On Critique and Criticism

 SO…

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about critiques lately. That is not surprising, given I’ve been planning the release of my first novel. Once you publish anything, irrespective of your intentions, you open yourself to criticism.

Artists need to be thick-skinned.

That’s the mantra that every artist, every writer hears. And it’s true to some extent. However, there is a difference between criticism and critique, and one’s reaction to each should be expected to differ. To explore that, let’s look at the difference between the two.

The dictionary.com definition of criticism reads as follows:

“1. The act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.  2. The act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.”  A third definition reads, “The act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.”

If you look up critique, you may be surprised to find it simply reads, “to review or analyze critically.” And therein lies the problem. Criticism, when well-practiced, is performed as a critique. The best reviewers start with explaining what is good, offer what needs improving, and sometimes even go so far as to offer suggestions as to how the work could be improved. Those are the valuable few who provide not just criticism, but critique.

Unfortunately, all too often, what is offered meets the second definition of criticism. The reviewer believes their role is to sharpen the pen, and point out errors in judgment, style, or execution. By so doing, the theory goes, the artist’s work will improve.

In theory.

I have rarely seen it work in execution. Indeed, the very act of critiquing was derived from providing criticism, although the intentions of the two are wholly different. For one thing, no one produces a work for the purpose of soliciting criticism. Criticism tends to be unsolicited. Critiques are not. When an artist sends their work, regardless of their words, they are probably not asking you, “Tell me all the ways this sucks.” A practiced few will be able to take your words as criticism about the work, and not themselves. I, for example, have zero emotional investment in the work done in my day job. If you tell me what you hate, I make it better.

Art isn’t a day job, unless it’s works-for-hire.

It’s true – we artists are emotionally invested in our work. That does not mean we don’t want to know what’s wrong with it. It is more true that we don’t want to know only what’s wrong with it. If a critique partner says, “I love the book, but here’s my list of 20 things I think you should change,” the writer hears, “I’m saying ‘I love the book,’ but I can only seem to think of things that suck.” Maybe the critique partner is sincere and loves the work enough she wants to help turn it into a masterpiece. Or, maybe he thinks it’s sub-par work and is too gentle to say so. The point is, under that scenario, it is hard for the writer to tell which is true.

Offering critiques, to a great extent, is teaching. One valuable lesson most great teachers have learned is that students do not learn as well from negative input as they do from positive input. Put another way, people are not looking for problems. They are looking for things that need to be improved, along with potential  solutions. In addition, if the only thing you tell your student is what they are doing wrong, expect them to quickly become de-motivated. I have taught students of all ages, in schools, in college, at work, at home, and have yet to meet even one who did not respond more to encouragement than criticism. They want tools, not insults.

So give them tools.

Not being an expert in receiving critiques, I did some research, and compiled a list of rules. Surprisingly, pretty much everyone had the same list. These are not gospel, however; they are suggestions. What technique you follow will depend on the personality of the person being reviewed. A writer, for example, who is largely “thinking” dominant, will react better to being given a list of factually based critiques that they can go fix. A more value-centered artist will need to know, first, that you have connected with their work, that you “get” them in some way. If you did not “get” the work, start by connecting with what they are trying to achieve, and offer suggestions to help them reach that goal.

Shut up and give them the damn list already.

Ah the voices, they never stop, do they? So here’s the damned list already. (The voices don’t use proper grammar, by the way.) These rules are meant to be directed to the critique-artist partnership, not just the critique partner.

1. Critiques are solicited. Criticism is not. Understand which you are giving, and why you are giving it. If it is critique, expect to be a bit more tactful than you would be if you were a paid critic. If you are the artist and solicited a critique don’t act like you’re being reviewed by the New York Times. You put it out there for feedback, so deal with it.

2. Don’t start no stuff, won’t be no stuff. If the artist has shown they are not receptive to critique, do not waste your time. Find someone who will be. They may be insecure or defensive about their work, or your two styles of giving and receiving critique may be incompatible. The partners should first discuss their styles and have a clear set of expectations from the partnership.

