Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Benefits of Critique

This is kind of a spinoff to Paty's post about having thick skin. Critique can hurt, or it can help. It all depends on how the critique is handled and if the critiquer is using it as a tool to help the writer as well as improve her own writing. Critique is an excellent way to do both. Everybody wins.

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in a discussion on a yahoo group called Online Writers Workshop. Several of the posters couldn't understand the difference between a critique and a review. I found this rather shocking, especially since some of them had been members of this workshop for five or more years.

The debate was over how comments are delivered. Some felt that when criticizing a person's work, you should clarify that it's your opinion only and that others may see it a different way. Also, if you're going to criticize something, the person getting critiqued deserves an explanation to help him or her understand why the critiquer thought something was wrong, and a suggestion for how to improve the work if the writer chooses to do so. Half the people on the list, including me, agreed with this perception. The other half did not.

The disagreeing half argued that a writer who's serious about critique should have a thick enough skin that he or she can take criticism without an explanation. Just accept the comment as an opinion, because what else could it be? And either take it or leave it. The critiquer doesn't have to explain anything. Like a review, and that's what they called it, too.

I couldn't disagree more.

For one thing, a review, as in book review, is a judgment. It's not supposed to be helpful, though it can be. But that's not what it's designed for. A review offers an opinion (sometimes a pretty blunt one) to help readers decide whether or not to buy the book. Is this helpful to the writer? Does the reviewer offer suggestions on how to fix what's wrong? Rarely. And that's fine because a review is what it is: a judgment.

A critique, on the other hand, is a writer's tool. If I read someone's work and say a particular sentence is awkward, I'm going to explain why I think so, and I might offer a suggestion how to make it work better. And I'll certainly clarify that they can take it or leave it because it's my opinion only.

Writers are sensitive by nature. All creative people are. That's part of what makes them creative. So to be blunt and judgmental doesn't help. It either discourages them, or they won't take the comments seriously, especially if there's nothing to back it up and no suggestions for how to make the criticized work better.

I was only taking a trial membership of OWW, and the trial is over on June 2. I won't be subscribing. I'm afraid many of the people there are misinformed and I have the impression there's no guidance. Kind of like the blind leading the blind. Maybe not, but when you get yourself involved with a big group and put your work out there to be "judged" by strangers, I think it's potentially damaging to the writer. Critique groups, and critique partners, should be carefully selected in my opinion.

I'm very happy with the group of mixed genre writers I currently critique with. I was looking to expand my circle to include speculative fiction writers who I can bounce my fantasy and paranormal ideas off of. But OWW is not the way to do it. Not for me, anyway.

Do you have a critique group you're happy with? What makes them special? How have they helped you and your writing? Can you give any examples? What advice would you give a fellow writer who's trying to decide whether or not to use critique as a writing tool?


Alice Sharpe said...

Interesting blog, Karen.

I don't belong to a critique group right now (unless you want to count my daughter who is fantastic) but I have belonged to several over the years, some more helpful than others. Choosing people with whom to trust your creative efforts is difficult and challenging and should, I think, be approached with eyes wide open and the door left ajar behind you, just as you did with OWW. With such opposing views of what constitutes a critique, I can't imagine how you would have ever relaxed in that venue.

I always strive to make sure whoever asks for my help understands it's just my opinion and I am hardly the voice of wisdom. That said, I don't always explain why something is awkward to me. I used to and that made critiquing exhausting. Noticing a change needs to be made and coming up with a way to make it (and doesn't every little change affect every other little thing within two miles?) was impossible and got in the way. So now I may say, "This sentence is too long or gives the impression the speaker is bored-- is that what you wanted?" and let the writer figure out how they want to change things around or even if they want to change things around. After all, it's their work and if their goal is publication, they should be able to extrapolate a solution should they see the need.

I belonged to a critique group a few years ago that was very combative. People, carrying the banner, "Truth Is All That Matters!" stampeded over other people's work, scattering phrases and ideas like so many fallen bodies. It was brutal. I was glad to escape with my life.

I guess I find it hard to understand why a bunch of writers can't figure out the difference between a critique and a review -- you stated them succinctly. I'm glad you're out of that. My main advice to new writers wanting critique partners is to be cautious. If the person you are working with is making you doubt your desires, your intentions, your skills and your voice, run to the nearest exit. While being amidst a group of glad handers who never point out the difficulties they see in your work so you can grow past them, being in a group of vipers is just as deadly. They can squash your zest and lead you astray.

And it was such fun to see Calvin and Hobbes again. Sigh, I miss them...

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I'm with Alice. *Le Sigh* I love Calvin & Hobbes. You're making me want to go dig up my C&H book and sit and read.

Resist, resist! You don't have time!!!

Where was I? Oh, right. Critiques...

I state clearly before I crit for anyone that all the comments are my opinion only and therefore they can take or toss or whatever. I don't feel I need to restate that in every comment I make or in subsequent crits for the same person. I do explain my reasoning, but I try not to rewrite for an author - that's her job. The most frustrating crits I had were where critiquers took my sentences and rewrote them. Gah. Don't do that to me! I'm also brutally honest with my opinion, and I have learned along the way that some writers do not WANT brutally honest. They want someone to read their work, pat them on the back and say, "This is great, you'll get a ten book deal out of it." Unfortunately, that doesn't happen, and I've never been one to blow smoke. However, if you're doing something great, or I'm enjoying a section, I'll say it. I think compliments go a long way. Danita actually taught me that way back when I first joined the chapter and she and I critted for each other. A compliment here and there does a lot to take the sting factor out of a critique.

