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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Ways to Critique » Kid Gloves

   
Author Topic: Kid Gloves
JoBird
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Everyone is here, at least ostensibly, to become better at writing. That is my understanding. To me, that means that we should all hold one another to very high standards.

When I put something up for critique I really appreciate folks being as harsh as they can be. I want people to search for flaws, to point out everything they think I'm doing wrong. I want the folks who critique my work to tell me every line that bored them, every turn of phrase that confused them, every thing that struck them as unrealistic; in short, tell me when it stinks, please.

Of course, that's just what I want. I'll take what I can get.

So, of course, when I critique, I try to give folks the kind of critique that I would want. I'm making an active effort to try to list my thoughts on everyone's work when they post it. Otherwise, I don't feel I'd have much of a right to expect them to do the same for me. And I really do strongly believe in communities coming together to help each other out.

That being said, today I got an email from another member of Hatrack. It was a sort of a critique of my critique. I hate to paraphrase it, but I won't post it without the consent of the person who wrote it. I'll limit myself to saying that the person who sent the email felt that my critiques -- or at least the one referenced -- were overly harsh, and too focused on finding things wrong just for the sake of finding them wrong. It said that I didn't think through my critiques, and (as I gathered, perhaps falsely) that I was trying to be "impressive or whatever" with my critiques. It suggested that I should consider my responses more carefully if I want to get as much as I can out of Hatrack.

(Note: the individual who emailed me is not the same person I critiqued.)

Each critique I've given is something I've put a great deal of time into thinking about. I've done the critiques under the motivation of legitimately trying to help people polish their work till it's publishable, till it's as good as it can be.

Obviously, every thing I put in a critique is nothing more than my own thoughts. And I do tend to be somewhat opinionated as a personality -- so I've been told. But I'm not sure that I like the advice of prefacing everything with: "I think" or "In my humble opinion". That kind of stuff often comes across as patronizing, and condescending. There are times for those phrases -- when they mean something, when they're not self-evident -- but there are also times when they come across as patting a kid on the head. I prefer people to just tell me what they think is wrong, and give an idea for a solution if they have one. As the author of my work, I'll take whatever advice resonates with me, and I'll give special attention to advice that comes in frequently. But I won't feel like anything I'm hearing is gospel; I immediately recognize it's just one man's or woman's opinion without the need for the self-conscious disclaimer.

So, I'd like to get some extra opinions and thoughts on this. Let me know how you prefer to be critiqued. How do you prefer to critique others? Do you feel that some of my critiques have been beyond the pale?

And please know, if you ever find yourself critiquing something I've written: tear it apart, chew on it, be clever and mean and vicious, critique with style and personality. I'm big, I can handle it. In fact, I prefer it. That way I'll know what you really think. Please don't tell me it's okay when it's not. Please don't tell me to fix one thing, knowing that there are several other things that need to be fixed too. Give me every problem, every nit: I want to hear it all as honestly as you can manage.

Thanks.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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JoBird, I try to watch to make sure that feedback isn't too harsh, and I have to say that I'm surprised that you've received such a response. From what I've observed (and I try to read every single post), your feedback has been thorough, well-supported, and insightful.

Of course feedback is the critiquer's opinion. That should go without saying. Feedback that says "you must do this instead" or "the way you did it is stupid" is harsh.

I'm sorry, but I haven't seen that in any of your critiques.

Sometimes people aren't ready to receive such detailed critiques, and that's fine. Keep giving your feedback to those who don't have a problem with how you do it. And don't give feedback to the person who felt you were being harsh. Not every critiquer is helpful to every writer.

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Crystal Stevens
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The crits I find unfavorable are those that tell me to totally rewrite the story into something it's not. This is not to be confused with saying that something in my story doesn't work. That I can take, and its been a blessing more than once. My first two stories were completely reworked--and for the better--because of that kind of advice. But the original story idea remained. I just had to come at it from a different direction to tell it.

Then there are some critiquers who totally miss the point of the story. One wanted me to change my MC's personality into something that didn't fit her at all. I think this came about because the critiquer likes women to be more dependant on masculine help and be vain about their looks instead of strong and independant, which is how I portray my main female characters.

Detailed crits are fine by me. I'll use the advice I like and ignore the rest. Crits of this sort used to bug me, but now I feel I've matured enough as a writer to see what's mindless knit-picking and what's good solid advice.

The whole thing is that the core of what my characters are and the storyline should not be changed. Only I have that right, and such changes would make my writing a completely different story. I want to write MY story, not someone else's. But advice that tells me my approach has failed has saved my bacon time and again. And that type of advice is always welcome.

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MattLeo
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I put a lot of work into critiques, and therefore I want them to be useful. If I make a writer feel so bad he gives up or chooses to ignore me, then I've wasted my time. On the other hand, if I'm not honest, I've wasted my time too.

So I'm very honest in my critiques, but I also have a rule: the critique isn't done until I've found something to that I can praise with complete honesty. This is important, not just because I want to avoid discouraging the author, but because it keeps me honest. It's all too easy to turn a critique into a rant about things I don't like in stories in general. That's just pointless self-aggrandizement.

Being specific and constructive also takes the harsh edge off a critique of a problem MS. Be supportive. What is important is to help the author understand your reaction, and what (if anything) he can do about it. Your reaction by itself is of no value to an author; no matter what he writes someone somewhere is not going to like it.

