Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Critiquing for Dummies

by Annette Dashofy

I’ve discovered that critique groups are largely a matter of personal choice. Should you belong to one or shouldn’t you? And if you do, should it be genre specific or a mix? Online or face-to-face? The answers depend on the individual writer, as well as what’s available to them.

As for me, I think my critique groups have been indispensable. Notice the “s” on the end of groups. Plural. Yes, I belong to more than one, and they cover all the bases mentioned above.

I belong to a small face-to-face group. We come from various backgrounds and write all different styles and genres. We meet once or twice a month as schedules permit. These gals are usually the first to see my work, so they tend to get it at its roughest stage.

I also belong to an online group, strictly mystery. That still leaves a lot of leeway. We have paranormal, cozy, romantic suspense, high-adventure, traditional, thriller… You name it, we have members writing it.

What I’ve discovered is that not only do writing styles vary, critiquing styles vary even more. Someone who is a born-natural writer is not necessarily a born-natural critiquer. Writers can take classes and workshops on craft. They can study characterization, motivation, plotting, conflict, pacing, and all other aspects of “How-to,” but how often do you see a workshop or a seminar on “How to Critique”?

Conference and workshop planners out there, take note.

Perhaps one of us struggling authors should contemplate Critiquing for Dummies.

 remember my first critique group experience. The work I submitted was pretty bad. My attempts at offering feedback to the other members was even worse. What the heck did I know? What made me think I could do better than they?

I picked out a few typos. Maybe pointed out a misplaced modifier or two. Ms. Grabski, my high school English teacher, would be proud.

It was only through observing the others in the group and the comments they made that I caught on.

Let’s face it, critiquing is tough. Different writers want and need different types of feedback. Some don’t want to hear about the typos and grammatical errors. They only want to know what works and what doesn’t. Some are polishing up a draft nearing completion and want something more like a line edit.

As for me, I don’t mind having typos pointed out even early on. Sure, a scene in the first draft may never make it to the second or third, so correcting typos might seem pointless. However, I never know what’s going to stay in. My final first reader returned my just-about-ready-to-submit manuscript…the one that had gone through over a half a dozen critiquers and just as many first readers (a critiquer reads a chapter or two at a time. A first reader reads the entire manuscript after it’s been through the critique process)…having found NINE typos everyone else had missed.

Some writers can deal with tough critiques better than others. Basically, if you’re new to critiquing and you’re only submitting your work to be told how wonderful your writing is, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. In those cases, the recipient tends to only hear the negative stuff and is completely deaf to the positive comments.

Which is painful, especially since some of the best critiquers I’ve experienced don’t offer a lot of praise. They only mark what doesn’t work for them. If it’s good, they don’t stop to indicate it. I’ve caught myself doing that, too. And if I don’t know the writer all that well, and fear they may be one of the ones I mentioned in the paragraph above, I might even read through a second time just to point out good stuff.

Some days, even the thickest skinned among us need to have pointed out what we’ve done right.

There are all kinds of writers with all kinds of needs. And there are all kinds of critiquers with all kinds of critiquing styles. I can usually learn something from any of them.

HOWEVER, there are two kinds of critiques I personally find worthless.

First, someone who says only “I really liked it” or “It didn’t work for me.” Try to be a little more specific. WHY did you like it? Did you relate to the characters? Did you find the dialogue to be realistic or funny or heart rendering? Were you sucked into the story and want to read more? Also, even if you really REALLY liked it, please feel free to point out the misspelled words or incorrect punctuation.

Second, the critiquer who tries to “correct” another writer’s style. Some things that are technically grammatical errors may be a stylistic choice or a matter of voice. Just because you think YOUR way of saying something is better than the writer’s way of saying it, doesn’t mean it should be included in a critique.

I’ve had chapters come back so completely rewritten that it no longer sounded like I was the author. That is not helpful.

I’m not referring to a critiquer who suggests rewording a sentence. Maybe switch it around or use a different/stronger word here and there. THAT is GOOD critiquing. But don’t rewrite the entire chapter for me. If it needs that much revising, it might better to simply state why you think it doesn’t work and then let the writer decide how to fix it.

Maybe the reason no one teaches classes on how to critique is because there are so many ways to do it. What works for one person doesn’t help another at all.

So what do you think? What makes a good critique for you? What do find helpful in feedback and what do you find useless? And if you were to write Critiquing for Dummies, what tip or tips would you include?

(A personal note to all my beloved current critique group members—who might also be a tad paranoid—NONE of this bad stuff applies to any of you. I adore you all.)


Gina said...

Annette -
i think the best critiques are those that tell us what we need to know (in a kindly way, of course), and I prefer the specific over the general. Even worse than rewriting the style is the critiquer who want you to completely change the plot, like the guy in one of my first critiques groups who thought I should change my very violent crime story into a traditional romance -- i.e., focus on the relationship between two of the characters (who don't fall in love in my version) and take out the crimes and violence. I'm not saying that plot should never be criticized. Sometimes it's necessary to point out when it doesn't work at all, or if it could be strengthened by rearranging scenes or changing emphasis, but really . . .