Critique partners, if you know in advance you don’t like the type of work the artist is producing, tell them, or politely decline. If I know you hate vampire books, I don’t really want you reviewing my vampire book. Duh.

3. My god, will you start with the good stuff, for crying out loud? Um, sorry. Yes, this is my pet peeve. I admit, if you don’t do this, our critique session will not go well.

As Melissa Donovan writes in How to Provide Helpful Critiques to Other Writers:

“When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good. This is the cardinal rule of effective critiquing, and I cannot emphasize this enough: always start by telling the writer what works and where the strengths lie. By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.”

I can’t really add anything to that other than I agree, wholeheartedly. This, great critique partners do well; others do not. Students don’t always need praise, but they do need to know they are appreciated. Vague statements like, “I really like the piece,” don’t resonate. It’s like a husband telling his wife she’s “pretty,” all the while looking at other women. Why, exactly, is she pretty? She wants specifics, fool.

If you are the writer, and the critique partner forgets to mention anything specific they like, gently probe to find out which elements they feel are working. It will get you off your heels a bit, and ensure you don’t change the parts in editing that didn’t need to be fixed.

This is a really long post.

Hush, I’m nearing the end.

4. Don’t make snap judgments. If you are going to offer critiques that will affect the artist’s end product, take it seriously. Spend time with the work, and read it more than once, if possible. The artist has likely read it more than anyone else ever will, and will be more receptive if they understand you have taken time with the work.

Artists, don’t assume you always understand what the critique partner meant. Take the time to ask questions, if you have any doubt. They will likely be delighted you are taking their critique seriously. And leave your defensiveness at home when you do.

5. It’s not the artist, it’s the work. If you are the critique partner, refer to the work, not the artist. The writer should not leave like she was being judged. If you are the artist, try to separate yourself from the work. Just because Chapter 11 kind of sucked doesn’t mean you are a bad person.

6. If you don’t have a solution, don’t bring up the problem. This, I learned from over 25 years working in the business world. I cannot tell you how many executives I heard say this. It does not mean, as less-successful people think, “Don’t bring me problems.” It means, “Spend some time thinking about the problem, and help me by telling me what you think should be done instead.” The writer may not do what you think, but you may just spur them into an even better idea.

The artist should focus on solutions, if the critique partner does not. For example, a critique partner told me a lead character wasn’t working. When I probed for more info, they told me he was being too passive. That actually spurred an important character-development part of the storyline, and made the book much better. I had made him passive, without realizing it, and allowed him to grow during the story.

7. Do the dirty. Work. After you’ve established the basic tenets, and the artist is receptive, focus on the meat. At this point, hopefully, you’re past sensitivity, and can just get straight to “this is the stuff that stinks, and here’s what I think you need to do.” As the writer, if you never reach the level of maturity that allows you to take this without emotion, you might consider an emotionally safer hobby. As a career, it will kill you.

8. It’s not your book. Don’t focus on style, focus on substance. Did they convey the story? Does it hold together without holes or unneeded sidetracks? Are the characters likeable? You should not be focused on whether they say “utilize” versus “use.” They are both words, and they get to choose their own. As the artist, if you’ve asked to be critiqued, don’t hide behind, “it’s my book and I’ll do what I want.” Once you put it out there, it becomes everyone’s book. If you want it to be yours, keep it on the computer.

9. Do the hard work. This one is directed more towards the artist. Once you get the critique, and have taken the time to ask any needed clarify questions, put it aside for a short while. Ms. Donovan refers to this as the Hangover. An apt description, to say the least. Actually, I’d prefer the hangover.

After you’ve stopped for a deep breath, start at the beginning, and go through each critique point. You should spend as much time understanding and using their critique as you would want them to spend with your work. Take it seriously. And remember, on word processing programs like MS Word, there are both “accept” and “reject” buttons. You don’t have to agree with all the critiques.