So in a way, a good critique is a self-critique. You've got to examine yourself in order to give a critique that is as helpful as it can be.

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mayflower988
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Good point, MattLeo.
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wise
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JoBird, your critique of my short story's first 13 lines was fantastic. Full of details and meaty suggestions. A wishy-washy critique that's worried about being PC is useless to me. Otherwise, why ask for a critique? If you want praise, let your spouse or mother or best friend read your work. I need hard-core help from fellow writers. So you keep on doing what you're doing, at least for me when I need it! (And I'll try to do the same for you.)
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MartinV
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Well, your critique did ruin my day when I read it, JoBird, even if I only read the first three pages. You misunderstood the little things I put in the story (as the not so little fact that those characters were grown ups) and of all the meanings a sentence can have you chose the wrong one. Most of what you reprimended was my personal style of writing so you can imagine the cause of my frustration.

My biggest cause for dismay, however, was the thought my writing may simply not be compatible with the Anglo-Saxon readership. I fear there's more to it than a language gap; there may be a concept barrier too. So far two of my countrymen read the story; one is a writer himself, the other barely reads at all. Both went literally insane with it. But I'm trying to write for native English readers and if you didn't understand my thoughts, how can I ever hope to be a professional in English? Being a professional writer in my own language is simply not an option.

I thought I was past emotional punches like that but this one struck home. Anyway, I'm back on track now, just thought I should speak up.

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Crystal Stevens
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The thing that bothered me most about JoBird's crit of my first 13 was how it sounded preachy and downgrading to my own intelligence. I don't need the reason behind what is said about any part of my writing broken down into the tiniest details. It's like I'm some kind of idiot that's never studied writing. We must be given credit for having some brains. I understood exactly what JoBird said needed corrected before the lengthy school lecture.

Also, I plainly stated this was a first draft... far from perfect. I was after readers for the whole story and not just the first 13. I was after basics and not an over-the-top detailed crit. I won't be ready for that until the final draft.

JoBird could just have said that if a dela is a deer, I should call it as such, and the same thing about a krega. I didn't need the lecture that follow along with the quote from OSC's book on writing science fiction. I'm after a crit... not a writing lesson on something most writers already know. That's driving the point way too hard. If JoBird would've toned down the comments, I would've been perfectly fine with the suggestions and much more willing to accept them. I can't do that when my own intelligence is being put under a microscope.

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JoBird
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Wow, there are a lot of great replies to this thread. I feel the need to respond to a lot of them. Bear with, I'll try to address each one in the best way I can.

But let me start by saying that I don't consider myself a master of storytelling. Far from it. I feel like a lot of the "rules" of writing rely on double-speak, and annoying disclaimers. That causes me no end of headaches when I'm trying to approach the craft. At the end of the day I try to rely on intuition, and reader feedback to see where I'm at.

In my opinion, feedback is the single most important part of the process. I accepted, a long time ago, that feedback is going to be diverse. Your writing can't appeal to everyone, no matter how good it is. The only way to truly gauge reader interest is to get your readers to the point where they'll be super honest with you.

I do not advocate telling someone that their story is stupid, or that their writing is clumsy and useless. That's not helpful. Tell me instead why my prose is clumsy, or why my story is stupid. That's helpful. It's even more helpful if you include a suggestion as to how I can change that.

In life, I try to avoid negative people. Hearing a lot of negativity ruins my day, it gives me a worse outlook on life. I prefer positive folks, people who don't go ballistic when a glass of milk spills. But writing is a craft, it's a job, it's a skill that takes years and years to hone -- feedback needs to be negative at times; otherwise, it's doing a disservice to the effort that's being put into it. We, as writers, just have to learn how to take it in a positive manner.

That being said, keep this in mind: each of us have made it this far. My guess is we've all heard some bad things about our writing over the years. And we haven't stopped yet. That means, on some very basic level, that we're all serious. That we are all writers at heart, and no level of outside observation is going to change that. If we weren't we would have stopped at the first hint of pain and rejection. And that's where a thickness of skin comes into play. It's not that it doesn't hurt every time someone doesn't like something you've written -- it does -- instead it's that you can feel that pain, and still accept yourself as a writer; ideally, a writer who is open minded enough to find gems in commentary that avoids just telling you what you may want to hear.

***

Kathleen, thank you.

I'm glad I put this post up. It's a great place to really hash out these issues. I find that when people avoid discussing things that they inevitably end up with confusion and misunderstandings.

I have also noticed that if one person tells me something it is often the case that a few other people are thinking it, but haven't said it yet.

***

Matt, you've put forward some interesting thoughts on the subject. I really like the bit about how a good critique comes from someone who knows why they reacted the way they did, and then has the capacity to clearly explain that. That seems to be what you're saying if I've understood you.

I'm not sure that I understand how making an effort to help someone can be viewed as self-aggrandizement. In other words, I don't feel good when I give a critique. It's work, and I don't always like doing it. But I do it anyway, because I feel that's part of the price I have to pay to feel even remotely comfortable asking others to do it for me. I don't feel better about myself, I don't delude myself into thinking that "I don't make those mistakes." I only feel good when I read a great story, and thoroughly enjoy it. (That being said, I do find some joy in helping others build something into a better version of itself.)

