Throwing out some lessons to me, maybe you have some to add.
#1 Thank the writer. It takes guts to open yourself up and say hit me with your best shot. Appreciate the human being who's letting their guard down. Their asking for help not hurt.
#2 Like it before you open it. The writer is probably not aiming for an audience that hates what they write and picks it up anyway. The end user will be someone who looked at the cover, looked at the synopsis and said that is something I WOULD LIKE to read. Even when you're on chapter 10 and 1-9 did not impress, the same still applies.
#3 Read frequently. A story is best when the characters/setting/plot are fresh. Especially with a longer work, odds are the writer didn't intend you to put it down for weeks or months between readings. If you are picking up the next chapter and asking who a main character is, you probably aren't doing the reader a service.
#4 Help them with THEIR work. If the writer wanted to know how you would do a story, their request would contain the words "You should write a story about . . . " They are asking for a critique so that THEIR story becomes the best it can be. So don't ask, how would I do this? Ask "How can I help them get to their goal?"
#5 Tell the truth. They want a critique so they know how to get better. That doesn't mean be tactless. You should be able to tell someone that their work sucks without telling them "your work sucks." If you can't, maybe you aren't looking at rule #2. But do tell them it sucks when it does.
#6 Because the truth you told them in #5 is your opinion, and because it's their story (#4), what a critique is really asking is HOW YOU TOOK IT. They are not wrong for the POV they chose or the fact that their character is not or is too conventional. But they do want to know what you thought about it. A good critique is not about what they did, but about how you took it. A good critic therefore is someone who can articulate WHAT triggered their opinion. "This scene was boring" is not as helpful as "I just felt the conflict slipping away. So and so seems to be doing fine, they aren't affected by the threat so I felt they were safe. Safe meant boring. Put something at risk!"
That's what I've learned, and what I hope I am to others, and they to me.
Posts: 336 | Registered: Jan 2011
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Writing critique for me is focus group product testing.
Say the product is spaghetti sauce. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have a pasta preparation in some kind of ethnic expression, even serving from a jar of brand-name convenience sauce on instant Ramen noodles.
Do I like the sauce? Yes. Maybe, I don't know. No. Liking or disliking says little about the sauce. Why do I like the sauce? Because it tastes vibrant and nutritious and emotionally satisfying and meaningfully appeals to my sentiments and sensibilities. How? The tomato taste is neither too bitter nor too sweet, nor bland or lifeless. Garlic and oregano and basil flavors don't overpower the al fresco tomato taste. The sauce is creamy and thick enough to cling to the noodles but not dry and clottingly cloying like wallpaper paste.
The sauce satisfies because it is both what I expect and delightfully, surprisingly unique. I'm sold. It could do with some meat, though, perhaps a blend of beef, pork, and lamb ground sausages and Parmesan cheese, and maybe Asiago d'allevo and Emmental cheeses.
Critique in my world view should, must, really, express what works as much if not more than what doesn't work. I'm rarely able to achieve that ideal, probably because I rarely find a spaghetti sauce's potentials realized and developed.
Part of my critique challenge is noting missing ingredients, out of proportion flavorings, and skipped or skimped or overwrought preparation steps. Opening a jar and serving the same predigested pap as thousands of other canned sauces doesn't appeal to me either.
I'm okay with a canned sauce when I'm short on time and dining alone. When I want to entertain my kin and cohort with a gourmet repast, though, nothing will do but that I grow the tomatoes and spices myself. I expect no less when I am served a purportedly gourmet spaghetti sauce.
Critiquing others' spaghetti sauces has grown me as a spagehtti sauce sous chef. When I was a mere short order cook, I didn't prepare the sauce. The chef or junior chefs did. Sometimes I was delighted; sometimes I was disappointed; sometimes I was disgusted. Sampling hundreds of minor variations on the same, exact motherloving sauce heightened my sensitivity and discernment. I initially focused on what didn't work for me. Scorching the sauce was number one. Heavyhanded garlic was another and substitution of dried powder for fresh minced garlic in exigent circumstances was another. Fresh or dried basil and oregano. Inferior canned tomatoes or sauce or paste preparations. Unseeded tomatoes that make the sauce bitter. Watery sauce, wallpaper paste-thick sauce. Lopsided sour and sweet balance. Absent cheeses and inferior cheeses.
While my discernment intensified, I began to notice what was extraordinarily surprising. Reducing liquid volume of the tomatoes was one step for making an intensely robust sauce. However, the bright and lively al fresco flavors of fresh crushed tomatoes barely heated to serving temperature and not broken down into solids and liquids knocks my palate into ecstasy.
I could go on at length with this writing metaphor; I'm inclined to. However, my point is that my growth as a chef stalled on a solitary-lonely miserable plateau when I focused on faults. My making and critiquing spaghetti sauce growth expanded exponentially when I turned my attention to strengths. And my personal growth, nonetheless, expanded because I no longer exclusively, harshly alienated my preferred culture cohort.
Personally I try to set aside both like and dislike in a critique; I acknowledge my reaction, but it's important not to make like or dislike per se the focus of a critique. Liking can take the teeth out of a critique, leaving the writer with little or nothing to work with. Disliking is a corrupting force on your judgment. It's hard to see anything good in something you dislike, and it's all to easy to turn a review of a story you dislike into an attack, and *that* doesn't give the writer anything to work with, either.
I see liking and disliking as a doorway into the process of critique. My reaction is in itself completely unimportant, what's important is how that reaction was triggered and what the writer can do to shape that reaction.
If I like a story, the question is what made me like the story? Also, liking is not the only reaction a writer is going for; he may want me to feel angry, afraid, sad, triumphant, and mere "liking" may be well short of the mark for him. So what do I think he was trying for and how successful was he? Are there other reactions he might choose to tease from me, and how would he go about that?
If I dislike a story the issues are much the same: how and why did it happen, what things were successful and what things were less than successful, etc. But I also have to figure out what specific steps the author would have to take in order to get me to like the story. Sometimes the problem is that I just don't care for this *kind* of story.
I find that when I approach a story I dislike this way, the dislike cools. I begin to see the story as an assemblage of parts rather than a whole that needs to be attacked. Oddly enough, this situation is asymmetrical: when I *like* a story, thinking about it carefully doesn't diminish my liking one bit; it enhances it.
Posts: 1290 | Registered: Dec 2010
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My rule for critiques is I always have to say something positive first, and I try to balance positive and negative as much as I can.
I've felt the pain of a scathing review--and given it much too often. When a critique focuses completely on negative, it just makes me want to give up on writing it, which isn't really helpful.
Posts: 3 | Registered: Mar 2013
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