Critique and Critics

On Saturday I went to the first meeting a local fledgling writers’ group. It was interesting to meet such a variety of writers and ambitions, and to hear various ideas of what the group should be about. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

It’s hard to receive critique of your work, whatever your field, but I believe constructive criticism is what helps us to grow and improve. What kind of critic are you?

1 The Fan

Fans give short and sweet praise, which is great for the ego and otherwise of no practical benefit at all. “It’s great! I love it!” they say. Now if they are your Mum, or your husband, that’s fantastic, but in a writing group, they are of no value except to balance out the Ogres – see below. Often, the fan is actually not a fan at all – they just haven’t bothered to concentrate or to dedicate the time needed to come up with something helpful to say.

2 The Ogre

The opposite of fans, in many way, but for different reasons. Ogres either like the sound of their own voices or the power of putting people down. They tell you what’s terrible – whether in detail or with a broad sweeping statement, but either way in such a manner as to make the criticism feel personal and unhelpful. One thing they might have in common with Fans is a lack of attention: an Ogre might say “I stop reading after the first page” and mean it.

3 The Stuck Record

These people are much more useful, but on a limited basis. They have a pet hate, a bugbear, and you can almost guarantee that they will pick you up on it. I’m a stuck record sometimes; I often pick up on wobbling tenses and excessive adjectives, for example. Stuck Records are useful to an extent, because they are experts in their fields, and will pick up on genuine problems, but they are limited in range.

4 The Feeler

Feelers want to help. They get really into the piece and they give you a big-picture reaction to it. They aren’t interested in whether you’ve got the grammar spot on, or the consistency of character. They give you a reader reaction, and as such they are invaluable if you are too mired in the details of the writing. Unlike fans, they will give a balanced opinion and specifics, but it will be specifics about the piece as a whole, not about the wording. “I loved the characterisation,” for example, or “I didn’t feel the ending matched the pace of the rest of the piece.”

5 The Mechanic

The opposite to the Feeler, Mechanics are all about the nuts and bolts of the piece. They will pick up on stray commas, typos and oblique grammar points. If you’re happy with (and unwilling to change) the big picture, especially if you’re just about to submit, these folks are your best friends.

6 The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail of critics is someone who gives you a little big of everything. They praise what’s gone well, but aren’t afraid to pick out flaws. They look at the overall flow and they point out a lost apostrophe. They not only pick up potential problems, but suggest possible solutions, whilst always respecting the author’s right to ignore or disagreement with them.

There are methods and even classes to train for this kind of thing. People talk about “Strengths and Lost Opportunities” or “The Bad News Sandwich” and a hundred other methods of critique. But these methods are just examples. Those of us who care, are always trying to become Holy Grail critics, always afraid of sounding a little too much like Fans or Ogres.

Ultimately, nobody gets it right all the time, and a writing group is hopefully a way to get a little bit of everything overall. There are lessons to be learned in receiving critique too – and one of them is to develop a skin which is just the right thickness. That’s another holy grail I’m still searching for…

 

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Critique and Critics

  1. Oh Jennifer, this post is just great… I love it. I was going to stop reading after the first paragraph, but decided to try a sentence or two more. I have not heard the word ‘bugbear’ in like… forever… I’m sure it doesn’t apply to me. The mood you have created, of a new writers group and types of critique is so interesting. It is so quaint to hear the word ‘whilst’. (By the way, in the first line of #6…I think you meant ‘bit’ instead of ‘big’) As for #6, I am sure that is exactly the type of commenter I am, and gladly accept the mantle of ‘cheerleading helper’ in the critique department. I do hope to hear more about the group, and your quest for your own grail… I will be glad to help you test it… Oh, did I say that? I forgot I’m a #6.

    Can’t wait to apply the list to the Friday Fictioneers!!!

  2. After those two, I’m almost afraid to comment. They’ve pretty much hit all the humor out of the park, but your piece did make me think about which one/s I am and where to work harder. I’ll hopefully be a bit more of the Holy Grail this week and in the weeks after.

    janet

    • It wasn’t a dig at anyone from the Fictioneers, Janet (although next time, Doug and Ted better watch out!). I just think it’s interesting to see how different people give and receive criticism.

      • I didn’t take it as such, but it really did make me think about my comments. I’ve been different ones of your categories and sometimes am trying to fly too quickly through the stories to do a useful job of criticism. Thanks for getting me to think about it again. Truly.

  3. Well observed Jen.
    But what if someone genuinely likes your writing and has no critique to offer? Maybe words fall short to describe how well something has been written?
    I perhaps fall in that category. A sub-category of The Fan perhaps, but one who did read the article earnestly. But I did notice you used “often”, so I guess I would be the “exceptional” fan. 🙂

    • Thanks Parul – you are definitely exceptional! Many fans are genuine fans and like what they see. With longer pieces, I think there is almost always something that could be tweaked or improved even if you love the piece overall. But even when the writing is perfect, I guess the Holy Grail critic would try to be specific about what worked, to help the writer recreate perfection in the future.

  4. Dear Jennifer,

    This comment keeps migrating in time, slipping down your page as though it forgot to secure its locking bolts at the top. I blame Ted.

    There is in me the desire to be seen as the Holy Grail type of commenter, but I get the feeling I’m perceived as more of an Ogre.

    You do not make mistakes, so it is hard to point to a classification that I might actually fit. Suffice to say that I love this post and all of your work.

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Aloha,

    Doug

    P.S. Thank you for your help. ❤

    • Time travel is a great skill, Doug. Thank you for your kind words – I’ve never called you an ogre, but being the Holy Grail takes time and energy: both in short supply when you’re commenting on 80+ posts every Friday. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

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