Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Art of Critiquing

A solid, constructive critique can really turn the lights on.

The first ever critique I received on a short story made me realize that the reader is not going to let me get away with anything.

Over the last seven years or so, I've been involved with critiquing on a near weekly and then monthly basis with some long-term groups, and I've picked out a few things that helps keep these relationships working.

My neck twists just thinking about the few occasions where I've seen people use their critique as a stage to demonstrate their sarcasm or wit.  It is extremely painful to watch, let alone be on the receiving end of this sort of criticism.  It may be tempting, but it sure ain't going to earn you brownie points with anyone, and more than likely, you can probably expect the recipient's next critique of your material to be similar in tone to what you dished out.  If you are fair to the writer and keep your witticisms to yourself, there is less chance of delivering a hurtful critique.

Marking every single punctuation or spelling error is also not necessary.  I usually pick these out the first and maybe the second time, and if it is a problem that is repeated throughout, I would make a note to search for more of the same.  Don't get me wrong...if it's a typo that I think would be hard to pick out or not caught by a spell check, I point it out so it doesn't get missed later.  But covering a manuscript in highlights or red ink is going to piss someone off and detract from the constructive comments.

In this same vein, if I am critiquing a manuscript that is clearly an early draft, I will focus more on the story, characters, and plot instead of ripping it apart. My thinking is that if I want to help this other writer grow, it makes more sense to focus on a few areas at a time rather than slamming them with everything that I think needs change.  Baby steps, right?

I am a firm believer in not arguing with the person delivering my critique.  Most of my critiques have been face to face, with some online, but I just don't see any point in getting into a debate over what is essentially someone's opinion.  This is not a pretty scenario when it happens.  Ultimately, I found it is best to hear them out, and if you can keep your mouth shut, it will more than likely be over quicker than if you get into a row, and everyone can move on.  Besides, if you give it a few days, you may find you actually agree with some or all of the comments and won't have to eat crow.

If I do disagree, often I will reply by telling the critiquer what I was trying to achieve, and this has many times led to a more constructive discussion (in my opinion anyway).  Many people feel they have to defend their work, and I suppose you can if you really want to.  I have always chosen not to, since I usually want to consider the comments later in private before I discount them.

A great critique partner is a precious thing, but there is a fine line between being helpful and hurtful.  I don't want my critiques sugar-coated, but I also don't want to be the butt of someone's jokes either.  Just give me something that I can use without making me feel stupid, and I'm good.

I've been very fortunate to have worked with great people who have helped me grow substantially as a writer, and to them I say, Thank you!

I would love to hear about your critiquing successes.

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