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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » One Philosophy of How to Critique

   
Author Topic: One Philosophy of How to Critique
jeduthun
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I came across this recently (someone who was critiquing my work said that's how she works) and would like to know what y'all think:

THREE STEPS TO GOOD CRITIQUING:
1. First, tell the author what EFFECT the words have on you, the reader.
2. Second, only speculate on a CAUSE if the author asks you to. Let the author figure out why it had that effect and whether that's the effect they wanted.
3. Finally, only suggest a SOLUTION if the author is totally stuck on coming up with one him/herself.

I know I jump to #2 or #3 too soon sometimes. How do you all feel about this?


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HSO
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Everyone critiques differently. If that works for the author and critiquer, great! If not, don't use it. But a critique is only an opinion, so you can opine all you want and the author can still decide whether to agree or not. Still, let's break it down, and I'll opine on the following:

quote:
THREE STEPS TO GOOD CRITIQUING:
1. First, tell the author what EFFECT the words have on you, the reader.

I have no idea what that means. Am I supposed to say: I really like how you used "the" in that sentence. It made me happy.

quote:
2. Second, only speculate on a CAUSE if the author asks you to. Let the author figure out why it had that effect and whether that's the effect they wanted.

CAUSE of what? Number 1? If I see something that I feel is clearly wrong, I'm going to say precisely why I think it is.


quote:
3. Finally, only suggest a SOLUTION if the author is totally stuck on coming up with one him/herself.

Ultimately, it's up to the author to decide and write their own story. But if someone is unaware of their error, I'm going to point them in the right direction.

Again, it's only my opinion. It may be worthless to a particular author. Or it may not be... That's the thing with critiques.


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Beth
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I think there's a lot of value in the vague "the opening was boring" kind of comments.

But if I can identify the problem, I'm going to comment on that as well. "The opening was boring because you didn't introduce the main conflict until page 15, and you never give the protagonist a name."

There is value in both approaches, for me.


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apeiron
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I think the sort of "effect" jeduthun was referring to is more along the lines of "That passage angered me/engaged me/made me want to cry/made me want to throw the book in the dumpster."

Here's my understanding with an example:

Step One: I feel like that action is really picking up and this section is building to some sort of climax, but then it doesn't happen.

Step Two: The short sentences and desparate nature of the character's internal monologue led me to think this.

Step Three: Link the sentences and don't over-exaggerate the effect these events are having on the character.

As for the effectiveness of this strategy, I think it's very useful to have feedback that reflects the critiquer's first impression. However, sometimes knowing the cause (step 2) at the same time will help the author put that impression in perspective. I think a good critique mixes all three elements.


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Christine
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I call the difference between step two and three "diagnosis" and "prescription." Both have their places.

BUT without diagnosis, prescription is useless.

Let me explain:

"I don't like your main character" is a simple, useless reaction. As the author I'm thinking, "Ok....?" There's something missing in that statement. I want to know what is wrong with the main character. Why didn't you like him.

"I don't like your main character. I think it is because he dumped his girlfriend the night before prom. That's a low thing to do, even when she's a *itch." And the author thinks, "Oh! I can see that." The author then has to decide what to do about this, including, if this scene is particularly important to the story, nothing at all.

Prescription goes something like this: "I suggest having your main character dump his girlfriend after prom." Now, taken by itself, this is just as useless as "I didn't like your main character." Why would you want him to dump her after instead of before? In fact, the gut feeling and the prescription without the diagnosis are also useless. The author may not be seeing things the same way as the critiquer, and he needs to know exactly what connected the reaction and the prescription.

But it's not wrong to prescribe, as long as you have completed the process leading up to it. The author can take or leave your suggestion, but what does it hurt to give it, as long as you have explained it properly?

So I guess in the end I'm going to have to disagree with the above suggested method of critiquing. In fact, the most valuable step is step 2, even if the critiquer is wrong. After all, it is only opinion.

Which brings me to the real trick to an effective critique:

"In my opinion..."
"It seems to me..."
"I wonder if..."
"Have you considered..."
"It might be better if..."


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JOHN
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I always hated "This doesn't work." or "Change this." or "You're better than this."

I tend to give examples of what I'm talking about. They're not good mind you as that would be doing the writers job for them. But I just want to give some sort idea what I'm talking about.


