Critiquing and Professional Responsibility — Yours? Theirs?

At some point in a writer’s journey (perhaps your journey) there will come a time when they need to do critiques. Perhaps this is for their writer’s group, or a friend, or even a beta read. At first, it seems simple: help a fellow author out. Give them a little bit of feedback, help them adjust what needs fixing, and together, with pens united, this fate-bound pair will drive into the sunset tossing money into the air.

Critiquing, however, is hard.

Yes, everyone can do it. Yes, everyone can give their thoughts (and often do) on that freshly printed manuscript a novelist has just created. Like speaking, writing and drawing, anyone can do it. How well, unfortunately, is another narrative entirely.

As a professional trainer / teacher / educator, I’ve seen a lot of checklists designed for when you give feedback. As an author, I’ve seen even more (non-free) workshops. Although I agree with them in principle, I think they distract from the main point of the task — to help someone get better. You can give the best advice (haven’t we all?) and still have it fall on deaf ears. Sometimes what an author needs isn’t more constructive criticism, but the same assessment delivered in a different manner. In a way they can bite down and swallow the (occasionally) bitter pill they’ve received.

So, for your reading (and Tuesday morning) pleasure, please find my top tips for having your feedback listened to.

Be Professional — Treat the Work as if  You’ve been Paid to Review It

Sometimes, heaven help us, we come across that truly awful work. The ‘it makes my eyes bleed’ and ‘it is destroying my brain’ story that we thought had gone extinct with the Flying Cow of Narusus. “How,” we ask ourselves, “did this person think they could write? Do they think I can perform miracles?”

Other times, there’s that truly offensive piece that’s so misogynistic, racist and flat-out primordial — we punch a wall while reading it. We wish to burn it with fire and roll the ashes down our arm.

I experienced both of these types of works at my old writer’s group. A couple of times I even critiqued a piece despite knowing my suggestions (and the three hours of work I put into them) would probably be ignored by the author. None of these experiences were pleasant.

Occasionally, a group member would throw down a work and declare, “I couldn’t finish it. It was too hard. It was so bad.”

Once, I lost it at some poor writer. The tale he’d written was all of those things above rolled into one, and when it came to my turn to speak, I let loose with my deep tones and shaky palms.

I’m still embarrassed about it.

Unfortunately, these responses don’t help anybody. Telling someone they’re useless / sexist / stupid may make us feel good, but they don’t improve their writing. If we’re lucky, they won’t come back. They’ll take the hint and find some other place. They’ll also share how badly they were treated at ‘Group X’ with their new cohorts. The writing world is small, and the news will make its rounds. Hell, they might even pen the next bestseller, wouldn’t that be awkward?

What if they don’t though? What if they stay? It means we’ve wasted an opportunity to improve their work, to stop them from submitting mediocre pieces and move them into the ranks of the good and then fabulous. It also means we may have lost the opportunity to actually engage with them about their prose.

I don’t think I need to tell you how difficult it is to accept feedback from someone you don’t like. ‘Oh, yelling guy doesn’t like my story? Thinks it’s cliched? Surprise, surprise.’ Or worse, they create another narrative to protect themselves, ‘They’re saying that because they’re jealous. My work is just too good for them to understand.’

Now we’ve set up a situation where very few people can move them towards better writing. We’ve made it harder for them to accept what they need to hear, and we’re stuck with their inadequate work (in our opinion) until the end of time.

Yes, it’s voluntary. Yes, you’re doing it just so other people can give you feedback about yours. But, think how you would react if someone tossed your work in the bin or couldn’t give a flying sheep about it?

You need to treat it like you’re a professional. Think about them as customers instead of ‘my writing group’. Even though you’re giving them negative news, they should still be satisfied with the experience. Tell yourself that they can complain, and that complaint could cost you your job.

After all, if we have a career in writing we’ll have to learn how to tactfully praise books we dislike (because they’re popular), give feedback to readers about their fan-fic (good and bad), plus talk to real, 100% customers. These skills are transferrable, why not learn them in a (relatively) safe environment?

Praise, Criticise and Thank Them for the Opportunity

No work is so bad that there isn’t some good in it. I’m constantly bewildered at how many people forget to discuss the positives of the piece they’ve read. Yes, reading that awful tripe about their toe hurt you, but that doesn’t mean you get to hurt them back. Remember,  you volunteered for this.

Start with praise. Always. Tell them you loved the description of the fungus. It ickled you in ways you can’t quite explain, then move onto the critique.

In fact, my rule of thumb is the more someone says they ‘can take any criticism’, the less they actually can. Yes, they sit there and they listen, but then they ignore what you say. Or they don’t hear what you’re saying at all. I’ve seen this in workplaces, in student assessments and in writer’s groups.

This cannot be stated enough: start with praise. An ego-stroking never hurts anyone. And flattery will get you on the Serenity. Then slide in with one or two major points to improve on. No more. No fancy checklists. There’s some research that indicates if we work on our weakest points, everything else improves. If we work on our strongest, we stay static.

