Everybody who has ever given or received a critique of their writing knows some of the basic rules:
- Criticism is about the writing not the writer – don’t make it personal or take it personally;
- The critique is designed to make the story be the best story the Writer wants to write – not to turn it into the story the person giving the critique wants them to tell;
- Criticism is only valuable if the person receiving it can actually use it – it must be aimed just above the Writer’s current skills;
- Criticism should both praise and therefore encourage what is good as well as point out where improvement is needed;
- Only accept the criticism that you feel helps your story (exception – if every critique says the story fails in the same place, change it);
- As a critic, know when to shut up – it is not a competitive sport. Tears don’t mean you won.
I suppose I could leave it at that – but when have I ever just left it at that?
The first thing that every critic should acknowledge: You don’t know it all. Sometimes, the person you are criticising is a better writer than you are. But they don’t know it all either. Unless, your writing group is seriously imbalanced, you will have one or two skills where you are better than the person across the table. To be effective at criticism, you not only have to know the writer’s weaknesses, you have to know your own strengths weaknesses. Eventually, you have to come to know the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in the group. You may be able to help writer A and B with plotting; but not writers C and D – because they are better than you! On the other hand you might be able to help them with dialogue.
A critiquing group is a bit like a Free Trade agreement – each partner has a comparative advantage over each other partner in a specific area and so has something different to offer to each one. That’s what lifts you above being “the guy who rags about adverbs” or “the gal who hammers on the 3-act structure.” Because the critique is about the specific work in front of you, you can’t deliver boilerplate; you have to find different ways to help.
The first basic rule I mentioned is the one about not taking it personally. It was first because it is the hardest to follow – especially for beginning writers. I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I’ve overestimated their ability to take it – or underestimated how much my ‘clever’ comments can cut. To all the people I may have hurt during critiquing sessions, I’d like to say: Suck it up! (See, Liz is right, I really am incorrigible.) Seriously though, unless, like Harlan Ellison, you think if you can stop someone from writing, you certainly should; being sarcastic and kicking people when they’re down is not the best long term strategy for a happy and healthy writing group. And, surprise, surprise, it may be you who winds up leaving the group, not your targets.
Still, a critiquing group should never be a mutual admiration society. Your comments should always be tough and always insist that the writer improve. All I’m saying is mix a little honey in with the vinegar and don’t give people more than they can handle.
Obviously, the longer you’ve been in the business, the tougher your skin becomes. All those stupid rejection letters have to be good for something, right? Most people will tell you that I don’t pull many punches at the best of times but I don’t take the gloves off except with the people I think are as good (or better) than me.
Giving a critique is one thing; accepting one is quite another. I remember when I first started writing plays. I took a ten-week workshop from two-time Governor General Award winning playwright, Sharon Pollack. She taught some classes but mostly we did group critiques with Sharon leading the way. I had written a particularly strange piece based on, wait for it, Dungeons and DragonsTM. Her central comment can be summarized as: why the f*** would anyone want to write about this anyway? She then went into great detail about plot, character and dialogue. I took it all to heart and produced a new draft, keeping only 8 pages out of 68. Her comment: Why the f*** would... You get the point.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a truly execrable piece of writing on every level you can imagine. I learned a tremendous amount from her workshop and Sharon and I became the best of friends – and when I got better as a playwright, she was the very first one to tell me so. But the biggest lesson I learned: YOU CAN’T PLEASE EVERYONE! So you better please yourself.
The Story belongs to you. It is your child and it is your nemesis. You must struggle with it. You must discipline it. You must give it moral direction. In the end, you must set it free to live its own life. (You must learn not to overwork a metaphor.)
Listen to all criticism – listen only to that which serves the work.
Great advice – How do you know? Everyone has to sort of figure that out for themselves but I rely on two things: instincts and the democratic method. Sometimes, you just know when a critique has hit the mark. It feels right. Usually, the critic has focused on something you feel uneasy about. You know there is a problem but you can’t quite pin it down. Or, the critic holds up a fun house mirror to the work allowing you to see it from a completely different angle. It is that new perspective that will lift the work to the next level.
Democracy works. too. If everyone focuses on the same scene, you know it must be changes; if they all see the same problem, you know how. Sometimes, there is a split opinion. Then I choose the side that I feel is closest to the mark. Just remember though, this is an Animal Farm democracy – some critiques are more equal than others. After a while, you come to know that some people’s strengths are a perfect match for your weaknesses – or to put it more bluntly, they are a better reader of your work than anyone else, including you.
Which brings me to the final point. The purpose of critiquing changes over time. When you first start out, you pretty much take whatever is offered. Everyone seems like a better writer than you. Over time with practice, confidence and success, you will seek out different kinds of critiques and different kinds of critics. I no longer rely only on other writers – I seek sophisticated readers, as well. I even tell people not to bother with certain elements of the work – I don’t want to change them because they say what I want. It is my work and I’ll live or die on my own judgement.
Eventually, some writers internalize the critiquing process, they learn to examine their work with alien eyes. Or they simply follow their highly honed instincts and the responses of few perfect readers. I’m not there yet and maybe I never will be.
It’s all about the work.