I'm also lingering on one of your points in my mind. I'm trying to understand it, and I'd like it if you'd engage a bit in a small conversation about it. You mention that a critique isn't done until you can honestly praise something in the piece.

What if you can't? Example: I write something that you think is bad, just plain bad. There's nothing really good in it. If you said something was good then you'd be stretching the truth. Does that mean I don't deserve a critique?

To go a little further, praise can be a dangerous thing to give, especially when it's only dealing with a partial bit of the story. Giving that praise may make an author not want to change that part. However, killing that darling might be necessitated by the other changes that needfully occur because of the bad stuff.

For example: I've had an idea in the past. One part of the idea people loved. Another part, people hated. I decided to keep what they loved, and lose what they hated. Unfortunately, what they loved was tied into what they hated and it took me two months of writing to realize that I had to lose the darling also. It no longer made sense without the foundation of the cliche that supported it. And I was blind to it because I'd received so much praise about it. I hope that makes sense.

***

Wise, thank you. A lot of what you've said is exactly how I feel about it. I think people often get caught up in being PC, in trying to sandwich criticism between praise, and unfortunately, I suspect that the praise in question is sometimes less than sincere.

Generally, if I don't call something out specifically in a critique that means I liked it well enough not to call it out. To me, that seems self-evident.

Now, there are moments where something is so good that I feel like I have to say, "wow, that's so good." But I usually find that I want to reserve those moments for things that really hit me hard like a ton of bricks.

Ironically, it was actually my critique on your piece that instigated the email I received from another member.

***

quote:
Well, your critique did ruin my day when I read it, JoBird, even if I only read the first three pages. You misunderstood the little things I put in the story (as the not so little fact that those characters were grown ups) and of all the meanings a sentence can have you chose the wrong one. Most of what you reprimended was my personal style of writing so you can imagine the cause of my frustration.

My biggest cause for dismay, however, was the thought my writing may simply not be compatible with the Anglo-Saxon readership. I fear there's more to it than a language gap; there may be a concept barrier too. So far two of my countrymen read the story; one is a writer himself, the other barely reads at all. Both went literally insane with it. But I'm trying to write for native English readers and if you didn't understand my thoughts, how can I ever hope to be a professional in English? Being a professional writer in my own language is simply not an option.

I thought I was past emotional punches like that but this one struck home. Anyway, I'm back on track now, just thought I should speak up.

Martin, I'm very sorry that my critique caused you discomfort, and I'm glad you're back on track now. I'm also sorry that you only read three pages of it; I spent a lot of time trying to give thoughts I believed would help it grow.

To me, if I've misunderstood things you've written it's a sign that you can work to more clearly convey your thoughts (assuming you don't think I'm a moron, and accept my reading skills as being worthwhile). I think that's a truth of writing in any language. For what it's worth, I actually thought you wrote the story in a very fine manner -- the issues of clarity and style weren't that big. If anything, I left the story wanting more, not less.

***

Crystal, I put up a response in that thread after reading your take on my critique. Ultimately though, I decided to delete it because I felt that my response wasn't necessary. I feel that my critique stands on its own well enough, and I didn't feel that defending my point was appropriate in that thread.

This thread is different, of course. This thread is entirely about appropriate ways to critique.

I felt that you misunderstood much of what I was saying, and that your response seemed very defensive. I've never been a master of using emoticons, and so I understand that tone can be very difficult to interpret on forums. In short, I wasn't trying to be preachy and downgrading. I was trying to be clear.

Remember, I have no idea how intelligent you are. To me, that doesn't really enter into it. I'm just trying to express my reaction to what I read, and provide suggestions that I think would help improve it. This, of course, is based only off of what I know about the bit that I've read.

For instance, someone said that you should describe what the dela is immediately. I disagree with that advice. I think the description can be held in abeyance. By taking that advice, which I'm sure was meant well, I feel like it weakened the approach to your story. Which advice is correct? The guy who wants to immediately understand the dela, or the guy who thinks it can wait? Who knows. I don't. It's just two bits of advice that you, as the writer, get to cycle through, and hopefully, you'll find some insight somewhere along the way.

Each of my paragraphs in that critique served to concentrate on a single point. If you derived where I was going with the other paragraphs then that only serves (in my mind) to reinforce what I'm saying.

For instance, I could have suggested -- in the fourth paragraph -- that Toka not look outside the pit, that he just think about what's outside the pit. I could have suggested that you cut into another viewpoint there. I didn't. I suggested that he look outside, and that we get to see outside with him. You may have gathered that I felt that way before you got to the fourth paragraph, but the point was not made until the fourth paragraph.

In regards to something being shallow: I completely get that your description worked for you. That is obvious and self-evident; you wrote it. I was just saying that, as a reader, that description didn't work for me.

Overall, these were the kinds of things that made me feel as if you got defensive, as opposed to considering what I was saying. I don't think that it was my tone so much as it was your excessive sensitivity. Again, I stand by my critique, but at the same time, I'm very sorry that you felt it was belittling. It certainly was not intended to be so.

In regards to OSC's book, not everyone has read it. If I felt that the bit of advice was appropriate then I wanted to mention it. I have no way of knowing what books you've read; the expectation that I should know that is strange to me. Your experience and knowledge base is also irrelevant to my purpose. What I do know is that I felt page fifty-four was relevant to an issue I saw in your first thirteen.