Critique partner, focus on the previous sentence.

10. Follow up. Once everything is done, and, if you are both so inclined, allow the critique partner to see the edited work to understand if it’s improved. It may cycle another round of edits, but that’s the nature of the beast.  One bonus suggestion: know when you’re finished. Perfection is stupendously overrated.

26 Comments

  1. Great advice! I look forward to reading more–especially since I’m in your Fantasy 3 group for the Campaign. Enlightening times are ahead, I’m sure. 🙂

  2. Jess, thanks for the comment. 🙂

  3. shelleykoon says:

    I thought I was the only person out there with long blog posts – I feel better now! I think we might have been separated at birth Bill – really great post and right on. The only thing I might as (really I’m not critiquing I promise!) is on point #6, there are time when I critique and I will hit on something that is not working for me but I do not have a good solution. I will mention this to the author and admit that I do not have an answer but to make a note and see if other get hung up on the same thing (I’m in a critique group with fiver others and it is common for this to happen and someone else in the group hit ion the same issue and has a solution). This alerts he author that it might be an area to look at if more then one person is getting hung up on it.

    OK see – even when I reply to a post it’s long! I’ll go now and save some space for others ;P

    1. Shelly,

      I always thought I’d been separated at birth from someone … or adopted. (My sisters would agree.)

      On point #6, I agree with you. Sometimes all we’ll know is that it doesn’t “feel right.” We should still offer the feedback. Long comments are welcome, by the way. 🙂

  4. rddenton says:

    Bill,

    This is a fucking awesome post. Regardless of whether or not we may (or may not be) in the same group in the Campaign, I had to stop by and let you know how great this is. I’ve never thought of a difference in the two, and while I always do my best to provide constructive critiques of my fellow writers, this really mentally reshaped how I should expect to convey suggested improvements.

    I’m retweeting this. People need to read it.

    Good luck with the Campaign, and with all your writing endeavors!

    1. Rance, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

  5. I agree- very good advice- if I might be so bold as to add something. Tell your critique partners what you’re looking for. I have two that I frequently don’t know what they want from me. They say they want to be mainstreamed published but balk at changing to fit that mold. If all you want it typos, POV, or whatever speak up it makes life so much easier.

    1. Yes! I have frequently been guilty of that one myself. In fact, it was the critique process that finally made me decide what it is I want.

      Yours should be the 1st step. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Alana says:

    Great post! I run a writing workshop and am very much in the critique camp of things. Writers have it hard enough in the world without fellow writers running them over. It doesn’t build a thick-skin, it just makes people insecure about their work.

    By the way, I’m also in Write Campaign. Nice to meet you!

  7. Alana, nice to meet you to. I’m excited about the Write Campaign (albeit still a bit confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.) 🙂

  8. Excellent advice Bill. I’d recommend this post to anyone new to critiquing. I’m in the Write Campaign too, but not in your group. I followed a link from Rance Denton’s blog and I’m glad I did!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  9. fuzzymango says:

    Hey,

    Fellow campaigner here, dropping in to say that this is freaking awesome. I especially appreciate your comments about “If you don’t have a solution, don’t bring up the problem”—with some notable exceptions, this is one of the biggest problems I’ve had with critiques I’ve received, and I so appreciate CPs and betas who offer suggestions on how to fix things (even if they’re only vague suggestions). Thank you for writing this!

    1. Thanks, fuzzymango. 🙂 I appreciate your joining the discussion.

  10. Reblogged this on This Blog Intentionally Blank and commented:

    A post from September 2011 on the differences between giving a critique (which is useful) and giving criticism (which is not).

