Thursday, January 28, 2010

Accepting Criticism and Critiques

Every novelist, every short story writer, every student and every person who has picked up a pen or pencil has encountered criticism in their life. Whether it is for work, school or play, the beautiful or ugly head of the critique will rear up and take nibbles from your written words. This can be a painful or a liberating process, depending on just how harsh the critique is and how thin (or thick) your skin is.

This blog post is intended for anyone who enjoys to write. It does not have to be for the science fiction or fantasy author. This blog post is intended for anyone who wishes to pick up a pen and express themselves on paper.

In fact, this is intended for anyone who has ever had the urge to get up and create something unique to themselves.

Having the courage to accept a critique and criticism is difficult for many people. Writers, painters and artists of all types tend to be emotional about their work. It is through dedication, passion and love of the craft that many pick up the pen, the brush or their instruments and struggle to make their art something that can be shared with others.

Some people never get the courage to share their works with others at all, which is the greatest tragedy of all.

Now that I have the little intro out of the way, let us dive down into the meat of this subject!

1: Asking for Critiques and Criticism

The first step to successfully surviving a critique is knowing how to ask for a critique. Every editor, reader or author critiques writing differently. If you just tell a person to "read my work and give me feedback", you may be setting yourself up for a lot of trouble. A *lot* of trouble.

Allow me to explain.

Feedback covers a lot of ground. Another writer who is reading your piece may work very hard to provide a meaningful critique that covers aspects of your story that need correction. They may, in the course of writing the critique, comment on your characters, your writing style, your dialog, your scene set-up and much, much more. They may find those little plot bunnies that have nested in important places. They might even locate discrepancies on the appearance of your characters.

For someone who is new to accepting critiques, this can be devastating. Thick skin is not something most people have in large amounts just as they begin. Because of this, you may wish to ask for certain things when you seek a critique.

Ask questions. This will help those who are critiquing know what you are looking for. If you need help with grammar, ask for advice on how to improve your grammar. Directed criticism is easier to swallow and can be extremely useful. In addition to this, if the critiquer knows that you need help with your grammar, they may explain the *why* to the rules, and not just point out that you have broken them.

In addition to this, you will want to ask your readers to avoid certain subjects if you are not comfortable with them, or you are already *so* well aware you have problems with them. This can let the reader know you're aware of the problem. That saves them time and allows them to focus their attention elsewhere. If you have thin skin syndrome, you can limit the amount of critiquing you have to swallow at any one given time.

2: Who to ask for Critiques and Criticism

If the first half of the battle is knowing what to get critiqued on, the second half is knowing who to ask for the critiques. There are many characteristics to good and bad critiquing partners. I can not sit here, hold your hand, and tell you exactly what makes a good partner for you. This is a personal process.

However, I can tell you what I look for in a partner.

First, I look for three or four basic types of people:

1: The Reader
2: The Writer
3: The Editor / Grammar Nazi
4: None of the Above

1: The Reader

This person loves books. They love reading the genre I am writing. They will dive into a story of any length and plow through it to the bitter end. They love to read.

This is the type of person I want *buying* my book. If I can't hold this person's attention, all of my work and effort has been done for nothing.

Unfortunately, it often defeats the purpose to ask 'The Reader' for specific critiques. Their feedback is so vital I tell these people to "Write whatever they feel at the time they read. It is important."

This type of critique tends to hurt the most. Why? I can't really tell them not to hit on any subject, and they are not writers. Their honesty is most valuable, but is also the most painful for me to cope with.

2: The Writer

This is your direct peer. The writer is that person who is taking the same exact journey that you are. They are trying to write a book they can share with others!

Writers tend to get together in packs. In a way, critiques from writers is similar to herding cats. There are know-it-all writers, writers with no confidence, and writers with too much confidence. There are those who are afraid to critique you honestly in fear that you will be harsh on their writing. Getting a critique from a writer is very much like reaching blindly into a bag of candies and hoping for that one type of chocolate bar that you really like.

Usually, you will get the tootsie roll. That is great, if you like tootsie rolls.

That said, I have gotten some very useful critiques from writers, but you need to be aware that getting critiques from your peer group can have its risks.

Sugar coating may be found in thick, sticky, gooey supply from this category of individuals.

3: The Editor

If you have an editor in your pocket, treat him or her like they are crafted of fine crystal and pay them in gold. They are worth their weight in it. An editor is often a reader and a writer, and blend the best of both worlds. They know the craft. They know their business.

You can trust an editor to be honest with you. It does not profit them in any way not to be honest. However, there are a few things you do need to keep in mind.