Obviously, I will refrain from further critiques of what you've written if you wish. It takes time out of my day to do it; I don't expect people to use my advice, or even think that it's coherent or sane. I do, however, expect people to appreciate that I made an attempt to offer it.

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Crystal Stevens
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It would help immensely if you would use more tact and express respect for the writer's work. I have received excellent negative crits that have helped me out more than you can imagine. I've entered the WotF twice and each time receive an HM. I gutted and rewrote both stories from square one because of the crits I received. They were good, helpful crits that pointed out my mistakes in a positive way. Like I said; I was treated with respect. Someone you need to learn, I'm afraid.

Also, I could see exactly what my critiquers were talking about and that they were right on. Not once was I offended. You say I sounded defensive. Why shouldn't I when you come across as 100% offensive?

Something you should try is to point something out and leave it be like this: "You called your dela "deer-like" wouldn't it be better to just call it a deer?" See how that isn't offensive at all? It reads like a suggestion and not a slap in the face. THEN if the writer doesn't understand, he/she can ask for a more detailed explanation. Personally I would've understood the first time without the lecture making me feel like a moron. Others may not.

Respect a writer's intelligence and his work. You say you put a lot of time into a crit. Well writers put a whole lot more time in our stories than any crit. Remember that. Use tact, and make your advice sound like suggestions. You'll get a lot farther.

And one more thing. When I get a crit as off base as yours, I have every right to respond and will every time. So go ahead and crit my work. That's your right. But don't be surprise to get a response from me if I feel it's wrong. That's my right.

And like someone said about always finding something good to say about someone's work? He's right on. You made some good points about my first 13. There's wasn't a thing wrong with the advice. it was how it was delivered. Tact. Try it sometime. You'll be shocked at the positive results you'll garner with it.

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JoBird
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Personally, I feel that this portion of the dialogue is entering into irrational territory.

1. The critique referenced a well-known book I felt was relevant to a section of the writing in question.
2. You interpreted that reference to be an attack on your intelligence.

To me, that makes zero sense.

Here's how I see our dialogue:

"Hey, I think this book addresses something I feel like is going on in your writing. I marked the page number right here."

"How dare you! I've read that book! I'm not stupid!"

"Uhm. Sorry. I didn't mean to say you're dumb, I just thought this book was relevant."

"How dare you not respect me!"

"Uhm. Okay."


Does that add any perspective to where I'm coming from?

At some point we may be talking about a simple difference in life philosophy and theory. Below, I will try to explain what I mean.

quote:
It would help immensely if you would use more tact and express respect for the writer's work.
This is very interesting. Respect. What is respect? Rather, what is respect to you?

To me, respect is not treating other adults like children. It's holding people to high standards, both in their behavior, and in their craft. Showing respect to someone is being forthright and honest to them.

It is most assuredly not walking on egg shells around them. It is not patronizing them, coddling them, or pretending that they can only handle a watered down, politically correct version of your opinion. Doing that would be, in my humble opinion, demeaning.

quote:
I have received excellent negative crits that have helped me out more than you can imagine.
This is also interesting. "More than you can imagine." Hmm. You know, I could theoretically go off the wall about that comment. For example: how dare you tell me what I can imagine?!? I have a great imagination (insert proof here)!

But that would be ridiculous. And a waste of time.

The difference between me referencing a book and this: you actually told me what I couldn't imagine. I simply said a section of a book could be useful. Yours was far more direct and insulting. Mine was constructive, at least in spirit.

The difference between our reactions: my self-confidence is not called into question when you casually mention what I can or can not imagine. You, seemingly out of left field, felt that I was belittling your intelligence.

quote:
I was treated with respect. Someone you need to learn, I'm afraid.
Respect is a friend of mine. I know him well. But I get the feeling that he acts differently around you.

I kid, I know you meant "something" instead of "someone". But seriously, do you not see a small bit of irony here? I suggested that a book was relevant. In turn, you have called me tactless, demeaning, disrespectful, and preachy. I accept that you feel this way, that's fine, but I'd like to see if I can express to you some of this irony.

quote:
Why shouldn't I when you come across as 100% offensive?
100% offensive?

Simply put, I don't agree. I'm not sure how any analysis can believe my critique was offensive, much less completely offensive. The entirety of it started with: My advice.

It included several instances of the following: to me, I think, maybe, probably, maybe you could consider. None of this is aggressive language. It's a post made by someone who is trying to help, and putting forward suggestions.

quote:
Personally I would've understood the first time without the lecture making me feel like a moron.
Perhaps we have a different definition of lecture. I don't know, but I will say that I'm not sure why you would consider what I wrote to be like a lecture.

Additionally, in my humble opinion, no one can make you feel like a moron. You are in control of yourself, and how you respond to things around you. You can argue that the critique was intended to make you feel like a moron, and thus done with ill-intent, but I think it's demonstrably clear that the critique was not designed to do that.

quote:
Respect a writer's intelligence and his work.
Because I think this is an important point, I will reiterate: I do respect people, and I respect their work. If I did not respect their work then I wouldn't offer advice. If I did not respect them then I wouldn't be honest with them.

quote:
You say you put a lot of time into a crit. Well writers put a whole lot more time in our stories than any crit.
The difference:

1. The pay off for the writer spending a lot of time is that they end up with a good story, and maybe get it published.
2. The pay off for the person offering a critique is that they get to help the writer end up with a good story which the writer may get to publish.

