Tag Archives: Constructive Criticism

Friday Fiction Concrit Subgroup

Dear fellow Fictioneers,

In light of some comment-conversations a couple of weeks ago, I have approached Rochelle about the possibility of creating a group-within-a-group for those wishing to bring back the critiquing element to Friday Fiction. I address this to you with Rochelle’s approval, but if you have comments, questions or concerns, please come to me first so we don’t add to her workload.

I want to first say that it is not my intention to take anything away from the group as it stands, or Rochelle’s incredible leadership of it. For those of you who like things just as they are, you need read no further, nothing will change for you.

If you would appreciate honest and constructive feedback on your stories, I’m proposing a way to indicate a willingness to be part of the critiquing group for that week. Signing up would mean you commit to reading and leaving constructive criticism on at least 3 other stories from the subgroup. And to graciously receive any constructive criticism left on your story.

Some FAQs follow. I look forward to critiquing with many of you in the future!

Jennifer Pendergast

@Elmowrites

 

How do I join in?

Put a capital “C” in before your name on the linky widget. Eg “C Jennifer Pendergast”. Then check the list and choose 3 other “C” stories to critique over the course of the week until the next prompt goes up. Read the story, start your comment with “C…”, and leave something constructive and helpful for the author (see more below about that!)

But I want to read more than 3 stories!

Great! You can of course read (with or without critique) as many other stories as you like, whether they have a “C” or not, and leave all your usual fantastic comments when you do. You can also critique more than 3 of the “C” stories if you want to, 3 is just the minimum.

I don’t have time / don’t want constructive criticism every week!

No problem. You can choose on a weekly basis whether to put the “C” before your name.

I don’t want to join in, can I still read the “C” stories?

Definitely. You can still read and leave whatever type of comment you would normally. Even those of us who love critique enjoy shorter comments too.

How does this differ from the Friday Fiction group I know and love?

It doesn’t really – we’ll still use Rochelle’s excellent prompts, linky and leadership. The only change is for those who want to focus a bit more on constructive criticism.

Sounds great, but I don’t know how to give constructive criticism / I’m not confident in my own language skills

I will try to add some “How to’s” to my blog over the next little while, but there’s really not much to it.

You don’t need to be an English teacher to give constructive criticism – all you need to be is a reader! If you’re not sure where to begin, focus on how you reacted to the writing: Where did you stumble over the wording? Which parts did you need to read twice to understand (or still not understand even then)? Did you have a clear idea of the character / place / story (depending on which elements are important to you/the story)? Was there anything that surprised or frustrated you?

Not all concrit is negative; it is just as useful to praise parts of the story that resonated, struck you as interesting or unusual, or created a really clear picture in your mind. The important thing is to be specific – not just “great story” or “well-written,” but instead, point out the phrase or words that gave you that impression.

If it’s still tough, try finding one thing you liked and one you thought could be improved. You can also give suggestions on how it could be improved, but that’s less important.

I worry it will be taken the wrong way if I give honest feedback.

Try to remember that the criticism is of the writing, not the writer. Critique is not a way of saying “You’re a terrible writer,”; it’s a way of saying “this piece could be better,” and of helping each other achieve our full potential as writers. And let’s face it, even the best writing could be improved.

By signing up to the sub-group in a given week, we are committing not just to give, but to graciously receive feedback. That means thanking the person who took the time to read, digest and comment on your story, and it means agreeing not to take offense or get upset if someone doesn’t like some or all of what you wrote. Even if you don’t agree with them.

Ultimately, the final decision rests with the author. S/he is totally within their rights to disagree with the criticism, or to agree but prefer to leave the story as it is. Critique is just one person’s opinion and that’s valuable, in showing you where to focus, but it doesn’t mean what you did is necessarily wrong for everyone. You can make a change, open a debate or just say “thanks but no thanks”. Either way, you are graciously acknowledging the time and effort the commenter put into commenting.

 

 

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Excuses, Excuses

100 words, or 1000, isn’t many. Every piece of writing has a word limit, whether it’s for a contest, a magazine or even a novel submission. Nowhere is this more apparent than in flash fiction. There are definitely some stories you can’t tell in flash fiction. But I have to admit it annoys me when people respond to constructive criticism by using word limits as an excuse.

I couldn’t fit it in comes back to me time and again, when I suggest that a piece would have benefitted from more clarity, an explanation of a particular point, or so on.

Well, you know what? Try harder. I am well aware of the restrictions of word limits; I write flash fiction once or twice every week, and I know how hard it is to condense a story, to rework it to fit a word limit.

Some stories just don’t fit into some word counts. Spot Goes To The Park will never be a worthwhile novel, and you couldn’t fit War and Peace into 1000 words for all the tea in China. So if the story really doesn’t fit the word limit, don’t use it. Sure, write it anyway, but write it for a different contest, or just for fun. Don’t write a poor version and then blame the word count.