So they only need the one or two big issues that they will actively engage with. If they just do that, everything else will lift as well. Two things seem possible, six makes you want to toss your hands in the air and go, “Well, I’ll just write it again then. Thanks asshole.”

Afterwards, follow with some more positive. Give them a reason to improve, tell them you’re looking forward to their next piece. Make them feel you believe in them.

I would say 90% of people I’ve met in writer’s groups (and teachers) want their comrades to improve. They wish them all the best. However, sometimes they forget to emphasis this. They forget to say what they know out loud, and this can cause doubt in the other person’s mind.

Like all relationships, affirming that you want to be there and listening to them doesn’t hurt. It helps them overcome their anxieties and fears when submitting, when dealing with the challenges of finding out their work is not up to the standard they wished to be. Building that confidence, that trust, is more important (in my mind) than any single critique.

Finally, thank them for the opportunity. Authors are notorious for being a little anti-establishment, on the cusp of iconoclastic and kind of unique — so don’t become an authority figure in their lives. You don’t want a rebellion against your ideas because you probably won’t have enough power to squash it (unless you’re published or Cormack McCarthy), you simply want them to listen.

After all, it’s a big risk to have a work critiqued. They’ve trusted you to give good feedback. Thank them for that opportunity because, honestly, they have given you a chance. A chance to improve your own editing skills, to see other ideas in the writing world, and to figure out what you like and despise.

Be Humble

Let me be straight with you, like a line, there is no one who has the inside dope on the publishing industry. If you look at the best-selling novels of the past 100 years, you’ll find one thing: they’re very different.

Some are excellent — well written, powerful stories that will blow your mind. Others are mediocre, some are even low quality. Their themes and characters vary wildly and vividly. The prose deployed is simple and complex. Sometimes it is repetitious, in other instances it flows.

No one, and I mean no one, has a lock on what’s going to be ‘big’ next year. Or in ten years.

We can sit here and debate about the literary value of some of the best-selling works all day, but you know what?  I don’t care. I’d rather have my feet propped up by millions of dollars and be labelled a ‘hack’ than be sitting in a coffee shop with an unpublished manuscript that everyone I know says is Pan’s gift to the world.

You do not have the key insight into the writing craft. You do not know what will become successful or published.

Admit this in your critique. Admit certain genres make you queasy. Admit your prejudices and your limitations as a writer. Use the phrases ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’. Tell the writer you could be wrong.

Why?

Simply, you want them to improve; not improve because you said so. I’ve met one too many writers / students / teachers who think they’ve  become so skilled that only their opinion matters. So much so that when someone doesn’t do what they say, they get upset. Then they tell the offending author how wrong they are, and do half-hearted critiques after that.

Making someone feel small may give a person an ego boost, but it doesn’t help anyone improve. An author who brags about their knowledge and skills may intimidate people and make them go ‘ooh’, but it can also trigger feelings of jealousy, resentment and anger. “They think they’re so special,” the other writers may go. “They think they’re so talented.”

Remember, we’re not dealing with the work in a critique, we’re dealing with the person behind it. They need to get better, and to get that way, they need to not reject an idea out of hand.

If I’m dealing with a particularly thorny issue, I usually admit that I had this problem too. Or, I’m still working on it. (Both true statements). I want them to feel it’s not a big deal. It’s ok to make this mistake, they’re not alone.

It’s easier to accept an idea (or a negative thing) if you don’t feel someone is judging you. (And, if you’ve ever read some of my earlier works, you’d know that I can’t pass judgement on anybody. They were straight from the literary squalors of terrible.)

Why do this?

Because it means next month, I read slightly better fiction. Always a bonus. It’s a win-win and that’s all I’m interested in.

If In Doubt, Ask a Question

Finally, my greatest trick as an assessor / critiquing human is to ask a question. It comes back to that authority figure, if I tell them what to do — they weigh how much skill I have, whether or not they like me, where I sit on the hierarchal ladder of the writing world — before deciding to listen or not. I’m asking them to buckle and bend their will to do what I say.

Asking a question, however, makes them answer. It makes them arrive at their own conclusions about the issues in their work.  Essentially, it engages them and makes them query what they might’ve overlooked.

This is especially important if our writing journeys differ. There is no ‘ultimate’ path. There never has been. My long-term goal is to help them improve their work, not turn them into a clone of me. Not have them have the same goals as me.

If I want to write commercial, pulp stories, that’s fine. But if June wants to compose sweet, sweet literary droplets…that’s her choice. I simply need to help her find the right questions for her to ask about her work so she can interrogate her own pieces and find out what it’s doing to readers.

Put another way, telling someone what to do shuts down the options for them. Asking them a question reveals those moonlit trails we often read about in the prestigious magazines.

But you know what? These are simply my opinions. What about yours? Head to the comments and tell me if you agree or think I’m a bulbous, pumpkin head on fire.

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