Annette said...

LOL, Gina! Yes, I know that kind of critiquer, too. Those are the ones who drive people away from crit groups and make them say "Critique groups don't work!"

If that's the kind of story they want written, they should write it themselves!

Joyce said...

I definitely like to know WHY something doesn't work for that reader.

My face to face critique group is awesome. We don't get together as often as we used to because most of us just want to get our books finished. We now meet when someone has a problem with their work they need help with, or to discuss plot issues, or to discuss our next projects.

I also belong to the same online group as Annette. For the most part, it's been helpful.

At this point, I don't want a critiquer to only pick out how many times I used "was," or try to change the way my MC says things. Or say "the police wouldn't do that." Then I have to say, "Oh, yes they would," and explain.

ramona said...

I'd love to be at a critique meeting when someone tells Joyce what police don't do. I want to see her give them The Look.

Annette, excellent comments. Why aren't you putting together a book proposal on this? You know, in your spare time.

I like Becky Levine's book on writing and critique groups. She covers a lot of basics, plus.

My group is brutal, but I love them. It's very easy to be turned off if you have a bad experience, and that's a shame.

Annette said...

Spare time, Ramona? You're so funny.

I'll have to take a look at Becky Levine's book. Thanks for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I love a ruthless critique. (Otherwise, why bother?) It's nice to hear what works, but I really need to know what doesn't. And I want to know everyone's reactions because even one person picking out a questionable detail can translate into a thousand dis-satisfied customers who buy the book later. (I remember attending a group once where everyone raved about a first chapter of mine, but one person shyly put up her hand to say she didn't like being introduced to two characters she didn't know while they were in bed. It was her quiet comment that made me realize I had to dump the whole thing.) I like that critiques can help me cut to the chase, too---delete the bad stuff, focus on the good stuff. Thanks to all who have ever helped me!

Donnell said...

Annette, I belong to the same group as you, too. And I must say your in person critique group does a brilliant job, because by the time I get it, it's remarkably clean.

Joyce, your work is too.

As a critique partner, I do NOT believe it's my job to mark up something that's working. I will tell a CP if I think the protag is weak or acting out of the character the author has created.

I will say this sentence is awkward, but I will never be brutal. Not even to the most experience writer. It's not in me to destroy someone's passion, which is why I became a contest coordinator LOL.

I guess if I get to submit a chapter in Critiquing for Dummies, Annette, it would be, if you're not committed to the critique group, don't take up somebody else's slot. I love to critique. I learn so much about writing while giving my always subjective input.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Annette, I'm a brutal critiquer (is that a word?) and I expect the same back. I think in your, "Critiquing For Dummies" you need at least a chapter dedicated to receiving the critique.

As the author you need to be willing to nod your head and be receptive to all suggestions. Then you have to decide whether or not those suggestions deserve to be incorporated or tossed in the garbage heap.

I think you also need to know when to "weight" a suggestion based on the source. I'm much more likely to incorporate a suggestion that I may not totally agree with if it comes from a published author in the same genre, than if it comes from a literary writer in the local guild.

Donnell said...

Wilfred and Anonymous. Curious what good it does to be a *brutal* critiquer. Do you demolish a good piece of writing too. Do you consider that your right as a critiquer and do you think that's the only way to give a critique? I've received brutal critiques. I have to nod as you suggest and take it. But I see nothing wrong with pointing out the good with the bad. Maybe I'm a Pollyanna, and I know you don't improve without the truth -- and I give it. But I try not to carry a guillotine while I give it.

I wonder what purpose you serve in being "brutal"? And do you feel if you only receive negatives that you can improve your work?

Interesting post.

Annette said...

I think there are different definitions for "ruthless" and "brutal" where critiquing is concerned. Hey, it's a ruthless, brutal industry we're in, so sometimes pulling no punches is what we need to make our work sellable.

On the other hand, there are those who take great pleasure in tearing someone else's work apart just to make themselves feel superior. THAT kind of critique isn't so much brutal or ruthless as it is HEARTless. And toxic.

Donnell said...

Excellent point, Annette. Frank, I appreciate. Direct, honest that something in your project's not working, is necessary if you want to get your book out there, and if you're a writer, you *better* learn how to take it. But I guess I take issue with the word "brutal". Brutal to me *is* toxic, as well as unnecessary. We already have enough toxicity in this world. Last post on this thought-provoking topic. Going back to work now ;)

ramona said...

Maybe "brutal" is not the best word choice, because that sounds like the intent is to cause pain. That's not true for me, and I'm sure for the other "brutal" critiquers here. The intent is to help the writer make their story as strong as it can be.

How about a very honest critique? Point out what is not working and why, offer suggestion/s how it might work better or some ideas to consider (without rewriting the whole plot, of course!) while not forgetting to note what is good about the piece.

Most of all, separate yourself from the story, both as critiquer and critiquee. We may have emotional ties to our work, but as Nancy said, why submit if you don't want to hear how it can be made better? I think I'd be doing a disservice to a fellow writer if I held back on legitimate constructive criticism because it might hurt their feelings.