But actually, the story that doesn’t fit is the exception. If you publish a novel, someone will probably need to come up with an elevator pitch (about 25 words) or the blurb for the dustsheet (100-200 words) or even just a summary (similar). In either case, they will be looking for the essence of the story. In flash fiction, that’s all you have. It’s not quite the same as a blurb, because flash fiction includes the ending, but it is quite like the summary you’ll be putting in your covering letters.

The two keys tricks are to make every word count and to imply everything. Don’t spend half your precious words telling us that a character is cruel, tell us in a single sentence that they stepped on a kitten because it was in the way, or even, in the perfect single word. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, but are all the more powerful because of it.

As a general rule (to which there are obviously exceptions), I find that flash fiction works best if it’s either dialogue or not dialogue. Trying to fit both in is just too much for the space available. Back-story is out too, except by implication, but by implication it’s in in spades.

But I’m digressing from my rant. The point is not that I know how best to write flash fiction, or any kind of fiction. The point is that as a writer, I think one has a duty to write to the form. There is no kudos in writing a song and then saying “well, it would have worked better if it were a prose piece,” and word limits are no excuse for a poor story.

So the next time someone critiques your writing, think carefully about blaming the form. You don’t have to agree with the comment, of course, but if you do agree with the comment, you’re the one who can learn from it and improve, the rule-makers aren’t going to change the word limit just to please you.

There, rant over. Cheerier service will be resumed next week. Probably.

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The Alpha in Betas

Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.

Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.

Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.

By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.

Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!

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If you can’t say something nice…

Founding Friday Fictioneers member, Doug MacIlroy opened a can of worms last week, with his post about the changing nature of the group, which you can read here. He pointed out that with our expanding numbers, constructive criticism has largely disappeared and short, bland comments have replaced it; and that the wheat is now accompanied by a fair amount of chaff. I agree with both, although as in all art, I think one reader’s wheat is another reader’s chaff.

Different people want different things from a writing group, whether on- or offline. For me, the greatest value is in the constructive criticism (hence, concrit) I receive. Of course, it’s subjective, but writing is rarely perfect even in 100 polished words, and there is almost always something which could be tweaked or improved. Once a story is published online, I must admit I don’t often go back and edit it, even in the light of very valid concrit received, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the concrit – it enhances my ability to read and review my own work, and therefore improves the next piece, or the one after that. It’s up to the writer to decide whether he or she agrees (and for the record, you are ALWAYS invited not to) and whether to make any changes, but knowing where readers stumble is always useful.

Personally, I’m not sure Doug’s entirely right that the disappearance of concrit can be simply blamed on the thin-skinned few. They exist, but I think they are very much in the minority – whenever I offer it, my suggestions are graciously received. But coming up with something which could be improved takes time and effort and I, for one, haven’t the time to do this 70+ times a week. My respect to those who do manage it – Janet and Rochelle spring to mind.

So, here is my personal pledge to the fictioneers:

1)  I will always welcome your concrit on my pieces.

2) I rarely read every story. But I do try to read at least one in five, and (apart from a few beloved writers I will always read) to vary whose I go to each time.

3) If I read your story, I will always try to offer concrit to you (unless you ask me not to).

4) I will always try to phrase my concrit kindly, and to highlight the good as well as the improve-able. I am always happy for you to disagree with or ignore my comment, or to explain further if I’ve said something incomprehensible.

Following the suggestion of neenslewy in Doug’s comments, I have added this scalpel image to my sidebar to indicate my pledge. You are welcome to use it yourself too – the image is copyright-free and obtained from Wikimedia commons.

scalpel

By the way, in case the title of this post is misleading – saying something nice in this context is actually not as helpful as it might seem. (Sorry, Thumper, and his Mum!) Sure, encouragement and support are great, but encouraging suggestions and helpful support are even better (in my opinion!). If you can’t say something nice, or even if you can, say something constructive!

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For Feedback Part 2

For Feedback Part 2

It’s Christmas (or Thanksgiving if you prefer).The family’s come round. You’ve cooked a turkey and all the trimmings. It’s all come together beautifully and everyone’s sitting round the table tucking in.

Thanksgiving_Dinner_(3065145964)

Auntie Mabel pipes up. “Shame about these potatoes. I always think roasts should be soft on the outside.” You smile sweetly.

“I don’t know,” Uncle Peter replies, “They aren’t well done enough for me. And the bird is greasy. Could someone pass the gravy?”

“Well I think it’s all perfect.” That’s your brother, ever the peacemaker, although you notice he’s avoiding the potatoes too. “Thanks for doing the cooking, sis.”

There’s a general nod of agreement and then someone changes the subject.

