Giving and Accepting Criticism

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License - Flickr)

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License – Flickr)

Giving and accepting critiques is difficult. It takes tact. It takes courage. It takes an understanding that you want to improve, and in order to improve, you have to go out on a branch and take some risks. You might even have to fall down a few times and get your knees scraped. I know I certainly did.

This post has two halves. I can't talk about writing a critique without talking about how to best accept a critique. They're hand in hand. You have to write your critiques with the writer's acceptance in mind. Soapboxes, however marvelous they may be, just don't work so well. Climb up on it, and your critique is likely to join the pile of refuse left under the bridge.

I am approaching this post with quite a bit of trepidation. Why? It is a lot to cover. I want to cover as many angles of this as possible. But, this is all opinion, for all I'm trying to straddle both sides of the fence. I don't want the grass to be greener. I want to dig in, get dirty, and perhaps help people learn to critique better while also learning a few trips to make accepting the critiques easier.

Before we begin, let's discuss why we critique.

Critiquing is more than helping someone improve their writing skills. It is also about improving your writing skills. In order to be able to critique, you must develop the ability to see things wrong with sentence, plot, chapter structure, scene structure, character arcs, and many more elements of writing. This isn't something that magically happens. You only improve these skills by using these skills. But, how can you improve these things by critiquing?

When you point out an error in someone else's writing, you're establishing in your memory that this is an error. You repeat this. You reinforce the belief that this certain behavior is incorrect. In turn, when you start to reread your own writing, you can start seeing it in your own sentences, your own plots, your own chapter structure, scene structure, and character arcs. You start to identify that you're doing these things as well.

This opens a door. It isn't a pretty door. You won't find diamonds, rubies, and glittering gems waiting to be claimed. You may find a depressing black hole, where all of the errors you so happily ignored are now in the spotlight, waiting to be seen, waiting to be corrected.

This is also dangerous. What if your opinion is wrong? Because when you critique, you are giving your opinion. Just because you dislike a character doesn't mean there is something inherently wrong with that character. If you don't feel a plot element is strong enough, this is still just your opinion. Grammar fluctuates. Language changes. Words get new meaning, and become something more or less than what they were ten years ago. Spelling changes. Is it color? Is it colour? There are some rules that are obvious. They're, there, and their won't change — at least not anytime soon. But what about gray and grey? They're both correct. Grammar becomes a matter of opinion, but you can base your opinion on grammar rules.

This leads me to a few rules of writing critiques that I should mention now.

  • Rule #1: Honesty is the best policy.
  • Rule #2: Your opinion is yours and yours alone. Share it, but don't force it on others. Anything you state in a critique is opinion, no matter how much you believe it is fact.
  • Rule #3: Facts are an open invitation to be proven wrong.
  • Rule #4: Kindness is worth more than your weight in gold.

Side note: When I reference the words ‘harsh' and ‘critique' together, I mean a hard-to-swallow, kindly written, to-the-point, constructive critique that doesn't pull the punches. I don't mean trolling, I don't mean mean for the sake of being mean. Whenever I use the word ‘harsh'

These are the rules I follow when I critique. I'll go into these one by one.

Rule #1: Honesty is the best policy.

Sugar-coating and lying does the victim writer no good. Tell the truth. If you don't like something, tell the person you do not like it. More importantly, tell them why you don't like it. Don't be afraid to tell them what you like and why at the same time. No piece of writing is all bad. You may not see the good points because you're so fixated on the bad things, but they're there. You just have to look hard enough and consider the elements of writing more closely. A good plot can be smothered with poor grammar, just as good writing can mask a horrible plot.

The point of writing a critique is to learn at the same time you teach. Your opinion may not sit well with the writer, but it is still valuable, especially if you learn something from writing the critique. But, in order to learn something from the critique, you need to invest your time and put your own writing at risk.

Rule #2: Opinions

This ties in with honesty, but in the sense that while you're being honest about what you're saying, you need to acknowledge that everything you write in a critique is your opinion. Forcing it on others is pointless. We'll talk about this shortly, but if you learn that not everyone is going to accept your opinions on their writing, the easier it will be for you to be honest about how you feel about their writing. It goes hand-in-hand. It boils down to the entire rule without much explanation needed: Your opinion is yours and yours alone. Share it, but don't force it on others. Anything you state in a critique is opinion, no matter how much you believe it is fact.

Rule #3: Facts are an open invitation to be proven wrong.

This is pretty self-explanatory. When you present something as a fact rather than a opinion, you're asking to be proven wrong. Don't state your sources when you critique unless asked for them, but you shouldn't stand on a soap box and think because you learned it this way means your way is right. It is very, very, very uncomfortable when you learn the way you were taught wasn't correct. Something to think about.

Rule #4: Kindness is worth more than your weight in gold.

When you critique someone, you're killing their baby. You're telling them they're not perfect. You're tearing apart their words, and something that is very personal to them. Be kind. Even if you hate something — loathe it, abhor it, or even despise it — that is no excuse for being rude to them. If their writing quality is that poor, teach, rather than taunt.

I have seen far, far too many times how rude people — or people who can only find the bad things in a piece of writing — damage the writing community as a whole. I will not state review as you want to be reviewed. That isn't accurate. Most people don't want to be reviewed harshly. They want to be told they did a great job and get a pat on the back.

