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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Critiques

   
Author Topic: Critiques
babygears81
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A couple months ago, I took an online class from Odyssey. The class was great and I learned many things that have helped me with my novel. In hindsight though, I think one of the most valuable things I learned from the class, wasn't anything in the syllabus. It was how to critique. Odyssey demands you give thorough critiques in their classes and they give students guidelines on how to give those critiques. I am a much better critiquer now, after taking that class, than I was before.

Since then, I have occasionally experienced the frustration of having spent hours, days, or even weeks, on a critique (depending on the length of the piece) and receiving a few remarks in return that are well intended, but mostly unhelpful. It causes me to reflect, in horror, on the times I have received wonderful critiques, and have not returned the favor. For me, it wasn't that I was lazy, or a taker who wanted only to receive and not give, it was simply a lack of experience. I didn't know what to look for and sometimes, if I was critiquing someone whose skill surpassed my own, had to try really hard to FIND things to comment on.

I wanted to post this for three reasons:
1.) If you are a fellow Hatracker who has ever received a critique from me that sucked. I apologize. [Smile] I'm much better at it now, though I still have much to learn.

2.)I just thought it'd be nice to remember that when you receive a less than helpful critique, more often than not, it probably reflects more on where that person is, on their writer's journey, than it does on their willingness to give or be helpful.

3.)While I know Hatrack has guidelines concerning behavior in critiques, I wondered if we have guidelines that might assist, or show people what to look for/consider when making a critique? It might not be a bad idea, if there aren't.

I have learned a lot from the good critiques I have received, and not just in ways to improve my writing, but also on how to critique. Taking the extra time to help a novice writer can seem fruitless, especially when you don't get something of equal value in return. So to everyone here who has ever taken the time to help me improve, even if I did not do the same for you, I just want to say THANKS! Your efforts are not unappreciated. [Smile]

(Since I have recently had interactions with Hatrackers for critiques, I want to say that this is a general musing I've mused for a while now, and not the result of any particular experience.)

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enigmaticuser
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Check in the section, "Ways to Critique". There's an article or two in there.
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enigmaticuser
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But I know how you feel. I usually go into most critiques assuming the other guy is going to be better, especially if I've already had a good in-depth crit from them.
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MattLeo
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I put a huge amount of effort into critiques, but the downside is that it takes me a long, long time to do one. And it's never quite done for me; I often email new thoughts on the MS weeks or months after I've delivered my critique.

In my experience the most important determinant of how well you do on a task is how much you care about it. This is why I dropped out of Critters. I've met some great people through that group, but the system Critters uses seems to encourage most people to submit perfunctory critiques in order to maintain their position in the queue. In fact I found that in most weeks the story up for review with the lowest word count got the lion's share of responses.


It's better to exchange critiques pair-wise, within a community where you care about the progress your colleagues make.

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extrinsic
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The strengths of workshop critique from a long and wide field of view are twofold; one, that the greatest gains acrue to a critiquer who makes the effort, rarely as much to the writer and; two, workshops are focus groups for audience testing of a creative product. The latter relies on human ability to find fault--what doesn't work for an individual audience contributor; however, the greatest efforts and gains require intensive focus on what works for any individual audience contributor.

You are on this journey, babygears81. Move forward from there, if you haven't already; dig into what works for you. Others will dwell on what doesn't. And doing so will endear your critique benefactors to your viewpoints. Maybe, as a consequence, they will make the cognitive leap toward a stronger understanding of your creative intents, methods, messages, and meanings so they can offer influential and persuasive criticisms, too.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by enigmaticuser:
Check in the section, "Ways to Critique". There's an article or two in there.

I've just "bumped" several topics in the "Ways to Critique" area, with critique suggestions you can use.
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History
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
I put a huge amount of effort into critiques, but the downside is that it takes me a long, long time to do one. And it's never quite done for me; I often email new thoughts on the MS weeks or months after I've delivered my critique.

In my experience the most important determinant of how well you do on a task is how much you care about it. This is why I dropped out of Critters. I've met some great people through that group, but the system Critters uses seems to encourage most people to submit perfunctory critiques in order to maintain their position in the queue. In fact I found that in most weeks the story up for review with the lowest word count got the lion's share of responses.


It's better to exchange critiques pair-wise, within a community where you care about the progress your colleagues make.

I always try to first comprehend the author's intent with each story I critique as well as how (and if) it is achieved beyond how well it is mechanically written.

Matt Leo has a wonderful description of this (micro vs. macro approach to critiquing a story) that I hope he will again share. I've saved it (somewhere at home) but, in any case, it would not be appropriate for me to post his words for him.

