Hey everybody, me again! For this week’s video and in honour of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to do something a little different than talk about Romance tropes or Truths by giving some tough love advice regarding critique.
Anyway, I have split these fourteen nuggets into two categories: writer-focused, and critique-focused. However, since a lot of the time writers will end up critiquing other writers’ work, I would still give each a listen and see if they might apply to you anyway. Also, going with the theme of “tough love”, I’m going to be a bit more abrasive than I usually try to be regarding how I phrase things. So, without further ado, onward!
Fishing For Feedback
I see this so often. “I’m not good at giving critique.” “I don’t know how to critique.” “I don’t like giving critique because <reasons>”. Then, moments later: “I don’t get a lot of good critique.” “No one wants to read my work.” “I put something up for critique but it’s like they didn’t even read the story.” Well listen up, Wailing Wilma, cos you’re gonna learn today!
The number one way to get others to critique your work in earnest and with gusto is to…drum roll please…read and critique their work, too!
I know what that sounds like—a lot of work. A lot of potentially boring, potentially annoying work. But doing this will achieve at least three things: one, building relationships with other writers whom you can then trust to read your work by having shown them that you are willing to be helpful as you are helped; two, it helps you get better at critiquing others’ work in a constructive, productive way (I see you, everyone who says you’re “bad” at critique, do it anyway); and three, it will make you better at writing. “But how?” I hear you ask. “By helping you identify issues in others writing that might appear in your own stories, improving your understanding of English or whatever language you write in, and by training your eye to spot mistakes you may have otherwise missed because you are giving it a thorough read-through, right?” I reply.
Readers Are Not (Necessarily) Editors
First of all, readers and other non-writers read for the experience of the story. Writers and editors read for the enjoyment they get out of shredding your darling baby like spam mail—I mean, they read to get into the nitty-gritty of craft, technical ability, and all those storytelling mechanics that a non-writer is very unlikely to catch.
We’ve all heard it before: don’t ask your family or friends for criticism. While on some level I disagree with this, the basic idea makes sense: these people are much more likely to sugarcoat critique because they know you and don’t want to hurt you, while the anonymous bowels of internet writing communities truly, earnestly don’t care. They also likely won’t be able to help you sort things that, unfortunately, are technical issues every writer from Nancy Nobody to GRRM falls prey to simply because they don’t have the expertise.
You Can’t Critique Nothing
Another thing I have seen so many times—a usually new author gets stuck in a cycle of write the first chapter > post it for critique > edit it > post it for critique > decide it isn’t good enough > rewrite it > post it for critique ad infinitum until they’ve spent ten times as long writing the first chapter and haven’t even made it past the beginning. Sometimes, it’s better to wait until you have the first draft or at least more than one chapter to start asking for critique lest you fall victim to Law of Editing Cycles (if you get that reference, comment below). Yes, first chapters are critical and yes, a good first chapter can mean a good rest of the book, but if all you have is a first chapter that really won’t do, will it?
And, even if you have a whole draft ready for critique, you might not be ready for critique. Maybe there are things you can do to polish it up more before sending it out to get slashed to bits with a red pen. Maybe you aren’t ready to hear anything negative. Maybe you aren’t ready to apply the criticism you get in a useful way. Every writer goes through periods like this, so it’s okay if this is the case for you—it will pass, and eventually you will have to get some form of feedback on your manuscript, so isn’t it better to make sure it’s ready than blast off full steam ahead?
Let The Hate FLow Through You
Give the feedback you’ve received a while to mull around in your mind before going in and ripping apart your draft. Creating distance from your draft will allow you to see things more objectively and with perspective, which you can’t do if your nose is firmly planted in the binding. It also makes it easier to spot mistakes like doubling up words and wonky grammar. Take a few days, weeks, or even a few months if you feel you need it to gain that perspective and let any negative feelings about the feedback you got settle. That way, you’ll have an easier time of giving your draft the attention and care it deserves.
STOP TRYING TO MAKE PERFECTION HAPPEN: IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
By virtue of not being you, others will be able to see mistakes in your work that you cannot, since you wrote it. Likewise, you will always have hang-ups that others didn’t see or care about because you wrote it. Nobody, and I mean nobody, not even pro writers, produce a perfect draft ever, much less on the first try. You really shouldn’t be aiming for perfection, anyway, as that way lies madness (I feel so attacked right now).
Also, please. Don’t attack critics for giving you feedback you didn’t like. Even if it hurts or you felt it was mean-spirited. That’s the fast track to losing a lot of people’s goodwill very quickly, and as I said before you will need feedback at some point.
Balance Your Feedback pH
Especially in certain forums I have experienced some sort of weird draw to super harsh or critical forms of critique. Just because someone says something harsh doesn’t mean it’s true or even productive. Criticism that’s diplomatic and polite can be just as useful as bRuTaL hOnEsTy and, at least to my observation, is actually more likely to help the author in the long run. So, don’t discount critique just because it doesn’t seem hardcore enough. Nitpicking and pedantics can only get you so far before it starts to become actively detrimental to your progress.
I feel it’s also fair to mention here that you also shouldn’t only accept “nice” critiques. Swinging too far in the other direction can also be detrimental. Overall, you want to shoot for feedback that is assertive, constructive, and productive when looking for critique.
Good for the heart or good for the mind?
