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More on criticism: how to give it

March 6, 2012

In yesterday’s blog, Mary Ann de Stefano of MAD About Words, listed five ways to manage criticism aimed by others. One of the keys was not to let others’ criticism derail your work in progress or your confidence as a writer. The other side of the coin is equally important: when we give criticism to other writers, we hold the same power over them our critics may hold over us. And since we, as the critics, cannot control for our targets’ reaction, it’s incumbent on us to be responsible in providing critiques.

This might not be the best approach.

Here are some potential tips for giving criticism. As brilliant and wonderful as I am, I can’t cover all of them, so feel free to add or disagree.

  • Talk about how the writing affected you. As a single critic (or critiquer, as the case may be), you aren’t omniscient. You can only talk about how the work affected you. “This part confused me. I wasn’t clear on the relationship between the narrator and the person he was dealing with.” “This was a highly emotional scene and it left me dry. It seemed like the protagonist wasn’t emotionally engaged here, and as a result, I didn’t feel the emotional engagement it felt like I should.” “I couldn’t keep these two characters separate because they didn’t seem that different.”
  • Point out the challenge, but don’t fix it. I have to be honest–this was an area of struggle for me. I want to fix stuff. I just know that if person X had done thing Y, this scene would have worked better. As a critic/critiquer, that’s no my job. That’s the writer’s job. It’s not my work, it’s hers. She’s done a pretty good job at some parts. If I fix the problem, I take away the learning opportunity. And the writer’s eventual solution may be better than mine.
  • Find something positive, if at all possible. Anyone who has written has written something perfectly wretched. That includes you, me, Uncle Ernest, Mr. King, and the hotte$t woman in England, JK Rowling. So when your subject writes something perfectly wretched, they’re joining a club you already belong to. Find something that works, no matter how small. Especially with a new writer.
  • Be honest. In my first critique group, there was one writer whose work wasn’t strong. It was confusing and undeveloped. He did his best, and he was a very nice man, but the work wasn’t all that good. In finding something positive, it would have been easy to gloss over problems. But if someone comes to a critique group, they’re there for your opinion, not for ego puffing. Be constructive, but honest. “This is a waste of paper, toner, and electricity” probably isn’t the best way. “I think you really need to work on the following things…” is a good way. If the person receiving the critique can’t take constructive criticism, that’s not your problem.
  • Be extra gentle with newbies. The exception to the rule is a newbie. If someone’s defensive at the first couple critiques, it’s important to give honest feedback, but also to re-enforce the rules. “I’m giving you honest feedback because you asked for it, and because it will help you improve as a writer. It’s hard to hear, especially when you first start. But it really isn’t personal.” The first few times–especially the first time, they’re going to be terrified that what they turned in is really, really bad and they’ve embarrassed themselves–probably like you were. Don’t forget that feeling.
  • Don’t hold back on the old hands who hit home runs. I’ve hit a home run in my critiques more than once. But I’ve also laid eggs. And I’ve had people give me a pass because I hit a lot of home runs. I don’t want people to give me a pass. I want them to be honest. I can take it. If I lay an egg, it’s probably because I’m trying something new and I need the feedback to improve it. Old hands shouldn’t view criticism or critiques as an ego-building exercise. That’s inappropriate and counterproductive. If the star of your group lays an egg, he needs to know it.

As someone who’s had some fantastic feedback over the years, I understand its value. And to pay the effort of my critics forward, it seems appropriate for me to use the same approach to my criticism as they used in theirs. Anything less shortchanges the subject of my criticism. It also shortchanges me. I’ve learned as much from solid critiques of others’ works as from solid critiques of my own.

 

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5 Comments
  1. Brandi winans permalink
    March 6, 2012 9:28 am

    Great stuff..

  2. March 6, 2012 10:23 am

    Chris…

    I really appreciated this post and the advice is perfectly timed for me. I recently published a business book on how to have the tough conversations to improve performance and spent my career giving others feedback. I know first hand that people struggle with providing feedback in a way that is supportive yet constructive. I have a dream of writing a mystery novel and since I have never written fiction before, I have been VERY intimidated to join a critique group. Your suggestion to be kind to newbies helps me to feel that I might find a safe environment where I can dare to share my first attempts. Thank you!

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 6, 2012 6:55 pm

    Thanks, Brandi!

  4. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 6, 2012 6:56 pm

    Kathy,

    It takes an enormous amount of courage to open your work up to critique. But if the critiquers are pinheads about it, that’s on them, not on you. As for finding a group, ask around at the FWA meeting, if you’re a member.

    Good luck!

    Chris

  5. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    March 7, 2012 7:31 am

    This is so good, Chris. All of it.

    Besides taking away the learning opportunity when we tell a writer how to fix something, we take away the potential for something to happen that we couldn’t imagine. The writer may think of a solution that never would have occurred to us. With a critique, we want to help the writer achieve his vision — not ours.

    And thanks for encouraging kindness. Heaven knows, the world could use a lot more of that.

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