28 May 2017

Critiques: Giving and Taking

by R.T. Lawton

In SleuthSayers Sandbox postings last April concerning a potential SS project under discussion, a question came up which led to the topic of critiques. And, that led to this article.

At one time or another, most authors could use a critique of their work before their manuscripts are submitted to an editor. Often, the authors are too close to their work for them to see any defects in their creation, much the same way a mother perceives her newly born baby. It's only later that mom starts shaping the way her child acts.

Hopefully, the items mentioned in a critique help the receiving author to correct any errors or problems in his or her written creation, thus increasing the chances of their manuscript being liked and then published by an editor. Unfortunately, not all critiques are equal in their presentation, and not all critiques are well received by the manuscript's author.

So, here are some thoughts on the critique procedure, most of which have been gleaned from handouts at various writers' conferences, plus some from personal experience.

The Giving:

~ The person giving the critique should keep their personal likes and dislikes out of the critique. After all, the critique is not about them, but rather about helping the manuscript's author produce a salable product. For instance, the critiquer may like or prefer something in the hard-boiled sub-genre or a literary style of writing as opposed to something in the cozy sub-genre or a commercial style of writing, but that's not the goal. The goal is to make helpful comments within the arena in which the author is writing. Just keep in mind that a genre difference or a writing style difference can make it more difficult in how you frame your suggestions, so carefully consider how you say them.
~ There is a difference between a critique (helpful) and criticism (belittling). Statements such as "I hate this" or "This is terrible" are counter-productive and of no help to the author's manuscript. It is better to skip those types of comments and instead point out specific places in need of changing, and then supply helpful suggestions as to how these sections could be written better.
~ Every critiquer has their own areas of expertise, be it grammar, plot, action, characters, dialogue or background. Use your knowledge in these areas to benefit the receiving author.
~ Mention both problems and what's good in the manuscript being reviewed.

The Taking:

~ Let comments in the critique cool for a few days.
~ Consider each comment objectively. If you think the comment is off base, try to figure out why the critiquer made the comment.
~ The work speaks for itself. Don't get defensive, instead ask clarifying questions such as how to improve the critiqued section.
~ If more than one critiquer makes the same comment, then pay attention.
~ Take the positive as well as the negative comments.
~ The important thing is not how high your critique was, but rather what you learned from the experience.
~ Ultimately, it's your created work, so you'll write it the way you want.

                                                  EXPECTATIONS VERSUS REALITY

Expectation:                                   Reality:                                    Yeah, but:

You'll receive a high rating            Odds are probably against it       You'll learn something anyway

Your work is flawless                    Everyone can use some work     You may find flaws you didn't
                                                                                                            know existed

Critiquers are impartial                  Critiquers are human and            Critiquers will give it their
                                                         biased                                          best shot

Feedback is clear and                     Feedback is sometimes                All feedback is worthwhile
 helpful                                             confusing, inconsistent    
                                                         and contradictory

Feedback will fix all                        Only you can fix your                   It will help, especially on
 your problems                                  problems                                        glaring issues

Critiques by various                        Critiques may range widely;         Receiving feedback is the
 readers will be consistent                 some readers may critique             most important part
                                                          different aspects of the story

Your work will be judged                 Some readers have plot                 Some editors have the same
 on story alone                                   prejudices; some are                      prejudices when you submit
                                                           influenced by grammar,                 your manuscript for
                                                           spelling and format problems        publication

An excellent critique means             A good critique is no guarantee     Your odds are better than if
 you'll sell                                          of selling                                         you had no critique


No doubt, most writers reading this article have received critiques on their works and have made their own critiques on the writings of other authors. Some of the points mentioned above may have touched hot buttons out of your past, and/or you may have thoughts of your own on this subject. Feel free to join in with your own experiences.

What other thoughts, suggestions, comments should be added or deleted here?

10 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

All good points, R.T. Sometimes it's hard to take a critique or criticism and we get defensive, but if, as you say, we let it cool a while we might see the value in what's being said. But I think it's also important how something is said and that it's backed up. For me, when I get suggestions it's not so much that I think what I wrote is so perfect, it's just that I'm lazy and don't want to go back and fix it. I'm probably ready to move on to the next project. But ultimately it's all about the rewriting and I appreciate the time anyone takes to read and critique what I'm working on.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Well written piece. WIsh I had it when I was teaching writing classes and critique classes. Concise and to the point.

One anecdote you might appreciate - I taught a non-credit advanced critique class at Tulane and one older man made sexiest remarks about the women writers. I scolded him and told him I didn't care if he was the president of a bank, one more sexiest remark and he was out of there. The next meeting he came in and we cringed when he started his critique of one of the women writers. He began with, "I had to have three beers before I started reading this tripe." Now that was a fun class.

Art Taylor said...

Great post, RT. I presented a short caht on critique groups for a faculty retreat at George Mason this past week and covered several of these same points -- though think you explain much of it better and more comprehensively than I did! Great points here.

B.K. Stevens said...

Very helpful post, RT. I've also found that it usually doesn't pay to argue with or try to convince people who make comments we see as misguided(unless it's an editor who has the power to make changes that might hurt the book--then, we may have to take a stand). That can create tensions. Usually, it's better to smile, say thank you, and quietly make our own decisions about whether or not we'll take the advice.

Elizabeth said...

Years ago I was in a writing group which probably wasn't the group for me, since I was writing only nonfiction at the time & others were writing fiction. I'm finishing up a story now to submit to a contest that closes this week & I do not want to ask my husband to read it, since he is very critical & not helpful at all. It's too late to look for a critique partner now, so I'm crossing my fingers.

R.T. Lawton said...

Paul, you are quite correct when you say it is all about the rewriting. That's where a good critique is supposed to help us. I'm also one of those people who comes back to writing a short story after a break and starts at the beginning, reading and rewriting from the start and right up to where I left off before continuing with the new portion of the story.

R.T. Lawton said...

O'Neil, I wish I had been in your class. That had to be a hoot and a good story for drinks in any writer's conference bar.

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, feel free to use these charts in any future writing classes. The information came from several writers conferences (with no author attribution), so if it helps budding authors, turn it into a handout.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bonnie, you are right. Whether you are giving the critique or receiving the critique, it does no good to argue. The critique is what it is.

And, I do have one non-fiction book where I swear they gave me a 16 year-old copy editor to final the book. He would change something, I'd tell him why that wouldn't work and he'd change it back anyway. In the end, the advance was so good, plus the book was written for hire under one of my undercover aliases, so I finally let it go. I'm glad they paid an advance.

R.T. Lawton said...

Liz, critiques in writing groups are another fun topic. Good writing groups are difficult to get into because they are so good they seldom have a vacancy for a new member. Bad groups are those you soon run from because they are toxic to your writing. I usually do better with a good critique partner or two.

I am fortunate enough that all my writing first goes past my wife who lets me know whether or not it works, not necessarily a line-by-line edit, but rather the totality of the piece. She's not overly critical, but even though we live together, she won't bless it if it's got problems.