Not all editors are created equal, and not all editors are out to get you published. If you have an editor in your pocket, ask yourself if this person is actually an editor, or if they are a talented writer with editing tendencies. When I say editor, I mean a true editor: that poor person who spends their day leashed to a desk reading our manuscripts on a day to day basis.

Writer beware: an Editor is often constrained on time. As such, they will not sugar coat their commentary. Thick skin is definitely a requirement.

4: None of the Above

What? This doesn't make sense?

Sure, it does. If you have a friend who is neither a reader, editor *or* a writer, but is willing to read your book anyway, you may have something truly special.

Most people are aware of the phenomena of Twilight and Harry Potter. These books, somehow, not only snapped up the attention of those who like to read, but they grabbed those who typically did not as well.

Knowing how your book ranks among those who don't usually like to read can give you some surprising insight. You may even target those who *do* read, but don't read your genre. Either way, thick skin is required, but there is a lot to learn from those poor victims you manage to subject to your work who wouldn't typically pick your book up while in a bookstore. In fact, getting these people into a bookstore in the first place might have taken a miracle if they weren't your friends already.

3: Developing Thick Skin

So, you have identified the types of people you want to get critiques from and you have put some thought into what questions you wish to ask. Now, you need to know what to do with the critiques you do get.

First thing should come first: develop some thick skin.

The first critiques you receive may put you on edge. They may make you want to quit writing because you have been told just how terrible your writing is by someone.

First, it is okay to get upset. However, get upset in private. Never let your critiquer know you have gotten upset. Deep breaths.

This is the first stage of developing thick skin. Repeat the process until you can sit at your computer and feel like your chest is tight, but you can accept the words written on your screen. It hurts, but it helps.

Not all writers will have problems developing thick skin. However, you will only get thick skin if you subject yourself to enough critiques. It truly is a chicken and egg situation.

4: Making use of the Critique

Now it is time for you to make sense of the critique.

Read every bit of the critique before you put any serious thought into anything written in the critique. Everyone writes a critique differently. They may be disjointed, with some thoughts tying into commentary found at the end of the critique. Plow through the critique and make certain you have read all of the commentary first.

Next, go over the critique again and see what immediate points make sense. Take notes on the obvious corrections. Don't implement them now, but make certain you are aware of the changes you want to make.

The rest of the critique you will need to evaluate carefully. Does the critiquer bring up a good point, but you do not know how to deal with it? Does the critiquer mention something that makes absolutely no sense to you?

Does the critiquer comment on something that gets explained later? Sometimes pacing your novel to reveal important details can be difficult. Could this be an indicator you have failed at it?

Every critique is the *opinion* of the writer of the critique. You do not have to make use of the suggestions made in that critique. However, if you asked for a critique, it is your responsibility to at least take the time to properly read through the critique.

Yes, even if the person writing the critique seems to be a hater who wants to bring you down. Amidst their hate, they may have painful little truths that can do your book a world of good. Don't rashly discard a critique because you do not like what is written within it. This may be one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a writer.

5: Give yourself some time

There are some errors, such as a grammar error, or a misspelling, that could use immediate repair. However, I would always put a week's worth of time between a critique and making changes if possible. This will give you adequate cool-down time and also permit you to clearly think of the best way to improve your story.

Granted, some people do not have the luxury of this time. Especially with looming deadlines.

What others have to say on Critiquing and Criticism

This would not be a very good resource blog if I did not include resources on critiquing and criticism.

Information on how to critique a novel: (I am not responsible for some of the horrendous colours found on these pages. My apologies, but the information was quite useful, even if I could live without the neon pink.)

Writing a Critique
How to Critique Fiction - Victoria Crayne
Vancouver Public Library - Novel Critique Section
Fiction Factor

And as a treat, a few quotes for your reading pleasure!

  • A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her. - David Brinkley
  • Criticism is prejudice made plausible. - H. L. Mencken
  • It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt
  • Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. - Winston Churchill
  • Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving. - Dale Carnegie

5 comments:

  1. Outstanding article, Rebecca. I posted a link on my FB page - hopefully it'll drive some traffic to your blog.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This makes me want to finish my edits and get the draft out there for some critiques!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you all for your kind words, it means quite a lot that these articles are useful and meaningful to those who write! (and edit)

    ReplyDelete
  4. This blog is great. I'd like to copy this article for one of my client's blog. Do I have your permission? I couldn't find any info to contact you - please contact me at dkerr@planbee.biz to discuss and to point you to the blog I'm referring you. We'll be sure to credit you.

    ReplyDelete