I will, however, state you should review harshly, but with great kindness. Just because a writer isn't stellar now doesn't mean they can't become stellar in the future. But, in order for that to happen, they need to be taught. Teaching starts with considerate, thoughtful and constructive critiques.

Before I delve into accepting a critique, allow me to share how I format my critiques. This may help you learn to find your own style of constructive critiques.

My formatting is simple:

Chapter One, Scene One:

Chapter One, Scene Two:

So on and so forth.

In each section, I ask myself the following things: What caught my attention? What did I like? What made me stop reading? What made me want to read more? Did I like this character? Why or why not. What things nagged me as I was reading? Did I see a grammar error that came up over and over again? Did I like the plot? Why or why not? Did I have a clear understanding of the scene? The setting? The characters? The plot and character elements? How was the pacing? The tension?

I don't systematically write down these things, but I keep them in mind as I go. I repeat this for each and every section. If someone asked me for something specific — like plot help — I will make a section just for plot, and repeat the above formatting but with only plot notes.

If I find something that doesn't sit well with me, I point out what it is. I provide a sample of the sentence showing the change in action.  I do this because it is easier to show someone how to fix something than to tell them. If I don't like a plot device? I suggest alternatives. I take it to the next level. I do what I would do with my own writing, but try to fit the tone, the feel, and the goal of their writing. This is a challenge, because this person is not me. Moderation is necessary. But, if you show examples, offer alternatives, they might be able to discover for themselves what changes they can do that are of their own making.

You're welcome to use my style of critique, but I recommend you find your own path.

Many people write critiques with the goal of being critiqued. When you do this, you're asking for trouble.

Just how do you accept a critique? What things do you need to keep in mind? Scary stuff.

It is actually easier than you might think. Here are a few things I do. This isn't perfect. Sometimes I make mistakes and get cranky. That is because I'm a human. But, when I have these rather poor human moments, I make sure I do one thing: Apologize. If I lost my temper, the fault is with me, not with the person who gave the critique, no matter how scathing it was.

If a critique was that bad, and had nothing good to say about your book, chances are the person just didn't like your book. Pick out the things that make sense, keep them, and discard the rest of the critique. No one said you had to accept abuse. You don't. What you do need to do is accept that even the harshest critic may have something valuable to say.

And don't just knee-jerk react. If you're upset over a critique, walk away from it a bit. Don't immediately reply. Think about what was said. Give them the same amount of time and consideration that they gave you. They didn't like your book? So what? They spent a lot of time writing those words to you. It is your duty to at least seriously consider those words, no matter how harsh and hard to accept they are.

Go ahead and cry in a corner. Take a blanket and a hot cup of tea with you. I've been there, done that. Writing is hard. No one ever, ever claimed it was easy. And those people who say they wrote the perfect draft from the start without ever having fallen down in the process of writing it?

They're either liars or were too afraid to show their writing to the world until they had perfected the art. No one starts out writing at master quality, no matter what anyone else says. (And not that writing is ever perfected. It isn't.)

So, what can you do to minimize the pain of a critique?

Get experience. Get critiqued. Critique others. Critique in a way where it is hard to accept, but done in kindness and truth. Walk around in those shoes, get comfortable in them. Writing a good critique should be as hard as accepting that critique. Experience is what makes skin thick. It is what builds that emotional barrier that allows you to accept what is said.

Lie to yourself, and tell yourself that this person only means the best for you. Even if they don't. That doesn't matter. They gave you opinions, so consider them.

But if they prove to be a bad seed, therapeutic burning of a printout of the critique is totally acceptable. Just burn paper in a safe place that won't catch your house on fire. In private. I've burned a few people in public over critiquing, and it can get ugly quickly. Truth of the matter is, if you feel you need to get vindictive, you're probably wrong. I learned a few valuable lessons those times. Lashing out doesn't change the content of the critique, it doesn't make you look good, and an editor or agent might see it. They might even remember it in the future. And they will believe you aren't ready for publication because you can't handle a little burn.

It doesn't make the critic right, but it doesn't make you right either. The better virtue is to just shut up, politely thank them for their time, and leave it at that. If they pitch a fit that they are gods of writing and should be listened to, ignore them. They're not worth any more of your time at that point.

But always thank them, even if you don't mean it. It is the polite thing to do.

Trust me, having been there and done that, it is much harder to do than it sounds.

The rules of writing a critique apply to accepting a critique as well. Be Kind to the critic. They spent the time. And, perhaps, just perhaps, they will want to critique you again if you're polite to them. I know I've done repeat critiques for individuals who were able to accept a harsh critique and be kind in their responses. It makes me feel like I didn't waste my time.

Opinions are opinions, and just because you don't agree with the critic doesn't mean it isn't a valid point.

Accepting a critique is a lot of things, but above all, it is difficult. But, if you try to learn from the critiques, you can in turn improve how you critique, how you edit, and how you write.

I learned to write by critiquing. It works in both directions, if you are brave enough to give it as much effort as you can.

There will be more posts about this in the future, particularly about certain elements of writing and accepting a critique, but I hope that this is a good start.

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