Lisa said...

Great point that a natural-born writer is not a natural-born critiquer. It's a different craft. I suppose one thing would be to ask the author what they want the critique to focus on-plot, characters, pacing, or more proofreading stuff? I have found that helps in getting folks on the same page as far as what to expect.

When receiving a critique, I also just tell the person if something isn't working, please make a note of it but don't try to rewrite it for me. It takes up a lot of their time and removes my voice. Great points in this post and, yes, it would be wonderful to see this offered as a class in a workshop.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Donnell, by brutal, I don't mean being mean. I mean being honest. It's already been pointed out that "Oh, it's really good." does nothing to make your writing better.

Sometimes "honest" hurts. If someone is serious about writing and getting published, it does no good to gloss over areas that need improvement to preserves tender feelings.

As I mentioned, the writer needs to be able to filter all that input to do what's right for them.

M Pax said...

Well, I just recently talked my critique group into e-mailing and reading ahead.

It depends what I need. Last week I asked for help with some brain storming. Usually I want to know what isn't working, why it isn't and whether I've hung the story together well. If not, where did I go astray? Without reading ahead, my group never caught these. I eventually learned to catch them myself.

Even without reading ahead, I did get a lot out of the group. Now I need more and am pulling them all with me. Some resist. Should I tell her resistance is futile? LOL

Great post. Critique is invaluable. My writing guild just did a workshop on critique and has another in July - Central Oregon.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Wilfred--brutal doesn't mean mean. It's honest, helpful and detailed. That said, publishing is a really, really brutal business. And in this case, I do mean *mean* sometimes. Even the pros can be self-servingly heartless. (The recent "amusing" stories of an especially tough agent are a good case in point. Who really wants to work with such a person? There are tough agents who have better nurturing skills.) If you can't take the criticism (and remember--it's not *you* who's being critiqued, it's only your work, which can always be fixed) maybe you should stick to safely writing poetry for your own pleasure. Otherwise, you could be in for a terrible shock.

Donnell said...

Wilfred and NM, I appreciate your clarification, and I, too, know, LOL how tough the publishing world is. It's competitive and the editor and agents don't pull any punches as to their likes or dislikes. That being said, I hope you'll consider in addition to pointing out what's wrong with a ms, occasionally pointing out what's right. As I mentioned I coordinate the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and even our published authors ask for comments. They want to know what worked in their stories and what didn't. I come from this at a totally different spectrum, I realize. Honesty always, tact never hurt anybody.

Pat Remick said...

I belong to an online short story critique group and I am so grateful for all the comments, even if they sting sometimes. I also have found that someone doesn't have to be a great writer to be a great critiquer/reader. We all bring different skills and perspectives -- and some the author should consider, and others should be ignored because in the end, it IS the author's story! But thank goodness for critique groups that make it better!

Paula R said...

LOVED this post today. It is definitely one worth printing out. Thank you so much.

Sometimes, I don't feel like I have the adequate knowledge base to be a CP for anyone. I am in a group with three other ladies, and I do the online thing too. We are all at different stages in our writing, which is a great mix so far.

As a writer, I like to know whether or not my characters and the conflicts they go through are realistic enough. Sometimes, I ask if the dialogue works or if they can connect with the characters and their situations. I don't really stress the grammar stuff, but when someone points it out, I definitely take a look. I am not looking for people to tell me my work is good or that they like it; I look for a true reaction and critique of my work.

As a CP, I usually look for similar things unless the writer asks for specifics. I figure that as I learn the craft my critiques will be even more solid. I am learning as I go, and I ask for help from my pubbed author friends, when I have a question my CPs can't answer.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Paula R said...

I forgot to mention that I usually read my CPs work as a reader. If it grabs me as a reader, I tell them what works and what doesn't work for me. I let them know if something takes me out of the story. I never rewrite whole chapters or paragraphs, but I do point out ways I think a sentence might be structured with a bit of restructuring. I don't consider myself a great grammarian either, so I don't try to tell them what is right and what is wrong in that regard.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Annette said...

Wow. Thanks, everyone, for all your thoughts on this subject. I thought this might be one of those blog posts that gets only one or two comments. Maybe we SHOULD all collaborate on a Critiquing for Dummies book!

Patg said...

The only critique group I belonged to was fashioned after another critique group in Oregon. It was mostly SF writers and they were brutal. Even well established authors feared them, or so I was told. They didn't care anything about you personally, all had to be on the page, and red pens were used to insure you understood they were bleeding your work.
Couldn't take it? Well, you know where the door was. God forbid a tear appeared in your eye. It was no place for whimps.
Yes, I learned a lot, but it left me scared. I didn't critique afterwards. I did some recently and found I had a hard time being nice, but I forced myself, and was a lot happier about it. Nice, meaning pointing out good stuff and not being harsh about bad.

Annette said...

Pat, that's the kind of critique group I was referring to when I commented about "toxic." Sorry you had to go through that experience.