Critique vs. Criticism: Where is the Line?
This post is about critiquing other people’s work without causing too much emotional damage. I am a firm believer in critique groups, not just to get feedback on your own work, but to give feedback. There’s an old saying that the teacher learns more than the student and this couldn’t be truer for writers.
When we look at another person’s writing, we are also looking at our work. So how to keep from damaging either one?
My mentor, Gloria Kempton, is a very successful teacher, and one of the best critiquers of a writer’s work that I’ve ever met. She has the magic touch. It’s the main reason I’ve been in her “Finish Your Novel” workshop for 5 years. I credit my growth as a writer to persistence, but I doubt I would be quite as tenacious if it wasn’t for Gloria’s forthright and tangible writing advice.
Here are Gloria’s tips on how to give good crit, and make your own story better in the process.
Learning how to give good crit goes beyond helping someone else’s story, in fact it falls smack into the realm of bettering your own. When you start looking at what makes someone else’s story work (or not) you begin to see the same (or other) concerns in your WIP.
However, critiquing others comes with a handful of inherent problems that critiquing your own work doesn’t. In her “Finish Your Novel” workshop, Gloria Kempton is mindful that a willingness to help can sometimes morph from “critique,” into “criticism.”
So she laid out some general guidelines for all of us to follow. I’ve added my own experiences and commentary as well.
Gloria says: Encourage and affirm; be supportive in your approach to another’s work.
Birgitte responds: This is really easy to do when I’m reading my own work. I’ve become expert in fact. But most times, even with novice writers (and sometimes especially with novice writers) brilliance shines like an uncut gem in a puddle of adverbs. I’m good at rinsing off adverbs. And reading novice work reminds me of that spark of “writerly” innocence I had before reading 167 books on “How to Write.”
The problem with being supportive comes when I’m critiquing well-seasoned writers. All I want to say then is, “Seriously? Adverbs?”
Gloria says: Be positive; state what works in the piece before stating what doesn’t.
Birgitte responds: This is a hard one for me. I always focus on the things that don’t work first, maybe because I’m always looking at what’s wrong in my own stuff. If I’m writing a critique I let my red pencil fly, then I go back and read for quality, pasting the “kudos” onto the front of the written critique. (And ignoring half the red pencil marks)
If it’s a “live” group critique I usually have to remove my foot from my mouth with a huge crowbar shaped a lot like the words, “Oh, but your characters are really interesting.”
Gloria says: When pointing out problems in another’s work, also point out solutions.
Birgitte responds: This I’m good at, probably because I love pointing out problems. Also because I always have a solution. Lots of solutions. Keep in mind that my husband says I’m not always right, but I’m never in doubt. That’s just because I always have a solution. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it is. And if you don’t like that one, I have another.
Gloria says: Be specific when making comments and suggestions.
Birgitte responds: This is very good advice. It also means I can’t get away with just saying “Your characters are really interesting.” I also need to say, “Because I love the way John always runs his fingers tips through his comb-over when Betsy walks by. It’s so indicative of his feelings of inferiority. Plus we really understand his despair when in Chapter Ten he breaks into the genetic lab and sabotages the hair re-growth formula.”
Gloria says: Ask challenging questions.
Birgitte responds: This is challenging. I have to think about what I’ve read to think about what to ask. And sometimes I’m not sure what I’ve read. Luckily, Gloria has a list of great questions to think about while critiquing others (and yourself!) and to ask if you think the writer needs a heads up:
- Listen to the pacing of the scene. Does it move too quickly, too slowly? What would make the pacing work better.
- Is the scene fully developed? Do you have too many unanswered questions that leave you feeling unsatisfied at the conclusion?
- Is the scene’s tone consistent throughout and with the rest of the novel?
- Are there problems with grammar and sentence structure? (Don’t be nitpicky.)
- Does this scene move you on an emotional level? Are you captivated with what’s happening inside of the characters?
- Is there enough action, both internal and external, to keep this scene moving?
- Do the characters in this scene come through as real? Do you feel like you know them better after reading this scene?
- Does this scene move the plot forward? Does it communicate the theme?
- Is the setting in this scene established? Can you picture it?
- Does this scene have enough tension and/or conflict? Are you worried about the outcome for the characters.
Gloria says: Be honest; don’t be afraid to say what you really think.
Birgitte responds: No way. This has gotten me into way too much trouble already. Lets see, there was the “L” word incident that resulted in a writer leaving the group. Then there was the time I got up on a soapbox when I should have just locked myself in my room and that resulted in a writer leaving the group. Once I pointed out that the one-restaurant town a writer had described was actually a large bustling metropolis. That writer left the group.
These days I say what I think, I just make sure it’s what I think the writer wants to hear.
Gloria says: Be helpful; be willing to stop and brainstorm ideas.
Birgitte responds: This is actually my favorite part of critiquing. It’s amazing how much easier it is to brainstorm someone else’s story. The ideas flow. The plot points accumulate. The story takes shape. Too bad I can’t do that nearly as well with my own work. Maybe I just need to pretend my work is someone else’s?
Gloria says: Suggest markets if it’s a short piece.
Birgitte responds: Boy, I’m not good at this one. I’m just not up on markets like I should be. But I love reading “crits” where the critiquer knows a spot my story will fit. And constant querying is really a writer’s full-time responsibility. If you want to be published that is. I guess I’ve fallen down on my own job. (Note to self: blog on “markets” needed)
Gloria says: Be brief; refrain from lengthy and redundant analysis of another’s manuscript.
Birgitte responds: Ack! I’ve written critiques that were longer than the scene I was critiquing. But Gloria’s right, a person can only take in so much information or make so many changes before the joy is gone from the process. So these days I’m limiting my crits to one or two main points, giving kudos where I think things flowed well, and nit-picking a couple of issues that I just couldn’t ignore.
Gloria says: Keep evaluation to manuscript only (not person or abilities).
Birgitte responds: This is a tricky one, not because it’s difficult, I mean most of us are good at talking about “the writing” and not “the writer.” The trickiness comes because as writers, we can’t separate ourselves from our work.
If someone says they don’t understand my character’s motivation in a scene, they might as well be saying they don’t understand my motivation in being a writer. As writers, we aren’t connected to our work, we ARE our work.
That’s part of what makes this field so challenging and addictive.
Thank you, Gloria for a great list of critiquing points! Stay tuned for a future post on Tips for Critiquee’s: How to take it in the jaw and not whine.
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