And yes.
I know I also spend far too long on most of my critiques, too often providing not only comments but also suggestions and even sample edits/revisions. This is probably an example of my presumptiveness or my OCD-equivalent disorder, I believe the technical term my wife uses is "anal" (or its derogatory equivalent). [Wink] They've been generally well-received; but they do demand a lot of time.

Therefpre, I have also mostly dropped out of Hatrack Group critiques for the reasons MattLeo elucidates. However, I do feel an obligation as a Hatrack Member to participate in the general hoi poloi time and again. I would have not met some reviewers I cherish, or discover new ones, without doing so.

But now I mostly annoy and noodge the same few Members who I have found extremely helpful, who I hope I have helped in return, and and who share my insanity in critiquing.

Um, that reminds me... get ready Matt for another one coming your way soon. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Osiris
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I usually spend a good amount of time on critiques, usually a few hours, and give both line edit and story structure feedback.

Most often when I exchange critiques, I end up offering more feedback than my partner does, and this used to bother me, but it doesn't any more. Why? Because I learned and improved a lot by GIVING those critiques, so it is never fruitless. So whenever I start feel a little cheated that a critique partner didn't give the same effort I did, I remind myself of what I learned in critiquing their work, and that usually puts those feelings to rest.

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SASpencer
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I'm a new writer and new on this website. I am completely intimidated by this site, and have posted a few comments in the 13 lines sections, and some submissions. I know the help I have received is drastically more beneficial than anything I am able to give, but I think this is a pay it forward process. These 13 lines forums seem to be drying up and I don't know where everyone has gone.
I'm on Critters and Critique Circle, they are less intimidating for I don't know what reason, and I also have taken classes and am better at doing critiques (on those sites, anyway. I worry at what I suggested to people before) but I can only give from what I know.
Anyway, I almost dropped this site, but decided to give it one more try. People have been very helpful, but it seems to be for more experienced writers.

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Foste
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quote:
Originally posted by Osiris:
I usually spend a good amount of time on critiques, usually a few hours, and give both line edit and story structure feedback.

And it shows. Thank you for everything again, man! [Smile]
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extrinsic
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SASpencer, we need breaks from the critique grinder occasionally. MattLeo and Osiris have remarked how challenging one can be.

Every writer starts somewhere on the Poet's Journey and restarts and stalls and takes side trips and ad nauseam.

Critique practice builds writing skills, to which we who are veteran critiquers can attest. Really, that's what a critiquer gets out of the process. Stay with it at your own pace and growth will come to you.

Post writing questions on this Writing Discussion forum about areas with which you struggle. The answers you get may be challenging at first, but in a short time, they will begin to make sense.

And note that each commentor's writing lexicon varies considerably. One writer may write "My novel's POV character," or just "My POV." Another may write "The first-person narrator." Another may write "The viewpoint character." They may all mean the exact same thing and may not. Some decoding will help. Ask for elaboration if you want to know what the poster means. Soon, you will understand the manifold writing discourse communities' meanings from participating at the Hatrack River's global writing culture.

---
On a different note:

In the past few years critiquing, one critical feature I've noticed and learned how to process: Narrow focus makes for an easier and more persuasive interpretation of a critique by a writer. One topic, ideally the lowest hanging fruit, even if that lowest fruit is an advanced topic like unsettled narrative voice. Stay on point; stay focused; stay true and plumb. Show passages that work for a critiquer and contrast and compare them with passages that don't work as well.

State at least reasons why; for example, Here, this paragraph closes into character voice, deeply, smoothly, and meaningfully, transitioning from and back to narrator voice through use of prepositioning and setup. Settled voice. There, this sentence jumps from narrator voice to the next sentence in character voice without a transition or setup. Unsettled voice.

[ April 18, 2013, 07:35 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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SASpencer
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Good advise, Extrinsic, I'll think about a question to ask, sometimes that's even hard to do in the confusion.
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Grumpy old guy
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Originally posted by SASpencer
quote:
People have been very helpful, but it seems to be for more experienced writers.
I don't know about that. I first started my writing career three years and one month ago; I did it by writing a 90,000 word story in a month. It's not well written, but it is written.

Since then, I have embarked on a wondrous journey of discovery and learning. Is it hard, even discouraging? Yes, and at times I want to walk away. But, just pausing to take a deep breath changes my perspective and I patiently wait for that joyous moment of revelation.

