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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