Tag Archives: Critique

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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