  11. Y. Prior says:

    well said – well said – and someone was just complaining on their blog about how they get comments and emails – when they are stirring up stuff with their controversial posts and well – almost asking for it.

    and you said it well about having thick skin and not taking it so personal – because indeed,
    “Once you publish anything, irrespective of your intentions, you open yourself to criticism”

    also enjoyed the take on the difference between this:
    “Critiques are solicited. Criticism is not.”
    and favorite part is
    “refer to the work, not the artist” (very very wise for many situations – even in business!)

    however, I do not “fully” agree with #6 – I get the point on that one, like to be solution minded and to not just passively see what is wrong – but so many times that is the very reason we share ideas – or why we share the gray areas we are seeing – it is because we are better together and sometimes we need to discover and uncover things together.

    If I wait for a solution to bring it up – I rob the other person of the chance to probe and explore – and I may rob everyone a chance to brainstorm the solution. Because many times it is a gift just to sniff out a problem – and it may take a lot of combined effort to find the solution and so I think we should mention problems even if we have no idea of the solution (and some people will just always be better at spotting things to fix while others will always be better at solving – and so we can stretch and grow – but when we work from our gift mix – it can be more win-win.

    in closing, I really enjoyed this post and look forward to reading it again. and yeah it was a bit of a long post— but sometimes a nice meaty post is a treat. 🙂
    ~y.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I agree with you about #6. It really should be taken with a grain of salt. In truth, as a writer, nothing annoys me more than if someone wants to tell me how to fix something “broken.” Tell me why it’s broken; it’s my job to know how to fix it.

      What I’m really talking about here is a relationship. If the critique partner has no solution, they should still bring up the problem, providing they are willing to help the other person solve it. The artist should be the one to probe for enough information to formulate a solution. As you say, some people are adept at finding problems, but less so at coming up with solutions. In those cases, what I find unhelpful is if they believe just throwing out problems is the end of the job. If I probe for more info, and all I get is shrugs, then they’ve wasted my time.

      Again, thanks for your comment. 🙂

  12. The only type of critique I have found valuable, (excluding issues of grammar and punctuation of course) is when it deals with technical aspects of the story. And this includes plausibility issues as well.
    I made a mistake regarding body motion in a scene involving a car accident in my novel and the editor spotted it and explained the dynamics. Two sentences and the problem was solved.
    Most people would not have picked this up, and I’d venture this would apply to many editors if they did not understand such dynamics. Truth be told, it might have been considered by some as nitpicking, especially in a humorous fantasy novel.
    But I thought it was important and it made me feel better about the book.

    The rest…

    As the group 10cc once sang. “Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake.”

    😉

    1. I must confess, I’ve never thought much of critiques. I’ve done quite a bit of teaching in my life, and I’ve never met a single student who did better when they were given negative feedback.

      That being said, I realize that most others advocate having a critique group. I just do it Stephen King’s way and have one reader whom I trust. So Maria is my critique group and she believes in me enough that she almost always focuses on what I do well.

      I’ve learned not to bristle when people tell me what’s wrong, and from a very small few I even appreciate it. I guess that’s what it comes down to: people you trust.

      I do like technical feedback, as you said. I also appreciate it if people who read my stuff tell me when something isn’t as good as my normal work. But other than that, I’m mostly full of “fuck offs.”

      1. Arkenaten says:

        LOL..yeah the ”fu’s.”

        I hate it when it has been ”suggested” why don’t I do such and such. Take that with a pinch of salt.

        I trust my son’s judgement and we have worked somecertain scenes together,
        sometimes actually enacting out a physical aspect to see if it feels ‘right’.

        I try to read widely but there isn’t a lot out there I enjoy these days, and I assume the same when folks read my stuff. So I am never miffed if people pass on by or say nothing.
        Can’t please everyone so you have to please yourself first, right?

        1. Arkenaten says:

          I have no idea what a somecertain is.

          Oh, for an instant edit facility.

          1. I just assumed you were wordcombining like William Faulkner. It shows advanced writing skills. But I don’t get why I can edit others’ comments on my blog, but not my own comments.

            1. Arkenaten says:

              Can you not? I can on this side.
              Odd.

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