My advice, SASpencer, is to stick with it, even when you don't want to. The rewards will outweigh any momentary discomfort you may be feeling at the moment. As a teacher of mine said, "If a student doesn't understand what you're saying, it isn't their fault." In other words, if I post something that you'd like clarification of, just ask the question. I won't consider you anything less than an inquiring mind seeking enlightenment.

Phil.

PS. That's not to say I know what I'm talking about, by the way. I could be more the idiot part of the term idiot savant than the savant bit.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by History:


Um, that reminds me... get ready Matt for another one coming your way soon. [Wink]

Terrific. I'll take good over quick any day.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by SASpencer:
Good advise, Extrinsic, I'll think about a question to ask, sometimes that's even hard to do in the confusion.

When I'm confused, I break down the circumstances into a pecking order. First, I discern the component parts. Then organize them by priority. I sort them by exaluating which connects to another, which doesn't, where which is in a hierarchy. Once I've settled on what organization works for me, I track back to first principles.

I was where you are on the journey not so long ago that I forget the confusion. I knuckled down and broke my journey down into what was most confusing at any given time. Plot was an early challenge. I still struggle with confusion, but less so than before, every moment of the journey.

For example, right now, I'm working on a concept I'm struggling with: missing content. Last week, I went through a grueling workshop-like round of critique, in person, face to face with three reputable and respected publication editors: a fiction editor, a creative nonfiction editor, and a poetry editor, and me on the hot seat. The critique was a crossfire hurricane. One area all three noted as a shortcoming, that didn't work for them, was my descriptions of scenes lacking larger relative setting circumstances.

I've become quite adept at foreshortened scenes. Tight focuses. The characters and their actions take place in a narrow field of view. In order to further develop the scenes, my auditors said, I could include the larger world's relativity, the wide fields of view. Not much, a little description of telling details of the outside world's relevant settings that lend authenticity, since people are to a degree acutely aware of their larger surroundings when they are narrowly focused. Like how light interacts and is interacted with by a scene and its characters; other people peripheral to the scene. Even when there's no one else immediately present, others are usually not far away. If anyone else isn't around nearby, note that in context and texture. Also, include circumstances interior to a character and the closeby inside world--the tight focuses, and the outside world--the content I miss.

One of the short stories' motifs is workplace rivalry for views from work stations. I describe six windows in the story, but only one view of the outside seen through one window. One of the editors remarked that the symbolism of the windows was artfully developed, intuitively anyway. But that the full realization of the windows' symbolism asked for imagery; in other words, what the views are outside the windows.

It was a duh-huh moment. I'd been nonconsciously doing the windows principle--three meaning spaces of interior, inside, and outside--but not fully realizing the outside third space.

Breaking that down was a short cognitive leap from nonconscious to conscious application. The first principle wasn't immediately apparent to me. I had to adjust my writing mindset from favoring foreshortening to also incorporating wider fields of view.

Revising the stories began with practicing on the windows' story. The windows could as well have been doors or a covered picnic shelter or another liminal space. There in the principle of liminal space was the source of the first principle I sought: transitional spaces, times, places, and situations where transitions take place. Doorways, stairways, attics, basements, for examples, the betweens of places: windows. Thus the first principle of transition's writing mode. Transition. Now that I have the first principle in mind, I can expand on it and confidently incorporate missing context and texture.

Expanded lists of first principle topics from above:

Writing modes, mnemonic device: DIANE'S SECRET, description, introspection (thought), action, narration, emotion, sensation, summarization, exposition (introductions), conversation (dialogue), recollection, explanation, and Transition.

Context and texture: Context, who, when, and where; Texture, what, why, and how.

For my windows' story, transition is most on point, with description mode at least, and possibly any one or all the others as well. In terms of context and texture--telling details--why the outside matters, its full realization, is most on point.

My greatest writing challenge is missed the page-itis. This is a process that works to satisfy that struggle for me, a mental process that's part of my writing tool kit. The thought process helps me to realize missing content that my audience appreciates being on the page.

[ April 19, 2013, 01:05 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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babygears81
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Kathleen-Thanks for bumping those up. I'm going to file them away for reference. I did check once, when I first joined, but only found things regarding critique etiquette. I checked again, before I started this post and found the same. In each instance, I did not realize there were pages and pages of posts. Apparently, I didn't go deep enough.

SASpenser-I agree with Grumpy Old Guy. Stick with it. I felt the same way when I first joined. In most of the discussions, people were speaking Greek, but I get it now. I still don't participate much in the discussions, mostly because I'm just not that analytical. What I learn about writing, I tend to absorb, rather than input, so it becomes more like intuition than say, Math, which is what all that analysis can feel like to folks such as myself. Its because my mind doesn't work that way that I benefit from the mind's that do.

