Over time, I’ve made changes in the way I critique. I read articles on how to critique and tried to follow the “rules.” But through giving and receiving critiques, I’ve found that there were some “rules” I agreed with, and others I didn’t.
Here are a few of the most popular ones I disagree with.
Don’t suggest big changes.
This is an interesting one. On the surface, it seems logical. After all, it’s the writer’s story, and there’s nothing more insulting than a critiquer trying to remake a story into something they’d write rather than the story the writer envisioned.
But let’s dig deeper. My goal is getting published, a goal I share with many of the writers I work with.
I’ve heard stories of agents who want different endings. For one of my published stories, I was asked to cut the entire first section. Right now, I’m making a major edit to the novel I was, until recently, querying.
Big changes to work are intimidating, but sometimes necessary. If you, as a critiquer, feel that a big change is necessary, isn’t it important to say so? How is it helpful if you think that a big change would improve the story, but you keep it to yourself?
I don’t think it is, which is why I call this one bogus.
In my writer’s group, one of us uses Hemmingway’s short, terse, style as a model of good writing. Another person loves the meandering flow of literary fiction. I’m somewhere in between those two extremes.
If the Hemmingway guy were to rewrite the sentences of the meandering flow guy, it would be silly because their styles are at opposite ends of a continuum.
But rewriting a sentence doesn’t mean that you think the person should copy your style; it means that giving an example is the clearest way to illustrate your point.
I’m all for rewriting. Sometimes when I get feedback like, “This sentence doesn’t flow,” it frustrates me. What does that mean? If the person critiquing rewrote it to show me what they meant, that doesn’t mean I have to take it and include it verbatim; it just means that perhaps I now have a more concrete way to understand their feedback.
I rewrite sparingly, but I do it sometimes because it’s easier than explaining. I have a good relationship with everyone in my writer’s groups, so I think (hope) that they all know that when I rewrite, it’s not because what they wrote was terrible (though we all write terrible sentences sometimes), but because I think it can be better.
Don’t argue/ discuss
I believe I said this myself… when getting feedback, be quiet and listen. And I do believe that. What I meant was to not argue with the opinion. If Person A hates your character, don’t argue that the character is actually a great person, as they’ll see if they just stick around until the second act. Readers don’t stick around.
In a small group, sometimes a discussion can be exactly what the writer needs to figure out what they need to do. Through discussion, the writer can parse out why Person A hates your character, and then when they mention that they hated the part where the character ignored their mother, maybe others will say that part bothered them too, but they didn’t think that one moment was worth judging.
At that point, maybe you as a writer understand something that you didn’t before and you can address it.
One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Neil Gaiman:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Sometimes a discussion among the group is the best way for the writer to assess what it is that wasn’t working for people in the group and how they can best address their intention.
Having people suggest changes, even if you aren’t going to use those changes, is a fabulous way to brainstorm. I’ve had some of the best ideas come out of the most frustrating discussions.
Be careful of others’ feelings.
Okay, this is a tricky one. I don’t want to give anyone permission to just be consistently negative and horrible and disguise it as a critique. At the same time, if you’re being too careful of people’s feelings, it can lead to those ridiculous, “It was fine!” kind of critiques.
More important than being careful of people’s feelings is being respectful of them. Because I respect everyone in my writers’ groups so much, I want them to make their stories as polished as they can. I want them to be published. Because of this respect, I’m going to be honest and concrete.
It doesn’t always feel good to be honest. I know that sometimes, in my group, I would prefer not to point out a major plot problem. Sometimes I have so much to say that I feel like I’m “picking on” one person. When I’m the only one who says anything about a particular section, that’s hard. I feel like I’m just being a jerk. It’s even harder when all of us, as a group, say the same thing. Then I feel like part of a bullying gang.
But if we want to improve and want others to improve, we have to say the hard stuff and trust that they can take it. It’s important to focus on what you liked when there’s a lot that needs to be improved. It’s easier to build on a strength than to undo a weakness.
For example, people often tell me that they like my supporting characters and my dialog. They often struggle with my main characters (who tend to be “blank”). Knowing that I already know how to build interesting characters (secondary characters) made it easier to identify how to improve my blank main characters. I’m still working on it, but knowing what I do well helps me to generalize those skills.
Bottom line, be respectful and honest. In the end, other people own their own feelings, and you aren’t responsible. It’s hard to put your creative work out there, but there will always be people who would rather destroy than build. As long as your goal is always to build someone else up and you’re coming from a genuine place of wanting to help, it’s hard to go wrong.
Is there anything you’ve heard about critiquing that you disagree with?