See? The writer has skin in the fight. The person offering a critique is just trying to help.

quote:
Remember that. Use tact, and make your advice sound like suggestions.
Again, the entirety of the critique began with: My advice.

quote:
You'll get a lot farther.
Farther with what?

quote:
And one more thing. When I get a crit as off base as yours, I have every right to respond and will every time. So go ahead and crit my work. That's your right. But don't be surprise to get a response from me if I feel it's wrong. That's my right.
Clearly, the best option here is that I do not offer any more critiques on your work.

quote:
And like someone said about always finding something good to say about someone's work? He's right on.
As I mentioned in a post above, the advice about finding something good to say in everyone's work -- while it sounds good on the surface -- falls apart on deeper inspection, at least to my sense of logic.

It essentially says that if you can't find something good to say then you shouldn't offer someone a critique. Whereas, the worse something is, arguably, the more it needs a critique. So, you're left not offering a critique to someone who really needs it, or you're left offering false praise. If I have to go into why I think false praise is bad then it's not worth further discussion; false praise is bad on its face, I don't suffer it, I don't enjoy it, and I think it's beyond demeaning.

quote:
You made some good points about my first 13. There's wasn't a thing wrong with the advice. it was how it was delivered.
At the end of the day the steak is more important than the sizzle. My suggestion: take anything useful out of what's offered to you. We don't have to be friends. You don't have to like me. We don't have to vote for the same people, or have brunch on Sunday. This is just about honing a craft, and finding good points to sharpen your stories on.

quote:
Tact. Try it sometime. You'll be shocked at the positive results you'll garner with it.
Thank you for the advice.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by JoBird:

I'm not sure that I understand how making an effort to help someone can be viewed as self-aggrandizement.

It's self-aggrandizement if you lose sight of what you're supposed to be doing (helping the author) and act like your opinions are actually important. They're not. They're just data.

For example, suppose you are critiquing a kind of scene that doesn't appeal to you, say a space battle, or a romance scene. You could rant on about all the things you don't like about space battles or romance scenes, but no matter how the author revises the scene it will still raise your ire because it is what it is. You should say, "Well, I happen not to like romantic scenes, so take what I say with a grain of salt," then go on and help the author write the best possible romance scene he can.

You can't avoid discouraging people now and then, but I regard any kind of feedback that can *only* discourage the author as egotistical self-aggrandizement. What's the point of giving feedback at all if the author is going to give up as a result? If that's all you have to offer, you should decline to say anything at all. *It's not your job to pass judgment on the aspirations of the author.* You're supposed to be acting as a coach, not a career counselor.

quote:
Originally posted by JoBird:

You mention that a critique isn't done until you can honestly praise something in the piece.

What if you can't?

If you really can't, then say nothing. Withhold your criticism, not just because it won't be helpful, but because your inability to see any redeeming quality suggests the strong possibility you have not mastered your own emotional response to the piece.

I have critiqued manuscripts that were bad on a scale of dreadfulness that is scarcely possible to express, but I have yet to find one that lacked *any* redeeming feature. Really dreadful manuscripts are often heroic failures -- the author reaches far beyond the scope of his expressive powers and falls excruciatingly short. That's a redeeming feature in itself. In a way, I find these absolutely *dreadful* manuscripts more worthy of praise than tepid, tasteful mediocrity. At the very least, you can understand what the author is *trying* to accomplish, and that alone is often very encouraging.

quote:
Originally posted by JoBird:
To go a little further, praise can be a dangerous thing to give,

Hold it right there. You are totally misapplying that principle if you are applying it to manuscript critique. "You look great smoking that cigarette," is irresponsible praise. "The world building is clever and thought provoking, but at this stage you should focus on getting to the inciting incident," is not.

quote:
Giving that praise may make an author not want to change that part.
That's not your problem. If you think a part is good but ought to be cut, you should say it. It is not your job to make the tough decisions for the author, your job is to give the information needed to make those decisions.

quote:
For example: I've had an idea in the past. One part of the idea people loved. Another part, people hated. I decided to keep what they loved, and lose what they hated. Unfortunately, what they loved was tied into what they hated and it took me two months of writing to realize that I had to lose the darling also.

The lost months was not the fault of the people giving you feedback. The fault was your own artistic overreaction to reader approval. You learned your lesson, and you should allow authors you critique the chance to learn their own hard lessons -- which they won't do if you are too harsh.

Pitch your critique so that the author has the best chance of improving. That rules out critiques which only have discouragement in them. Naturally this involves some judgment about the author. In some cases it's fairly safe to be blunt, but even then the "find something good to say" rule is a major encouragement to responding constructively to your bluntness. For authors you know less well, you should assume they are at least average in their sensitivity. With those people you point out the same things, but make it sound encouraging.

Is that easy? No. But you *are* a writer, aren't you? If anybody can do it, it should be you.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
The thing that bothered me most about JoBird's crit of my first 13 was how it sounded preachy and downgrading to my own intelligence. I don't need the reason behind what is said about any part of my writing broken down into the tiniest details. It's like I'm some kind of idiot that's never studied writing. We must be given credit for having some brains. I understood exactly what JoBird said needed corrected before the lengthy school lecture.

