we have to remind ourselves that explaining to a CP is fine, but somehow, that explanation has to get back into the story! And to be clear, EB is correct: their opinions are neither right nor wrong. They are just suggestions. Don't forget that that is true of your critiques, too.

For me, whether I handle criticism well or not isn't something I'd expose to anyone willing to invest time and energy in doing a critique for me. "Pleasant and courteous student," That's me. With lots of gratitude!

Thanks for sharing this, Ciara.

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