Tuesday, August 14, 2012

how to critique

A friend of mine once auditioned for American Idol. A professionally trained Broadway singer, she didn't make it on the show, but she did learn a lot about its inner-workings. See, before you ever meet J.Lo, Steven, and Randy (or, in my friend's day, Paula, Simon, and Randy), you go through several rounds of judging with non-famous professional judges. They sort the wheat from the chaff so the celebrity judges don't have to.
Have you ever wondered how those completely tone-deaf fools make it on camera, only to reveal that they are terrible singers? Well, I always assumed they were just actors willing to poke fun at themselves, and that may be the case for some of them. But, according to my friend (who was kindly informed by a judge that though she sang well, she was by no means pop-material), it's because the really bad singers are complimented by those initial judges.

They may be sorting the wheat from the chaff, but they're also saving the chaffiest chaff for national humiliation at a later date.

So after several rounds of, "Wow, you're so unique!" and "I think we could really use a voice like yours!" these poor shmucks wind up on television, completely convinced of their own skills, and utterly shattered when they find out how wrong they were.

There's a strange phenomenon in the writing community that says you can only say something critical about someone's writing if you start out with what you liked first, and then ending by soothing over the criticism with more compliments. The compliment sandwich, if you will, where you tell someone what they want to hear, the truth, and then some more of what they want to hear.

Writers are such delicate flowers, I suppose, that you can't just tell someone, "Wow, this is all over the place and should be re-written" without adding, "But you've really mastered the semi-colon!"

And yet readers, agents, and critics the world over are going to obviously dismiss things for reasons as simple and varied as, "I didn't like it," "I found it disjointed," "Characters and situations are unbelievable." So why is a person critiquing an unpublished writer forbidden from simply saying these things?

Of course, no one wants to engage in destructive criticism, in which you tear someone down without any advice about how to build back up. But while you may not want to do that, if you think there really is nothing redeeming in a piece of work, and you stand by that opinion, why would you let someone waste their time?

Sure, there are trolls out there who will rip on you for the sake of ripping. But assuming you are not a troll, what are you to do when you genuinely don't like the story, character, or voice? Should you really hang your hat on, "Well, sentence structure is top-drawer"?

Don't dance around the subject just because you want to be considered "nice." If it turns out you are a troll and you just don't know it, no matter. The person on the receiving end of your vitriol better have thick skin, because you won't be the last hater he or she encounters.

I've heard quite a few people in the bloggersphere and twitterverse claim that unless you have a suggestion on how something should be fixed, keep it to yourself. I couldn't disagree more. While ideally you will have a suggestion, your gut impressions matter, too. Because if you think a character is a creepy sexist stalker, do you really have to add, "I think you should make him less of a creepy sexist stalker"? Can't it just go without saying?

If you wouldn't let your best friend go on a date looking like a hot mess, why would you let a writer submit a project full of stilted dialogue? Or historical inaccuracies? Or typos--for crying out loud, you have to tell them about the typos.

When someone is critiquing my writing, I want to know if their compliments are genuine, or just the patronizing preface to the real problems. I don't care if the cons outweigh the pros and I definitely don't care whether you arranged your comments in smiley face-frowny face-winky face order.

At 28, I'm old enough and confident enough to decide for myself if I consider criticism valid or not, if it's a helpful suggestion or just so much hot air. Yes, I'll probably be sad or offended, because that's human nature. But grown up nature is to keep hurt feelings to yourself and focus on fixing problems, and I don't think you should ask someone to waste their time helping you unless you can say you're a grown up.

So just lay it on me. I'll do the same.


  1. In my opinion, it depends on what stage the piece is at. If the writer is working on a daisy-fresh piece of writing, and you're the first person to see it, and you know he or she is going to do a lot more work on it, that is a good time to hold back on the ripping and go for "these are my favourite parts" commentary. At that dewy-eyed stage, I don't think negative commentary is helpful, and might stop the writer in his or her tracks.

    Once it's moved into the revision and the writer thinks it's almost done, then technical critiques and questions about whether the writer knows his or her character is a creepy stalker are more appropriate and useful.

    1. That's a good point, though I would suggest that a person shouldn't even be critiquing at that point. If you want to bounce ideas off another person or just get some generalized feedback, fine, but you always run the risk of being derailed while you're still establishing the story for yourself. And the burden is definitely on the writer to be clear that they don't really want "criticism." If you ask for a critique and get it, you don't really have anyone but yourself to blame.

      I guess I just take issue with the Niceness Police out in force, demanding that everyone else be nice. I think it's up to the writer to be crystal-clear about their own expectations, and if they can't entirely handle real honesty, they should say so (EG, "I just need cheerleading at this point") with the understanding that they might be getting some very dishonest feedback if that's the route they choose. What I don't buy is someone asking for a critique, getting it, and then deflecting criticism by claiming the critic wasn't nice enough, or on the flip side, getting a sunshiney critique and then being blindsided by agents and editors because the person you trusted to critique you was too worried about seeming nice. Nice is worthless to everyone over the age of ten. By all means, be tactful, but don't worry about being nice.

  2. I don't think the critique sandwhich is supposed to work that way, not done properly. If you're going to say something good about the piece, it has to be something you genuinely like. You're not supposed to just blow smoke up the writer's backside to make them feel better when you tell them something negative.

    I hear a lot of people say that when they critique, they never tell the writer what they like because they assume the writer can figure it out from what they don't mention. Not necessarily. When I critique, if I don't mention something, it's probably because it had no impact on me. So I'll assume the same thing about someone who sends me a critique, and may cut out stuff that works well because I assumed readers took it as mediocre.

    If you truly have nothing good to say, that's fine. Don't make stuff up, just tell them what you felt was wrong. But, I think it's important to encourage critiquers to mention the good they find along with the bad. A writer needs to hear more than just what needs to be changed. They need to know what's working, and not just the amazing stuff that blew you out of your seat. The simple stuff. Maybe a character had a really good, natural reaction to something that happened in the story. That's the sort of thing certain critiquers won't mention in favor of big things, like stilted dialogue. But both of those things are important to helping the writer create a story that works.

    1. I completely agree. My response was directed more toward people who insist on niceness over honesty, because honesty is always the most important, and of course honesty dictates that you should tell someone about all the awesome things in their manuscript. I've never heard this idea that you SHOULDN'T tell someone something good, which just seems so odd to me.

      I just think that if you've been nice instead of honest in the past, the other problem is that when that awesome MS DOES come along, the writer won't know if your enthusiasm is genuine or just more BS.

    2. It is really frustrating to get a critique that's all sugar and spice. You get a lot of those on critters. I've discovered when I get crits like that, that if I return the favor by giving a good, honest critique of their work, they learn from it. That sounded a bit arrogant. What I mean is, they'll start critiquing more honestly, and not worry so much about being nice.

      I was surprised as well to learn that some people are against telling the writer what works. One guy explained to me that he never liked to lead a writer into clinging to something that might need to be gotten rid of, not matter how great it was. I.e. a really well written scene, that ends up not fitting well into the story. I can see the logic in that, but I think he just found it easier to convey why something didn't work as opposed to why it did.

  3. Agreed. And I hope you'll do likewise for me!