Crystal, I am presuming that you and JoBird don't know each other or very much about each other. There's lots of diversity in the menagerie of aspiring writers, from rare birds like extrinsic who quote Silva Rhetoricae when startled, to newly hatched chicks who wouldn't know what the heck a dialog tag is. JoBird wouldn't know where you fit in that menagerie, so being clearer than *you* needed him to be was not necessarily intended as patronizing.

Now I went back to find the inciting incident, which I think was JoBird's comments on your story opening for "Toka and Julie". Let me start by saying that you have *nothing* to be ashamed of about that opening -- and a *good* opening is bound to attract more marginal suggestions than a *bad* one. When given a seriously defective piece of writing, it's easy to give straightforward advice like "avoid adverbs in dialog tags." When faced with a reasonably literate piece of writing, it's much tougher to critique.

One trap that's easy to fall into is rewriting the piece into something the author didn't quite intend. I think JoBird's suggestions shade that way, although he is careful to phrase the changes as suggestions "you should consider". Really, I didn't see it as provocative or disrespectful, just JoBird giving his impressions, suggesting some things he might have done in your place, and referring you to a book he's evidently found useful personally. And I don't have a dog in this fight.

Now what you did in response is something I guarantee you every single one of us here has done at one time or another: issue a rebuttal.It's a perfectly natural response, but I have yet to see any good come of one, and I include my own rebuttals in that.

JoBird did something in return which is rare, but nonetheless perfectly understandable: start a discussion about what the ground rules for negative critique should be. And I'm glad he did, because a number of interesting points have come up, but if you look closely at how this discussion has moved, it has moved steadily from the general to the rehashing of the inciting event, and I think you both should ask yourself what good that could possibly do.

I think now would be a good time for everyone to take a deep breath, because we've all lost sight of what they came here to do in the first place.

I want to stress I understand both sides of this situation. I've both reacted strongly to critiques in ways the critic hadn't expected, and been on the receiving end of the same. The important thing as an author is to remember that we don't have to agree with critics; often the best approach is to start with the assumption the critic is wrong, then figure out how to prevent others from making that same mistake. As a critic, you've got to expect some unexpected reactions to your critique. That's perfectly normal, and it's OK. You've done your job as best you can, and it's up to the author to make the best use of what you gave him.

[ August 08, 2012, 05:21 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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JoBird
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Matt,

Below I'm mostly trying to figure out if we're talking about the same thing.

The short version (in case you don't want to read it all) of what I'm saying is this: I don't think praise needs to be included in every critique. I've outlined my reasons to the best of my current ability.

As I understand your position: praise should be included in every critique. Because doing so gives the recipient the best chance to improve their craft.

quote:
It's self-aggrandizement if you lose sight of what you're supposed to be doing (helping the author) and act like your opinions are actually important. They're not. They're just data.

For example, suppose you are critiquing a kind of scene that doesn't appeal to you, say a space battle, or a romance scene. You could rant on about all the things you don't like about space battles or romance scenes, but no matter how the author revises the scene it will still raise your ire because it is what it is. You should say, "Well, I happen not to like romantic scenes, so take what I say with a grain of salt," then go on and help the author write the best possible romance scene he can.

This is an example of the types of negative comments being made. I agree that a critique, by nature, should focus on helping the author. I don't think anyone's arguing against that.

I was under the impression that you felt any critique lacking mention of praise was self-aggrandizement. If that's not what you're saying then I agree with you.

quote:
You can't avoid discouraging people now and then, but I regard any kind of feedback that can *only* discourage the author as egotistical self-aggrandizement.
Well, wait. This is interesting. Maybe you are saying that any critique failing to offer praise is self-aggrandizement. If so, then I'm back to disagreeing with you.

It has to do with what it means to discourage someone. Saying that this is bad, that is bad, and this is bad isn't, in my opinion, discouraging in and of itself. Assuming that you, as the author, take that critique seriously (and agree with the advice) then it's actually very encouraging. You've now seen things that don't work, leaving you room to develop something that does. And hopefully you've also been provided with a couple of suggestions to help you move in that direction.

On the other hand, assuming that you, as the author, don't take that critique seriously (and don't agree with the advice) then it's meaningless, neither encouraging, nor discouraging.

I'll get a little more into this below, but let me say now that the author is responsible for the author's actions, which means that the author is responsible for how they take the advice. The author can be discouraged by something that is not discouraging. That is the emotional choice of the author, not the person giving the critique. The one offering the critique can not make the author quit writing. That's the author's choice, not the critic's.

quote:
What's the point of giving feedback at all if the author is going to give up as a result?
Wait a minute. No one has a crystal ball when they sit down to write a critique. This is just silly. All you can do is offer advice. You can't predict how the author is going to take the advice.

Later on, you insist that it's the author's fault for misusing praise and keeping something in the manuscript when it needed to come out. Now, you're suggesting that it's the critic's fault if the author gives up.

If praise should still be offered when it can lead to a bad authorial decision then so should criticism.

Regardless, to answer the question: what is the point? The point is to offer help. Period. Help can be offered by pointing out what is wrong. It's a slippery slope fallacy to say that without the offer of praise an author is going to quit or give up.

That's more what I would call a worry. You can be worried that an author is going to give up if you don't offer praise. But, to me, that's somewhat disrespectful to the author, to assume that they're not devoted to their craft. To assume that what you're offering is actually important, as opposed to just data.

