What Stace had to say on Thursday, August 6th, 2009
On Critiques 6

Sorry this is so late. I overslept a bit this morning, and we finally, finally got Princess registered for school, and so went to take a little tour of the building. So I’m just now really sitting down.

So. On Monday I ask what your thought processes were as you critiqued last Thursday’s paragraphs, and I think the responses are great. Pretty much all of you said you read the paragraphs over once or twice first, then started thinking of places that felt not-as-strong to you, or places that didn’t work.

It could be argued I tipped your hand a bit by specifically telling you something was wrong and insisting that you find it, but then, most of the time when we’re given work to critique that’s exactly what we’re being asked to do.

So I think it’s great that you guys gave such thoughtful initial critiques, and then did a bit of thinking about your process as you gave it. I also think it’s great that a few of you commented that you hadn’t found anything wrong–nothing jumped out at you–so didn’t comment at all. That’s also fine.

I’ll be *very* interested to see your comments later, when given a piece to critique by someone who isn’t me and with whom you thus won’t have any familiarity.

This is generally the way I critique. I’m a member of the jump-out-at-me club, basically. I start reading, and don’t comment until I find something that feels weak to me. I don’t generally correct typos (but again, the people I crit for at this point are people I’ve known and worked with for a while, and I know they’ll find their own typos–more on that later) and will only comment on sentence structure if it really feels off to me.

I’m especially pleased that so many of you said you weren’t commenting on things that felt “wrong” so much as looking for areas where it could be better.

That is, to me, literally the most important part of critiquing. You’re not looking for things that are wrong. You’re looking for things that could be better. A critique is supposed to be helpful.

Several years ago I was given a piece to critique–not by an individual, but as part of something else, and I won’t give any further details because I don’t want to upset anyone.

I didn’t like the piece. I mean, I really, really didn’t like it. I had issues with the actions of some of the characters and I had issues with the writing.

I poured my heart into this critique. I pointed out areas I liked as well as areas I didn’t (and I do think it’s always good to comment on good things as well as bad). I wrote paragraphs about my issues with the ms. and made so many suggestions it was hard to follow the actual story anymore, it was so full of red.

But here’s the thing. At the top of the first page, I wrote an additional paragraph, and it said something like this:

Dear Author,
I have made a lot of comments below. Some of my comments may be rather difficult for you to read, and I apologize for that. But I urge you to really think about them. Read them, then step away for a few days and come back. Remember that I haven’t said these things to hurt you; hurting you is the last thing I want to do. I’ve made the comments I made because I genuinely feel you have talent, and that talent simply needs polish. My hope is that my desire to help you comes through strongly, and that you see my comments in that light and that ultimately they do help you. Don’t give up.

Now, I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m engaging in any horn-tooting here. My point isn’t what a darned nice person I am. (Or what a cruel bitch I can be as a critiquer). My point is that when doing a critique, it should always, first and foremost, be in your mind that you are trying to help someone.

And the second thing that you should remember is, this is not your story.

Your job is to help make the crit-ee’s story as strong as it can be, not to make it your own.

I really think the best way to show you what I mean by that is to start showing you the Mean & Useless Crits. So I’m going to post the first of those on Monday.

Meanwhile, think of the most or least helpful critique you ever got. What specifically made it helpful or unhelpful?


7 comments to “On Critiques 6”

  1. Debra Schubert
    · August 6th, 2009 at 4:41 pm · Link

    After requesting a partial on a previous novel, awesome agent Kristin Nelson wrote me a personal note saying I had too much back story at the beginning of the book. Of course, I knew it in my heart, but, hearing it from her gave me the confidence I needed to go back and slash away. My writing really took off after that. Crits from people you trust are priceless. Take them graciously and thank the literary gods. Then, get back to work and keep on writing!

  2. Cora
    · August 6th, 2009 at 7:53 pm · Link

    Least helpful (from a guy I liked quite a bit): “I have moral issues with pirate stories because historical pirates were killers, so I don’t like stories that romanticize pirates.”

    Which would have been acceptable if not helpful, if it had actually been a historical pirate story. However, this one was a fantasy story set on a planet with two moons.

    Most helpful: Probably the person who pointed out that the heroine spent way too much time waking up, sitting down at her dresser, listening to the sounds in the house without anything of relevance happening.

  3. BernardL
    · August 7th, 2009 at 7:16 am · Link

    The best part of the two editors’ critiques I’ve received so far is when they explain why. It’s very hard to defend (or accept a need to change) your style of writing without some idea why the editor didn’t like a particular section. The rounds of edits I’ve went through with them have changed everything I write now. For myself I don’t need the very nice caveat you wrote at the beginning of your critique but for most folks I know it’s essential. I’ve often wondered why writers seeking to become professionals are so thin skinned. No editor on earth can shake my confidence in what I write, but they sure have changed the way I do it. :)

  4. synde
    · August 7th, 2009 at 10:26 am · Link

    i love the things I learn about writing from you… :smile:
    you have made me a better writer..next up typing and spelling.. hugs..

  5. driftsmoke
    · August 7th, 2009 at 12:59 pm · Link

    Most helpful critique:

    A member of my crit group told me she couldn’t track my Protagonist’s motivation through my (complete) manuscript. She didn’t trifle with sentence structure, typos, or word choices. She just told me she couldn’t track my Protagonist’s motivation. I am rewriting the novel right now with a real direction in mind. There is a place for moving commas and changing word choices–I really do believe that. However, I think it’s more important that I fix Protagonist’s motivation first and foremost. Thanks again for that, Cheryl.

    Least helpful critique:

    During college, in a writing class peer critique session, another student told me there was nothing redeemable about my writing–that it just sucked and there was no way I could improve it. I let her comments bother me so much that I didn’t write for six years. And I still wonder every time I look at my writing…

  6. Tyhitia
    · August 7th, 2009 at 1:10 pm · Link

    The best critique I received was completely honest—not nice, just the truth, and it made me a better writer. 😀

    The least helpful was a crit that did not tell me what exactly was “wrong” with the story. It was too general. 😕

  7. Felicia Fredlund
    · August 7th, 2009 at 4:42 pm · Link

    The least helpful critique I’ve gotten so far was from a friend I respect a lot. I just didn’t realise until after that maybe he wasn’t the best to go to for writing critique. What he said was basically “I don’t like this word.” and that’s what a lot of his comments consisted of. His personal opinion on a word, and therefore I should change it?
    I got really upset by it for a while, then I realised it was not objective criticism but personal opinion that his entire critique was made of. After that I haven’t gone to him for critique. Gee, I wonder why 😉

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