It is sometimes hard to find critique partners here because as MattLeo said, it's a community. Older members have already built relationships. That can make it hard for newbies to get their foot in the door. I don't get the majority of my critiques from Hatrackers. I get them elsewhere, but I always follow the discussions on this site because they're helpful. In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is surround yourself with writers at your level. You need the opportunity to learn from those who are more advanced.

MattLeo-you are one of those I gave a crappy critique to. I guess I owe you one. [Smile]

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by SASpencer:
Anyway, I almost dropped this site, but decided to give it one more try. People have been very helpful, but it seems to be for more experienced writers. [/QB]

Compared to, say, AbsoluteWrite, which is rather like an informal office party, Hatrack is VERY formal and restrained; almost a black-tie atmosphere where one must weigh every word before committing it. I agree the highbrowness can be ... well, more work to deal with, but Hatrack also excels in the depth of its discussions.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
I always try to first comprehend the author's intent with each story I critique as well as how (and if) it is achieved beyond how well it is mechanically written.

This. A thousand times this.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
Hatrack is VERY formal and restrained; almost a black-tie atmosphere where one must weigh every word before committing it. I agree the highbrowness can be ... well, more work to deal with, but Hatrack also excels in the depth of its discussions.

Really? It's always interesting to learn how things can be perceived. As one who does not consider herself all that "high-browed" (after all, I imagine the Hatrack River Writers Workshop forum to be taking place in a magical treehouse), I'm almost ready to apologize if that is how Hatrack seems to some.

I say "almost ready," because I understand that everyone here is doing the best they can, as am I, and I hope we will give each other some "slack" in this regard.

And thank you for the kind words about the depth of our discussions here. I like that perception. I just hope they aren't so deep that people feel overwhelmed. Surely not all of the discussions here are deep?

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babooher
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And here I am in a white coat with tails [Frown]
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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You look very fine, babooher.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
Hatrack is VERY formal and restrained; almost a black-tie atmosphere where one must weigh every word before committing it. I agree the highbrowness can be ... well, more work to deal with, but Hatrack also excels in the depth of its discussions.

Actually black tie is semi-formal; for formal you wear white tie.

Wait! I did it again! [Roll Eyes]

I know discussions seem to go off the deep end sometimes, but it's like the old Chinese saying about the finger pointing the way to the moon. Don't get hung up on the finger! Or rather, getting hung up on the finger is part of the journey, but it isn't the destination.

From what I've seen the writers here at Hatrack are at a certain level which is not what I'd call "advanced", but it's not utter beginner either. Most people here can use punctuation and grammar well, and can write a coherent paragraph. If you can't do these things then maybe there'd be better places for you to go for help and support.

From what I've seen, we're mostly at the level of trying to figure out how to make characters interesting and believable, how to keep the story's pace from flagging, how to write a scene that hits its target (scary, funny, whatever) and how to structure a story effectively. Basically we're working everything that comes between having basic composition skills and being an accomplished writer.

For the record, I think we can sometimes overanalyze things a little bit. OK, that's *me* and it's more than a *little* bit. But it's helpful to *me* to analyze things this way, and do I put a lot of work into it to make it as useful to the author. But that doesn't mean other people have to bring the same things to critique that I do. In fact it's better if we all bring something a little different.

Possibly the most useful kind of feedback to give is to mark up the manuscript with things like "I skimmed from here to here" or "I stopped reading here and skipped ahead" or "I don't understand what's going on here" or "Who is this Naomi person, and did you mention her before?" Anyone can give this kind of feedback, and it's always valuable and welcome.

By the way Kristine/babygears81 -- I owe you a response to your critique of *Norumbega*. It wasn't that your feedback wasn't good, it was that I was expecting a manuscript from you and intended to use that as an opportunity to organize my thoughts.

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babygears81
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Thanks Matt and sorry about that. I thought she was about ready, but as it turns out, she needed a little more reconstructive surgery, on a much smaller scale this time. I'll ping you when she's ready. If you have time to do a critique then, awesome. If not, its my fault and no worries.
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Reziac
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Yes. We're semi-formal here in the ballroom. Out yonder in the maze-garden, tho, gods know what's going on!

Every forum has its own focus, mood, and culture. I generally go straight to/from AW from/to Hatrack (which I persistently mistype as "Hatwrack" !!) so the contrast is all the more evident. They're both useful, in different ways.

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