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MaryRobinette
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I agree with Christine about "the real trick," but I'll go a step further and explain why. The reason those words "It seems to me.." make a critique more effective is simply that it makes it easier for a author to remember that it is your opinion, which makes it easier to hear the opinions and use them instead of sliding into defensive mode. This is not to say that critiques should be all compliments. That's as useless as a critique that's thrown away. But it is important to be courteous in language, since the substance of a critique is almost always harsh.

I personally like critiques that are deal with effect and cause and tend to do that when I'm critiquing. I also tend to use OSC's wise reader method, which is pretty much the same thing but broken into more specific areas of concern.

A wordsmithery problem has to be fairly egregious for me to comment on it. But that just goes back to the basic problem of being pulled out of the story. Again, I try to comment on effect and diagnosis while trusting the author to come up with the solution. As a writer, nothing makes me quite as crazy as when people rewrite my words without telling me why they think it's an improvement. "It scans better," doesn't cut it anymore than "I like it this way" would or "Change the character's eyes to blue, because that's my favorite color." On the other hand, "This line pulled me out of the story. I think it's because it is inconsistent with the rest of the narrative voice," would be useful.

There have been times when the only way I could explain something was through demonstration, but I always ask the author before I do it.


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Survivor
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I tend to feel that diagnosis is the most important part of a critique.

I don't always diagnose. I've learned that dominance relationships are important. I would probably be a better person if I had more drive to be dominant or simply ignored dominance relationships. As it is...I'm not my brother's keeper. And I'm okay with that.


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Robyn_Hood
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The only time I have an issue with someone diagnosing, is when they diagnose the wrong thing and recommend a solution based on that. Sometimes it is fine to say, "I don't know why, but I'm having trouble with such-and-such." It can sometimes take a bit of practice to be able to identify why you are having a particular response to something.

If you can't quite put your finger on it, then don't try. Bring the author's attention to the section and leave it at that, because the wrong diagnosis and remedy can also be frustrating for authors.


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wbriggs
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Another important thing: tell me where in the story you had your reaction. (I have a critiquer who went through the novel and said, I had problems keeping the characters straight. Fortunately, she's willing to go back thru the MS and note WHERE she felt lost. This enables me to go back and put reminders there, or make the character in question more remarkable, or something. Otherwise, I wouldn't know which characters to highlight or eliminate.)
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wbriggs
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bump
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Meenie
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quote:
1. First, tell the author what EFFECT the words have on you, the reader.

I take this to mean you should read the story first as a reader. Don't think about critting, just read it and see how it feels.
If you're stopping at every other word with your little red pen, you're missing the story as a whole, how it flows, how it comes together (or doesn't). Don't start off with the mind set of having to find problems!

Then go back and look for the trouble spots, etc and make your suggestions.

Susan


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onepktjoe
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I'm glad you bumped this, Will. I've been thinking about a particular aspect of giving critiques lately: encouragement.

Being a serious-minded group, I think it's safe to say this would never become a "rah-rah" site (not much value in a critique without some honest and informed diagnosing of problems), but I don't think I've seen this discussed much, except in passing. How important do you feel this is?

Survivor's comment above almost certainly applies here, albeit in a slightly different form: I am not my brother's therapist, either. But, it would seem we have a certain responsibility in this if we choose to critique.

Personally, I don't think there is anything anyone could say about my work that would discourage me from writing and attempting to get published, but I realize this isn't universally true. Maybe this is an attrition process summed up by the quote; "Those who can be discouraged from writing, should be." I don't know. I DO know, that after a particularly tough crit (particularly an insightful, spot-on crit), I tend to feel a little wooden. But I find that even a small comment to the effect of, "This was interesting," or "that was engaging" or anything that seems to connect with some aspect of the piece that I love too, dramatically reduces that initial frustration.

It's silly to think that I'm that easily manipulated but...well, I am.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?


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Isaiah13
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onepktjoe: I totally agree. A little encouragement goes a long, long way. I'm not saying we should pat people on the back just for the sake of patting them on the back, but I think we should definitely keep in mind how important self confidence can be. If I see ten things I don't like and one thing I do, I try to make a point of letting the writer know what that one thing was. I'm sure others will disagree with me on this, but that's my personal take on the matter.
"Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." -- W. B. Yeats

[This message has been edited by Isaiah13 (edited June 24, 2005).]


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Monolith
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One of the only things I do is to read the story and comment on what did and didn't work for me and explain a bit on both areas.

I also try and give suggestions(although I don't know if it proper to do it)on how to make things a bit more clearer and the such.