This, to me, seems far closer to self-aggrandizement.

quote:
*It's not your job to pass judgment on the aspirations of the author.* You're supposed to be acting as a coach, not a career counselor.
This is a somewhat difficult conversation because I agree with many of your blanket statements, but I think (if I understand you) that I disagree with the methods of how to get there.

You should not pass judgement, absolutely. That's why, in my opinion, you should put forward an honest appraisal. Assuming that you need to offer nothing until you find something good to say, well, that seems like it's passing judgement on the author. In other words, it's saying that my advice is so important that the author may quit if I give it. But gosh, why would the author be so prepared to quit because of what you've said? To assume as much is, in some way, passing judgement.

quote:
If you really can't, then say nothing.
This is the crux of my disagreement with what you're saying. If you can't say something nice then don't say anything at all. There's a sense to that statement, but it doesn't go as far as what you've said. See, I think offering help and suggestions is nice, and thus should be said.

However, praise is not the same as nice. If you can't tell someone they did something right then don't say anything at all. That seems to be closer to what you've said. It sounds good, but as I've mentioned before, I think it breaks down upon inspection.

It presumes that there is something praiseworthy to be said, and that you are capable of noticing something praiseworthy. And it also says that all of the other relevant things you have to say are worthless until you find this supposed praiseworthy thing to mention. It delays getting across information that is certainly useful in the hope that you can eventually come up with something questionably useful.

I guess I just don't buy it. It seems more like coddling than engaging in a professional back and forth.

quote:
I have critiqued manuscripts that were bad on a scale of dreadfulness that is scarcely possible to express, but I have yet to find one that lacked *any* redeeming feature. Really dreadful manuscripts are often heroic failures -- the author reaches far beyond the scope of his expressive powers and falls excruciatingly short. That's a redeeming feature in itself. In a way, I find these absolutely *dreadful* manuscripts more worthy of praise than tepid, tasteful mediocrity. At the very least, you can understand what the author is *trying* to accomplish, and that alone is often very encouraging.
This is watering down praise so much that it's effectively pointless. Everyone is trying to write a good novel.

Praise: You tried to write a great novel.
Criticism: You didn't.

The praise isn't really praise. It's a failure. Offering praise there is almost condescending. It's such a stretch that I feel like it's done to assuage the critic's guilt for having negative things to say, as opposed to legitimately trying to help the author become better.

quote:
Hold it right there. You are totally misapplying that principle if you are applying it to manuscript critique. "You look great smoking that cigarette," is irresponsible praise. "The world building is clever and thought provoking, but at this stage you should focus on getting to the inciting incident," is not.
It's about understanding the repercussions of a critique on both sides of the fence.

1. Offer praise, otherwise the writer might quit.
-why is this the critic's problem? Isn't that a tough decision the author has to make? Isn't this also an incredibly unlikely scenario that presupposes far more importance into the critic's comments than not?
2. Offer praise, don't worry if the author misapplies it.
-now it's not your job to make tough decisions for the author.

These things are basically not congruent.

See, I'm of the simple opinion that you should just offer a critique. One that is honest. If you have to spend weeks struggling to find something praiseworthy to say, well, it's probably better to just skip the soul searching, and say what you think.

I agree that you shouldn't give irrelevant advice to someone who's writing a romance novel because you don't like romance novels. That's a no-brainer, right. But you should feel free to talk about hooks, to talk about pacing, to talk about adverbs, whatever, so long as it's designed to make the piece stronger for what it's intended to be.

quote:
The lost months was not the fault of the people giving you feedback. The fault was your own artistic overreaction to reader approval. You learned your lesson, and you should allow authors you critique the chance to learn their own hard lessons
Again, as mentioned above, this example exists to show how praise can create something negative, just like your example of the writer quitting exists to show how lack of praise can create something negative.

Ultimately, I think one is a more likely outcome than the other. Regardless, in both situations, the actual decision is one that the author has to make. The person offering the critique has no duty beyond that of being constructive and honest.

quote:
which they won't do if you are too harsh.
This strikes me as presumptuous. Before I can really respond I'd have to know:

1. Your definition of too harsh, and
2. Why they won't learn their own hard lesson.

quote:
Pitch your critique so that the author has the best chance of improving.
Absolutely. Unfortunately, different strokes for different folks. Giving someone the best chance to improve is guess work. The line I draw deals with honesty, and a stubborn refusal to offer what I consider weak or false praise.

quote:
That rules out critiques which only have discouragement in them.
This is not as self-evident as your argument suggests. It's begging a question, essentially presuming that the best chance to improve means praise. I have no quantifiable evidence to support that.

You say:

1. Because you should give someone the best chance to improve
2. You have to praise them for something.

A person's best chance to improve lies within -- the most you can do is tell a person what you think, and let them go from there. If you think they've done something poorly, tell them.

Also, I notice that you mention avoiding inclusion of only discouraging things . . . I feel that I need to clarify what's meant by discouraging. I'm not aware of anyone arguing that someone offering a critique should be discouraging. I want to make sure that we're on the same page.

I suggest:

1. Saying that you feel something is not working in the manuscript.
2. Offering a suggestion for a way to make it work.

This is not discouraging in my mind. Is this what you're calling discouraging? Are we talking about the same thing?

[ August 08, 2012, 06:05 PM: Message edited by: JoBird ]

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MattLeo
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JoBird -- I know I tend to over-elaborate, so I'll make this simple as I can.