Critiques never get easier, but if you want to be published, my advice is to get over it. Don't be so touchy. Critiques & suggestions are a reflection of your work, not of you. And that's how writers have to look at it. It's hard - I know it's hard - to step back and separate yourself from your writing because writing is so personal, but if you can't, it means you just aren't ready. CPs are not the last line of critiques you will ever get. You'll get them from your agent (I'm lost...what's happening here???), from your editor (this redemption needs to be explained better), from copy editors and eventually from readers (who may call them reviews, but really, they're critiquing points in your book). If a CPs comments are pushing you over the edge you need to seriously look at your career aspirations and decide if you have the thick skin (as Paty put it) to make it in this business.

I love critiquing for the same reasons Karen mentioned - not only does it help the critiquer hone her skills (I've learned a lot just by critiquing others' work) but it also gives you a chance to help other writers. I love being able to help a writer in that way when I can. I had a lot of people who helped me out when I was learning, and I enjoy being able to return the favor. I'll admit to not looking for a crit group anymore. I have a couple of good writers I trust to read/critique my stuff when I have a finished manuscript, but overall I trust my agent's opinion and look to her for the last word about whether something works or doesn't. The hard part about finding crit partners is finding those people you trust, and it can be daunting. But it also can be done, so if you're looking for a crit group, don't give up.

I'm also going to mention (again) that we set up a critique loop for our chapter but no one has yet make use of it. Poor Jane's in charge of it and she has nothing to do!!! So if you're interested in getting a chapter critiqued, post away. While I don't have anything to post, I'd love to read some of our members' work, and I'd be happy to critique - brutal honesty and all. (LOL...kidding, I'm actually very nice. Ask anyone I've critted for before.) If you aren't a member of the crit loop yet but want to be, email me at emcamp99 at yahoo dot com and I'll get you hooked up. (And don't stress over the list rules. They're only guidelines. We're a very nice and helpful group.)

Great topic, Karen!

Genene Valleau said...

I've been fortunate to have had critiques that were very helpful, even if it was just to point out that thus-and-such a sentence didn't sound quite right or the heroine seemed out of character. Because usually it's something that didn't ring quite true to me either and I wasn't sure how to fix it at the time or I didn't trust my instincts that something wasn't quite right.

I really appreciate a "fresh eyes" look at my work because after I've been immersed in a story for a long time, I know what I wanted it to say and I know the characters very well. So I may need to add more of the background info that's in my head to the story to make sure the plot and motives are clear.

CAUTION: I'm dragging out my soapbox ...

I've also heard horror stories from others whose work was trashed by someone or a group in the guise of a "critique." To me, that's simply rude and cruel which -- my opinion only -- seems to be the fashion in some circles, including some media people. I don't see this as a case of having a thick skin or not, I just choose not to have these people with their toxic personalities in my life.

Bluntness and honesty doesn't have to be rude and cruel. There's a big difference between telling someone "any idiot would know not to use different points of view in the same scene" and "you might consider reading some reference books on point of view" or "have you read Ms. Bestseller, who transitions between points of view seamlessly."

OK, soapbox being stashed under my computer desk again.

I appreciate our group to bounce ideas off and/or for critiques. There's definitely honesty about whether something does or does not work, but presented in a tactful and helpful way. So thanks to all of you for that.

And, Karen, can you tell I agree with your decision not to continue with the "other" group. LOL!

Paty Jager said...

Yeah! At the moment I have internet service. I didn't have a blip yesterday and the person who was supposed to come out and change my reciever today at 10 am has yet to show. But I have service!

I am a firm believer in critique partners not groups. I like my three constant critique partners. They know my writing and I know theirs. We can say this doesn't work or that needs beefed up and no one gets torqued out of shape because we've been working together long enough we understand we are helping each other get better.

I've been in a couple of "groups". I don't like having so many opinions. It starts to make ones head swim.

I enjoy critiquing for others, helping, watching their writing improve. It has also helped my own writing by helping others.

Great blog, Karen!

Karen Duvall said...

Phew, it was such a slamtastic day yesterday, I never made it back in here to comment on your comments! I'm so sorry...

Oh, Alice, that critique group you used to be with sounds like major bad news. I don't get some writers' attitudes. You're right about trust being a huge component of a successful critique relationship. Truer words were never spoken. Well, of course they've been spoken, but you know... never mind.

Yeah, Eli, I hate it when people rewrite my words for me. I understand they're just trying to show me what they mean, but it comes across so off! It never works and actually makes them look foolish.

I've thought of joining our chapter's crit group, but I admit the guidelines put me off after I read them, so I unsubscribed. If they're really meaningless as you say, then I might go back. I have revisions I need to make to KC (got my agent's email this morning) and need help on a couple things.

Genene? Picture me shaking my fist in the air yelling: Yeah! You got it!

Paty, I like a small group like the one I've been with for 10 years. There are only five of us and it's interesting to compare notes. Like if 5 people have 5 different opinions on something, you kind of pick one or none. But if all 5 say the same thing, it's pretty easy to decide on the way to go. I can't tell you how many times they've pulled my ass out of the fire. KC wouldn't have attracted the attention of my agent without their help.

I also have a crit partner, and she's excellent. She's more of a mentor due to her greater experience in the trenches. I love her to pieces, and her help has been invaluable as well.