Six impossible things

Getting good critique

That last post of comments segues nicely into this one, which is about critiquing and being critiqued.

Good critique is hard to find. There are several reasons for this, starting with the fact that “good critique” means different things to different people. Some folks want the proverbial five pages of closely reasoned praise; that is, they want to be told, in depth and in detail, all the things they did right, and nothing else. Others don’t want to hear about the good stuff; they want every mistake, from typos and misplaced commas to major plot holes, characterization wobbles, and unbelievable or inaccurate worldbuilding.

Most folks are somewhere in the middle. I encourage people to give both the good and the bad, because I learned early that if you don’t tell someone “I love this bit,” the fabulous bit that you love may very well disappear in the second draft. And there are also people who are emotionally incapable of taking comments from anyone who isn’t buying the book (i.e., an editor). For them, the solution is simple: don’t ask friends for comments, and if they offer, just turn them down gently.

For everyone else, though, the first step in getting good comments is knowing what mix of praise and blame, typos and in-depth analysis, you find both comfortable and useful. You don’t have to explain it in detail to anyone else, but you do have to be brutally honest with yourself. If all the cool would-be and newbie-published writers are in serious crit groups, but the one time you tried that you got so discouraged that you didn’t write for six months, you are just not going to get much useful out of that kind of crit group, no matter how useful everybody else finds it.

You have to figure out what works for you, just as in every other aspect of writing…but it’s even more important with criticism, because you can seriously damage your writing (and even your ability to write) if you insist on going for the sort that isn’t right for you. That applies to both ends of the spectrum – some writers find in-depth, hard-nosed comments discouraging, while others find them challenging and useful. Similarly, some writers convince themselves that anyone who praises their work is either a) not perceptive enough to see its flaws, b) just being really nice, which means the good things they say can’t be trusted, or c) 100% right, which means the work is perfect and flawless, every comma golden, and nobody else’s negative remarks matter. Others need the reassurance they get from hearing that somebody likes their work, and the more specific and detailed their comments are, the better.

Once you know what you are looking for, you can communicate it to your beta readers…and if you don’t, you are unlikely to get it. Very few people are experienced in the kind of critique writers in general want and need; nobody but you has any chance at all of guessing what you will find useful. Being very clear about what you want from a critiquer is the only way you have a hope of getting it.

And by “being very clear,” I don’t mean saying “I want hard-nosed critique,” or “Be gentle,” though those can be useful to some people. I mean saying things like “Please mark every place where you laughed out loud” or “…every spot where you stumbled and had to reread the paragraph to figure out what I meant” or “…every time you caught yourself skimming.” “Mark typos” or “Don’t mark typos” is always useful to know up front. “Tell me what you want to see more/less of” is frequently a good suggestion.

If there is a part of the story that you do not want comments on, tell your critiquer. If there is a type of crit or an aspect of storytelling that you do or don’t want to hear about, ditto. I hate getting specific suggestions, but the more someone can tell me about why they think something struck them as wrong, the better. I’ve critiqued folks who do not want comments  on dialog, or plot, or Chapter Fifteen, and folks who were particularly worried about everything from their description to whether a particular scene fits their theme.

  1. Similarly, some writers convince themselves that anyone who praises their work is either a) not perceptive enough to see its flaws, b) just being really nice, which means the good things they say can’t be trusted, or c) 100% right, which means the work is perfect and flawless, every comma golden, and nobody else’s negative remarks matter.

    Yeah, (a) as well as (b). Though I have a couple of beta readers now who can actually convince me that the good things are good so I trust them when they say that the bad things are bad. It helps a lot that they’re writers themselves.

  2. I’ve found that my critique needs have changed over time too. At first, I really needed the positive praise, and negative comments only made me want to bury my head. Now that I’ve written a few novels and gone through the editing process again and again, I want harder criticisms. Since I’m trying to get published, I want to know everything that didn’t sit well so that I can catch it *before* I send it to an agent. Now when people are nice, I’m much less inclined to believe them because I can see my own faults so much clearer.

  3. “Blame-all and Praise-all are two blockheads.”
    —Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

    “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”
    —Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)

    “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
    —Neil Gaiman (1960–)

  4. The critiques that I crave that I have a hard time finding are what I call “writerly” critiques. Most critiquers give “reader” critiques (their impression of what’s on the page they’re currently reading. Writers who are capable of looking beyond that one page and seeing the big picture are worth their weight in gold. These are the ones who aren’t afraid to comment about the pacing, the story arc, the character arc, the theme, who understand story structure, etc. I have one critique buddy who does that and I give thanks for her every day.

    • These are the ones who aren’t afraid to comment

      That seems to be one of the problems in getting good critique: a lot of people seem to be afraid to even have an opinion, as though critiquing were a test that they had to get all the right answers on. (It’s certainly possible for a reader to get something wrong, but then, the same goes for the writer. If it’s not an excuse to not write, it’s not an excuse to not critique, either. 😉 )

    • Not afraid to comment? Harlan Ellison (and probably others) said that if you want to improve your writing, give your draft to “someone who is not afraid to make you cry”.

      • Well, there’s room between making the author cry and declaring of everything “It’s fine!” whether it is or not. But having the guts to have an opinion and express it (tactfully, perhaps, but clearly) is a fundamental necessity for critiquing.

    • I have a very hard time finding those types of critique as well. It’s important to know when you’ve used bad grammar (though I usually pick that up myself) and wrong spelling (ditto); but to find someone who can tell you when the pacing is off or your storyline has the colliwobbles . . . well, you’re just lucky to have found someone!

  5. A great rule about READING crits is that it’s very likely that the reader has identified a problem. It’s much less likely that he’s identified the problem. So encourage them to stick to the text and not go off on what to fix.

    I ran across this most spectacularly on a story where the readers justly complained that they could not tell whether a now vanished civilization was human or alien. Those who talked for half their critique about how I could make it more alien wasted their time, because it was human.

  6. I’ve found it’s also helpful to have someone who actively reads in the target genre or reads widely to give good critiques. All too often I’ve been in critique group where the commenter tries to re-write the story into something else.

    Of course it is all too easy to get a critique that focuses on the work “not being genre enough” and has “other genre cooties” on it.

    • someone who actively reads in the target genre

      A thousand times yes to this. Not just the genre, but the kind and style of thing you’re writing. Someone who wouldn’t like what you’re writing even if you achieved the perfect Platonic ideal of that story is not going to give beneficial critique.

      the commenter tries to re-write the story into something else

      That can happen without genre considerations, too. It’s another variation of “What’s wrong with this story is that you didn’t write it the way I would have!” syndrome. Endemic, and often incurable.

  7. This is a great post on how to prepare the fish once you’ve caught it. How about a companion post on how to catch the fish to start with?

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