When doing a critique you should not walk on eggshells, nor should you give false praise. You should assume that an author is reasonable, but might be a little touchy where his work is concerned. Phrase your critique *so you think* it will provoke a reasonable response rather than a defensive. There are no guarantees once it's out of your hands, I'm talking about being thoughtful *before* you send it.

Every critique should be encouraging. That doesn't mean giving only praise -- an honest, clear, actionable criticism is sure to be more encouraging than obviously phony praise. But note carefully: bluntness is not the only way to be honest, and harshness is not the only way to be clear. These are only the default modes for saying negative things when we haven't given much thought about how to say them.

If you honestly think that your critique will only discourage an author, there is no way you can believe that sending it will be helpful. But if you think a critique will be helpful, *send it*. Sometimes people react defensively to a sincere attempt to help. Maybe they had a bad day, or maybe they're just too sensitive for their own good. Either way, it happens. Suck it up.

The big sticking point is my suggestion that every critique include at least one piece of sincere praise. The reason for this is the halo effect. We tend to be blind to the faults of things we like and to the virtues of things we don't. I'm not saying be a big jolly phony. I'm saying: *dig deeper*, until you are in a place that is beyond your emotional reactions to the piece. Granted, this means you'll often do the hardest work on the worst manuscripts, but it won't kill you.

If you dig deeper, I guarantee you'll find *something*, but the only way to know this for sure is to try it yourself on the next completely irredeemable manuscript you encounter. The rules are simple: you've got to find something praiseworthy, and that praise has to be completely honest.

quote:
1. Saying that you feel something is not working in the manuscript.
2. Offering a suggestion for a way to make it work.

This is not discouraging in my mind. Is this what you're calling discouraging? Are we talking about the same thing?

Well, sure. I agree it shouldn't be discouraging. But *how* you say something carries quite a bit of weight in how it is received. For example, when you say something is not working, emphasize that is *your reaction*, and if it's major make a point of mentioning that you know you're fallible and have peculiar tastes in some things. You know it's true.

And this is especially important: when you suggest a change, emphasize that this is only an *example* of the kind of change you're talking about, and that you're sure the author probably has a better idea of what to do. This is the most rewarding result of any critique: the author takes a problem you point out and comes up with a solution that you wouldn't have imagined. *That's* the response you really want as a critic.

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rabirch
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I've hesitated to jump into this conversation, because it honestly makes me nervous, but I just want to throw out a line from "Mary Poppins" that resonates for me on this subject. "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

I think this is true. I have critiqued some truly terrifyingly bad stories, but every one of them has something in there that is worth pointing out as being done well. Sometimes it's as simple as, "I think you have a fascinating concept in here, but I'm having a hard time understanding it because of XYZ," or pointing out a particular turn of phrase that worked well.

I know that I have developed a very thick skin through years of critiquing and being critiqued, but not everyone has the same kind of armor, so my personal choice is to always include something positive to balance the critical. It does help the medicine go down, and if it doesn't get past the lips, it can't be effective.

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Crystal Stevens
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Thank you, MattLeo. You're last post said exactly what I was trying to say all alone. Well done. Well done indeed. I just wish I could've phrased it that well.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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The fact that a critiquer is willing to spend the time required to read and critique a story should mean that there is something worthwhile in the story. If not, why bother?

I think that all MattLeo is encouraging critiquers to do is make sure they point out whatever it is that makes the story worth bothering with, worth giving feedback on.

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JoBird
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Matt,

Fair enough.

You're right, our sticking point deals with whether or not there's something praiseworthy in everything. Instead of disagreeing with you -- which would be stubborn and unproductive -- I'll take your advice, and spend some time looking for the good in things.

Sorry if I've come across as lacking social graces. I mean well at heart. Sometimes I tend to challenge ideas to better understand them.

Thank you for the input.

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babooher
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Jobird, sometimes you just have to wish a person well. That goes for both critic and creator.
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JoBird
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babooher,

I definitely agree.

In my personal and humble opinion, I think the only really appropriate replies to critiques are:

1. Thank you.
-or-
2. A request for clarification.

Anything more than that seems off to me, rude actually. In fact, anything more than that sort of burns me out, makes me not want to spend much time critiquing.

But that may just be me. I certainly wish everyone I've ever done a critique for well.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by JoBird:
the only really appropriate replies to critiques are:

1. Thank you.
-or-
2. A request for clarification.

I think we've indicated that here in the Please Read Here First topics and/or in the description of the workshop on the opening page which you reach from the home page of this website.

I can say that there have been times when I have merely thanked a critiquer (especially in person), some critiquers seem surprised. Apparently they expected more than that from me in response. <shrug>

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Brendan
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I'd say that there is a third option too, one that depends on the relationship and chemistry between the creator and critic. That is a reply that develops a sense of partnership, with the intent of becoming a trusted critic. This can include further discussion on points brought up in the critique.

Some critics do become invested in the story, enough to work hard on the critique. As a result, they want it (and you) to succeed. These may be willing to discuss further various elements of the story.

I've had some great discussions as a result critiques (both as writer and as critiquer). Especially when, as a first draft often is, there is considerable room for world building and concept development (especially for science fiction).

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Crystal Stevens
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I always appreciate a crit that gives me positive ways to improve what's wrong instead of going into great detail on what is wrong. That's being constructive and is the greatest help a writer can receive.
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