Just because you don’t like a piece of feedback doesn’t mean that it isn’t true or potentially helpful. When you start applying critique to your next draft, don’t ask yourself if you like the feedback the critic gave but if it will help the story in some way—even if at first it seems silly or ill-suited to your story. I myself have brushed off criticism that I wasn’t keen on at first but came to realise was actually a good point while redrafting. This isn’t to say that ALL criticism is 100% right and pure and can never be challenged; quite the opposite, actually, as it is indeed possible to have received a bad critique—but that sometimes we let our egos get in our own way. We’re all only human, though, so don’t get too hung up on whether or not you should say they trudged ahead or they slogged ahead.
BONUS TIP #1
It’s ok to want praise, but save yourself and everyone else the trouble and just say so to begin with. It will save hurt feelings on either side and be more likely to achieve the outcome you want.
“wElL iF I’m bEiNG bRuTAlLy h0nEsT”
How you say things matters. If you didn’t like someone’s work, it’s pretty much never necessary to say “this sucked.” If you think no one would ever do that, you would be wrong. If someone came to you and said “I thought your story was awful,” how would you feel? Probably not very good. Is it honest? Yeah. Is it productive? No. What if instead the same person said “Your story wasn’t for me, but good luck?” Is that still honest, even if you did think it sucked? Yes, and it’s also a lot more productive. You really don’t need to be cruel to get your point across. I would argue that the more diplomatically you are able to make your point, the more helpful your criticism will probably turn out to be. Being short, harsh, and snide with your comments can really quickly turn an author against whatever you have to say, which is really more of a detriment to them than if you had just said nothing at all. It will more than likely make them defensive and prone to wave off your feedback wholesale.
I see this less often but I have indeed still seen it—critique the writing, not the writer. Attacking the author and not the story is NOT going to make anyone a better writer, and it definitely won’t make you a better critic.
Not to mention that critique should be composed of two parts: the good AND the bad. Any feedback you give should always mention at least one strength of the work, no matter how overshadowed by weaknesses, because you as the critic are supposed to help the author get better by pointing out flaws. If they don’t know what to aim for, how can they ever hope to make the shot?
Your Feedback, Their Story
You aren’t giving feedback to tell the author what YOU would do if YOU were writing the story, but to help THEM tell THEIR story. Very frequently I see comments along the lines of “I would do xyz” or “If I were you I’d…” and I am here to tell you that quite frankly it doesn’t matter what YOU would do because it isn’t your story. The purpose of critique is to help the author get their story into the best possible shape it can be—THEIR story.
Review, Report, and build Rapport
Giving feedback does not mean just pointing out spelling and grammar mistakes and calling it a day. When you give feedback on a story, you are at minimum assessing two things: the experience of the story and the quality of execution. If you come out of a manuscript critique without having mentioned anything about the plot, characters, or setting, or experience of the story and just dumped a bucketful of line edits on the author’s lap, something has gone wrong. Most of the time, copy edits are just going to get tossed out, anyway, as the precise wording of things will change so many times through drafting that any attention to those tiny details is just a waste of energy.
You should basically be giving the author a book report or book review that lists what they pulled off, what they didn’t, what gripped you, and what you were bored by. Leave the copy edits for last.
Release Yourself Of Your Personal Preference
When it comes to giving feedback on someone’s manuscript, which you presumably volunteered for, your personal story preferences don’t matter—and you should consider declining to critique if you know your preferences will bleed in to your criticism. I have critiqued everything from Retellings to Fantastical Erotica to Space Operas, and while many of these things were definitely not something I’d pick up on my own, I did it not for my own experience but to help the other authors tell their stories. Did I particularly enjoy reading in exquisite detail about Medusa getting fucked by minotaur? No, not really, but the story was important to the author so I sucked it up and did what I could to help. Like I said earlier, how YOU would do it doesn’t matter, nor does what you want to read. Unless you’re some new breed of masochist, nobody critiques works they wouldn’t read because they want to, but to help others.
Stories Are Not Ponds, Do Not Skim Them
If you just aren’t interested, that’s fine. Just please let the author know and step back in a courteous manner—don’t half-ass it by skimming through and trying to give feedback based on what you think you read. I have seen this happen to close writer friends of mine and it’s definitely happened to me more times than I can count on one hand. Believe me, most people will be able to tell that their work was skimmed, and it seriously affects the quality and usefulness of the critique. It’s imperative that if you’re offering feedback you take your time and don’t cut corners. It’s better to be a slow reader than an inattentive one. Speaking of…
“Deadlines” are not “When-I-Get-To-It-Lines”
Take the time to be thorough and ensure your criticism will be useful to the author– if they have a deadline you can’t meet, or you decide you have better things to do, decline to begin with or let them know you need to drop out AS SOON as you know you won’t be able to help. Not after you get a snack, not in a few days, not after they send out the third deadline reminder email: A S A P.
Don’t Come To The Party If You Aren’t Invited
Speak not unless spoken to—that is, if someone doesn’t ask for your help, please do not give it. This applies more in a group setting like an online forum or a chat room where lots of people are talking and posting at once. Sometimes people just want to share or are looking for feedback only someone who has previously read their work can give.
BONUS TIP #2
By all means take a lighter tone when giving feedback (especially if you have more negative things to say than positive), but for the love of all things holy don’t overdo the jokes, especially if you aren’t close with the writer whose work you’re critiquing. If a joke lands badly it can insult the author or give you an awful case of foot-in-mouth. A good rule of thumb if you aren’t already familiar with the author is that if you wouldn’t tell the same joke about your coworker, it’s probably not a good joke to make.