Some of you have received my crits before, so you know the style of them, I dive right in. I put on my scientist hat and go with “just the facts, ma’am.” I praise when it’s due. I offer advice and examples of ways to clean up the text. It is straightforward and as professional as I can be. Sometimes crits aren’t easy to swallow, and giving them is no piece of cake either. I have a long way to go, but it’s part of the writing process, and nothing makes me see my own work nearly as well as critiquing others.
If you wanted a long, honest breakdown of my critique giving journey, then just read on. If you’re not interested, can I suggest instead Symphony of Science?
I love that one. Seriously, it’s on my iPod.
Learn from my Fail, Critique edition.
My first foray into critiquing land had precious few examples for me to follow, so I went with my masters advisor’s technique. It wasn’t pretty. I was honest but also condescending, which was pretty funny because my English skillz weren’t exactly what one would call, good. Needless to say, my vocabulary hadn’t been dusted off since my high school honors English teacher and I disagreed about something and I quite writing for the next 8 years (what is it about English teachers that can crush the dreams of us youngins?). So I went into that critique with my evil english teacher sitting on my shoulder and the example of my masters advisor to follow. It wasn’t pretty. I was rude, and intolerant of plot points. I said the writing wasn’t that great, and the story was boring. I called it unbelievable, the characters were unmotivated, and every action they took was so far outside the realm of likely as to be ridiculous. I suggested a couple of ways the writing could be tightened (no need for a particular that, and do you have to use the verb gotten? And had gotten? That seemed pretty unnecessary).
And here’s where people say “Wait, those are actually really good things to point out.” True, but it’s never about what we say but how we say it. I was rude. I was condescending. My crit partner had been an English major, dreaming of publishing since early high school (right when mine were being crushed by my inability to enjoy the Scarlet Letter), and he felt like he knew more than me and was embarrassed to have these things pointed out to him. Oh, and I’d also just received the worst critique on my own work ever—this is the “your novel is too amateurish for me to really give you help with it” crit time—so I might have been taking things more personally than usual. I was hurt. It did not go well. I think we both left that crit session as determined as ever that we were completely in the right and the other was a complete moron. Not productive.
We both shelved those projects without any further attempts at revision. Years passed.
We tried another crit group together—amazingly we are still friends even after all of this—and in the second crit group we had an English teacher and another writer who was also a close friend. By this time I was at my current university and had the Advisor with “Humor.” Now, when I say that there is nothing as damaging to your ego as a bad critique, that’s one thing, but when the person giving the critique has stuck their neck out to take you on and then writes things like “this is complete crap and I never want to see a manuscript in this condition from you,” well, it’s pain on a whole new level. He made jokes in my dissertation, he teased, he cajoled, and when it was bad he made fun of it. Yes, he actually made fun of how bad my writing was. He would go through and make hundreds (actually hundreds, Word counts how many comments there are) of scathing comments to detail my shortcomings as a writer and a scientist. And this is the model I brought to my newest crit group.
It took me exactly one critique to realize that you can’t put any humor into a critique. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make people happier about the feedback. It doesn’t make them see it your way. What it does is hurt feelings, make people lash out and otherwise muddy the water (no matter how accurate the critique is).
The person who received first argued, questioned and generally put on a very stubborn face. After all three of the other writers had exactly the same thing to say (note, the whole group was trying to introduce sense and sanity) this same person wrote us off as crazies.
And that’s when it happened: for the greater good of mankind we were going to make this author see the light of day. We pushed, hoping for some sort of acknowledgment, recognition that we might have read a book or two, and that despite some of our grades in English classes, we knew the difference between who and whom. The writer pushed back.
The next writer to go got an unmitigated tongue lashing by the first writer. It was like blood was in the water, and the sharks were circling. The first writer tore through the others (including me) without any real regard for what was actually written. Note: if you ever see a writer shaking while receiving a critique, don’t ask them to deliver crits to the others. They live on planet OMG they hate my novel and me.
For those of you who have seen crits from me, this is why I always ask what you really want in a critique. It’s because I’ve given honest feedback to someone who was not ready for it. I gave feedback to someone looking for a fan club and thought they could hack it in the real world.
That crit group fell apart because we were working too hard (we met once a week and crited more than 20 pages for each member every week—it was like a second job), and really we were like the blind leading the dumb. We didn’t know anything, least of all how to give critique.
Now, it would be fair to say that there is a difference between honest and tactless, and I’m still learning the art of tact. I’ve read a whole bunch of books on critiques and critgroups. Truly some of the stuff I said didn’t go over well, and while I stand by every critique I’ve ever given, I do wish I could go back to those times and handle certain people better. I feel as much at fault for the tongue lashings the rest of us received because I couldn’t find the right way to tell this writer the bad news.
Here’s what you should learn from my Fail:
It’s not funny to them. Ever. It’s best to approach this with the same decorum as you would a friend who’s just received very bad news, because honestly, unless your crit is “This is ready for the publishers” you are giving someone very bad news. No matter what they really know about the novel, they were hoping it was ready for prime time. The news that it’s not is often devastating.
If the person you are critiquing comes back with excuses and arguments instead of listening to what you have to say, ask them if they are interested in an actual critique. If they say yes, then politely ask them to let you finish. If they can’t hold their tongue, then they aren’t ready.
I see a lot of people ask for brutal honesty on the internet forums, and really, you don’t want brutal honesty. No one does. There’s a difference between “I wouldn’t have kept reading this after five pages if it wasn’t something from a friend” and “This is complete crap, try again.” The first is an indication that for whatever reason—be it voice, grammar, whatever—the book wasn’t holding their attention. The second implies that everything, even the very words, are lacking in the ability to convey a story (which is something that I doubt, just about everything is fixable).
If there was something about the story that you liked, be sure to mention it. It’s much easier to point out the parts of a story that aren’t working than it is to lay hands on the parts that are working.
Brutal honesty is not license to be a d1( K. Brutal honesty means you have to back up every “this is crap” statement with solid feedback (such as your prose needs a major overhaul because you have a serious double verbing problem, or your characters are dropping into and out of character so fast that I’m wondering if there’s a quantum equation of state just for your characters).
It is okay to say “Something here just didn’t work for me, and I don’t know what it is. I’m sorry I can’t be more concrete.” If you are silent, your silence will be taken as an indication that nothing is wrong. So if something is wrong, speak up, even if you don’t know how to fix it. If you do know how, try to give that as well.
And wow, that was another amazingly long post. Hope that helps.