Is that a proper and correct way to do it?

Also just my opinion

-Monolith-


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Elan
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I'm wondering if anyone has a suggestion for how to politely deal with the issue of atrocious spelling and grammar. I've found myself a couple of times well into a lengthy critique when it's occurring to me the horrible spelling, grammar and sentence structure is rife throughout the document. After red-penning my way through the first couple of pages I usually just quit pointing it out. I don't want to say to the author, "You need to go back and repeat your 9th grade English class." (Well, I DO want to say it, but I don't.) It is most common amongst the younger writers we have, and I don't wish to discourage them. However, I feel like I need to say something to let them know this is a big deal. Poor command of the English language is a barrier to good writing. Any suggestions for a polite way to say this?

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Isaiah13
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In that case, you're probably better off recommending a book on grammer/punctuation than you are correcting them. I don't think most people would take offense when it comes to mechanics. I know I never did. How to do it politely? Well, if you've read the book yourself, you can just tell them how much you benefited from having done so. And if you haven't read it, just tell them that every published author swears by it. "The Elements of Style" is a prime example. I've seen that book referenced a hundred times over -- and for good reason, too.

[This message has been edited by Isaiah13 (edited June 24, 2005).]


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Survivor
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I'm having a bit of a problem here, because...well, too many people here have been exposed to my critiques. So imagine if I were to say something like "I always mention any good points I see."

By the way, that's not true. I mention good points if I think they're worth mentioning, but there are certain positives I just never mention. Like, if a document is well formatted or the spelling is perfect...I don't mention that (some of you might have seen the kind of critique from me where "your document was in proper submission format/properly spelled" would simply have stood out as "damning with faint praise").

My strategy is to be totally blunt, and try and put my unique strengths (and weaknesses) as a critic foremost. Most times, I do a direct edit on the document as I'm reading it, I have "[]" in red saved to the clipboard and anytime I feel like commenting, I Shift+Insert (or Ctrl+V, though that's not yet totally natural to me) and say whatever's bugging me. Occasionally I'll go back and edit a comment or at a retro, when an error (or bonus) occured earlier that only became apparent later in the text.

Then, I sum up my overall impressions at the end. Sometimes, I judge that the amount of red and the content is too horrible, even for me (there are also cases where I was simply too busy enjoying the story to stop and make comments in-line). In a case like that, I sum up the summation.

But I have to strive for clarity above all. The writer is already confronted with a world full of bland rejection notices. That's the one thing I want to make sure I avoid when I offer a critique. Maybe I'm wrong...or rather, maybe most people would like their rejections as bland and uninformative as possible. But, you already know where to get one of those. And you might have a chance of making a sale that way.

Sure, my critiques don't work for everyone. That's okay, a lot of stories fall outside of my "field", so it's a fair balance. Also, I'm not the only person giving critiques here. But if I'm the only one trying for clarity rather than politeness, a lot of that benefit is lost.


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onepktjoe
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Elan, good point about the spelling and grammar issues. If it's a few nits I just "red-ink" them, but sometimes (and by no means is this problem limited to the young--though it does sometimes seem like all the English teachers have been abducted or worse lately) it's just too bad to waste the time. For those, I've taken to pasting the following links:

This one is connected to a good basic grammar site, as well--http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/misspelled_words.htm

This one (a list of commonly confused homophones) is particularly good for the spellcheck dependent--http://www.swic.edu/successcenter/handouts/CommonlyMisspelledWords.pdf

Survivor, your point is well-made. I didn't mean to suggest that encouragement should be the main thrust of any crit. That should be, as you've said, a clear diagnosis of the story's weakeness(es). I only meant to suggest that encouragement is an effective way of focusing someone's attention. It's just a lot easier to confront fixing a major problem if you think the project still has some value.

All that being said, I also think the value of a large healthy group like this is that you WILL find some readers who are more blunt and honest than others. But, just for the record, it was one of your crits I was thinking about when I posted the above. You dug into some plot and character points that were sore spots for me (sore because they were wounded to begin with), but it was a quick comment about a particular passage that I happened to like being engaging that kindled my desire to fix the piece. I don't think I would've been so anxious to dig back into the story had the comments from you and others been entirely negative. That was the only point I was trying to make.

Besides, if you started handing out happy feel-good crits, a lot of people here would waste a tremendous amount of time contacting physicians and your family members out of concern for YOUR well-being. No sense going there either.


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