Want a Better Critique? Give a Better Critique!
In this workshop, we’ll be critiquing some proposal pieces (cover/query letter, short synopsis, first few pages of mss.) to help writers refine their work before submitting to agents or editors. I’m really looking forward to it.
But today, I had a note from an aspiring writer who wasn’t sure about submitting. Mostly because she’d been to critique workshops before and had seen first hand that some harsh commentary can sometimes ensue. Some folks don’t mind that kind of criticism, but I had the feeling this writer wasn’t eager to submit to public drubbing. Oh, how I can appreciate the perspective! I’m going to share my response to her with you as, while I was writing it, I thought it might prove valuable for a wider audience.
I too, come from the school of “I don’t need this” regarding excessive criticism. We take enough knocks as writers between Rs, bad reviews, poor contest performances, that I would never volunteer myself for negative feedback. And believe me, I will not subject anyone to it either. I have a few guiding principles about critiquing that I’ll share with you and I think you’ll understand better my own perspective on this subject.
First, I believe that all writers need positive feedback on what they’re doing well to reinforce their strengths. I actively sought this out when I was an aspiring writer because I believe that without knowing what we do best, we can’t capitalize on it and we lose that potential for uniqueness and sparkle in our voices. Whether I’m grading a student’s essay or critiquing a contest or a friend’s miss, I always make a point to discuss a work’s strengths. That’s not lip service, that’s a key part of developing your skills.
Second, I’ve actively worked on framing my feedback in a constructive manner. I never concentrate on a manuscript’s faults, which we all know are entirely subjective anyhow. I search for ways to reword or rework a point to make it stronger. It’s a key difference, I believe. When you begin with a work’s strengths, you are building upon them to bolster the rest to take advantage of them instead of mindlessly hacking away at flaws, leaving you with flayed confidence and a torn apart book.
Cathy and I critique for each other regularly, and she never tells me “I don’t like this.” She gives me a suggestion like– “maybe if your hero thinks about X and Y here, we’ll understand his motivation more.” Notice how that doesn’t take away from what I’ve done? It builds. It helps! Or say we find spots in the story we think could be deleted. We deliver that assessment in terms of why it needs to go. We might say “the pacing could be quicker if you move this thinking section to later in the manuscript or perhaps break up the thoughts and shift them to these specific spots in the mss.” I find that concrete and helpful. Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work, we focus on making it work.
Finally, I couch all my commentary firmly in the realm of “this is my point-of-view only.” Because again, I could ask ten different people for opinions on my manuscript and get ten different responses from “great” to “yikes.” I know that. I also know that I could be dead wrong about suggestions I give someone– an editor with purchasing power could completely disagree with me. So I try not to make blanket statements such as “never do X” or “always do Y.” I can only critique from my own shoes, making suggestions I think might be helpful, but fully appreciating my ideas might not fall in line with the writer’s vision for the manuscript. I think everyone should actively solicit multiple viewpoints on their work, then carefully sift through the comments to find out what resonates most for them and for where they want to take their story.
So at the end of the day, I guess I wanted to share my thoughts for writing a more helpful–less demoralizing– critique. I listen better when I’m not being beaten over the head with criticism, so if you can tell me what’s working about my writing, I’m much more open to hearing what isn’t working so well. Even better– I’m super open to specific suggestions for improving. Try it with the next manuscript you critique and you’ll start a trend in your critique group. Like a smile, a constructive critique is contagious.