Later, over the washing up, your little sister brings up the subject of the dinner again. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it,” she says, “But I read somewhere if you put two halves of a lemon inside the bird, it cuts through the grease – makes the meat a bit easier to digest.”

The last comment of the day comes from your husband, as he’s climbing into bed. “Triumphant dinner, darling. The gravy was particularly delicious. We should look for another recipe for roast potatoes though, they were the only weak point in what was otherwise a masterpiece.”

***

When I posted about feedback last week, I said I was in favour of any feedback. Some of you disagreed, and I can see why. The Mabels and Peters of this world are tactless and ungrateful. Some might say they should have followed the maxim “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” and in the context of a family dinner, that’s probably true. But on the other hand, feedback is useful. If you can get past way it’s given, they have a valuable contribution to make, which might improve next year’s dinner – the potatoes were disappointing and the meat was OK, but greasy.

The brother’s feedback is nice, because it makes you feel appreciated, and more likely to persevere (host again next year), but it’s not actually very honest. Or very useful if you’re trying to improve.

Your sister is tactful and useful – she makes a concrete suggestion in a way which invites you to take feedback as it should always be taken and given: as feedback on the product not the producer.

And the husband, of course, is the best of all. He sticks to specifics (gravy, potatoes), gives a feedback sandwich (good, bad, good) and he makes it completely non-personal (we not you).

But if you can train yourself to receive feedback constructively, all feedback has its value, even at its most tactless.

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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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Write Better

Harry Shaw said “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton wrote “Books are not written–they’re rewritten.”

 Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and not always one of the easiest. It’s a challenge made easier by the assistance of beta readers, friends and writing groups. So I’ll start with a hurrah for all my beta readers, kind friends and writing group critics of the past, present and future. You make me a better writer. Thank you!

Like everyone, when I put writing out for comment, I await the response nervously. No-one wants to be criticised and of course we all love to be commended. But the truth is, enthusiastic applause is not terribly useful and, when consistent, is hard to believe. Which is why, when invited to comment, I have begun to curb my commendations and focus instead on what could be improved. As a writer, you are immersed in the scene – you see everything and you never have enough words to convey it all. So it is immeasurably useful to hear that your readers saw something different, missed a clue or picked up one you had left unintentionally.

So here is the elmowrites guide to writing a critique…

1. ALWAYS ALWAYS be honest. If you don’t like something, say so. You can word it kindly, of course, but if you don’t like something, say so.

2. Use a “good news sandwich”, if you can. Start and end on high notes. Ideally, one or both these high notes will be specific and directed, because it’s good to know what we’re doing right, so we don’t cut it out in the edit. “I like how you maintain a consistent character voice” or “You kick it off with a great opening line,” for example, are both more useful than “I loved it!”

3. For the filling of the sandwich, concentrate entirely on specifics, but don’t feel bad if these are mainly “negative”. Just try to be constructive where you can. For example, “I think second paragraph is a bit long-winded. You say she is hungry three times – we got it on the first time!” is better than “I got bored reading it.” Even if you can’t put a finger on why, the details of where you got bored will help the writer to hone the right section. The title of this post comes from when I crit’d a draft novel for my friend Drew. Occasionally, I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like a chunk, so I’d simply put “Write better” next to it. I do the same to my own work too!

4. Please avoid preaching! The writer has put a lot of time and effort into this piece and feels emotionally attached to it. They will appreciate your help, but at the end of the day it’s their writing. Only they stand or fall by it. So, in the end it’s their decision and they might have done whatever it is for a reason (bad grammar for an uneducated narrator, for example). Also, it’s just more demoralising to read “You can’t do this” than “I suggest you avoid this.”

5. Listen to the writer. If you’ve been asked to look at (or ignore) certain things, try to stick with it. Some writers, for example, hate to be picked up on typos. Personally, I don’t mind it, but others do. If the writer poses a specific question (like “I’m wondering whether to leave off the last line?”) try to address that question. But even then, feel free to give other thoughts, because you might have picked up on something the writer didn’t even realise was there. A few years ago, I gave a story to some friends to read. Every one of them hated the main character – I was stunned! But I’m glad they told me, because it’s something I could never have seen myself.

6. Most important, don’t be afraid to be negative. Criticism is what you’ve been asked for (directly or indirectly. All my blog posts, for example, are posted to invite criticism) and it’s the negative stuff that helps the writer grow.

And, for writers, the guide to receiving critiques…

Whoever they are, remember that each critic is just one person, giving their own opinion. Even if they are a world-renowned editor, you don’t have to agree. On the other hand, if a mass weight of readers tell you something, listen to them. Even if they were wrong, your writing allowed them to misunderstand, and that means you need to work on it.

Rudyard Kipling said it best: “trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…”

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