Critiquette: I

A four-part guide to giving (and getting) good feedback
 to (and from) other writers on the Internet (and elsewhere)

Critiquette lays the groundwork for how to give text-based feedback. This approach forms one of the pillars of my editing methodology. Use it yourself when you are giving feedback to other writers, and use it measure the worth of feedback you receive, whether from your writing group, writing buddy, or your writing coach.

I Come to Bury Critiquing, Not to Praise It

Having your work read and critiqued by a friend, fellow writer, or writing coach is considered to be one of the pillars (along with formal instruction and casual reading) of developing your writing skills. This is not a new concept. Though today the Internet allows writers (a subspecies of Homo sapiens native to the entire planet, but thinly-scattered) to indulge in the  ritual exchange of manuscripts with heretofore unimagined ease, even before cheap photocopying made handouts an option, writers living within horse-and-buggy distance regularly gathered around the oil lamp to read aloud and comment upon one another’s works-in-progress. If you want to know if your vision has remained intact on the perilous journey from your mind to your readers’, there ain’t nothing like it.

But getting (let alone paying) someone to read your MS is one thing; getting them to produce what is traditionally known as productive criticism--a critique that you will find useful or even revelatory rather than confusing and discouraging--is another. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

What You Want
You will never say so, but it is impossible not to believe, at least to some extent, that upon submitting one’s story for critique it will be found excellent, moving, and beautifully written. This does not mean that you are a wimp, or living in a fantasy; it means you’re alive. An underlying high opinion of one’s own writing is not unexpected; IMO it is a necessary internal measuring stick. It is also one of the reasons that writers have the urge to seek out other opinions. What you must do is set that belief to one side and tell yourself that the story is not finished until your test readers have read it and you’ve had a chance to consider their reactions; that an informed, educated critique will brighten dark corners, turn up obvious oversights, and teach you something about your craft; that since you are being critiqued by well-read friends or other writers with similar interests and experiences, you are in for a treat.

Ready? Good. Because nine times out of ten you will not get what you want or need.

What You Get
You probably already know this too, via the gauntlet of experience, but it’s mighty hard to put words to the feelings that arise when ten different people tell you ten different things about your story; when most of what is said is negative and what is positive comes across as superficial. You will think that half of what you hear is irrelevant, but will feel that saying so will lay you open to charges of resisting (which you have been trained to believe is bad). You will say nothing, because you know you have to be tough (which you have been trained to believe is good).

What is going on? How can so much good will and the exchange of mutually beneficial communication fail so often? In my experience, the majority of critiquers (with unimpeachable intentions but absent an understanding of what they are supposed to be doing) will feel that they must put on one hat or another to respond to your work; to imitate some critiquing style they think is desired rather than to simply critique. You may recognize a friend’s style (or your own--or mine):

The Professor: “Hamlet is a vivid character, but he is inconsistent from one act to the next. He talks a lot but doesn't do much, which is telling, not showing. You’ve got too many extraneous characters and open-ended subplots, and you’re too fond of digression and flowery passages. For example, the /Neither a borrower nor a lender, be/ scene. What does this have to do with the murder plot? Cut out every unnecessary word to tighten your story. Economy is the secret to powerful writing.” When faced with the responsibility of saying something that is supposed to be meaningful, many critiquers will regurgitate well known writing maxims that seem to apply. While not necessarily wrong, this approach is sure to cause annoyance because it so shockingly general, and because it does not take into account the key issues of whether or not the material in question actually works*.

The Reviewer: 1) “Wow. This awesome tale of blood, insanity, and incest snatched me out of my mundane life like a screeching bird of prey and carried me off in its talons to a terrifying world where campy ghosts, gravediggers, and itinerant minstrels vie with one another for bragging rights to the kingdom. Even better than your other blood-n-guts thriller, Macbeth.” 2) “In Act One, Scene Two we are introduced to Ophelia, a sweet old-fashioned girl caught between an ambitious father and a moody boyfriend. Her father orders her to pursue Hamlet, who turns on her and suggests she should go to the local nunnery and forget about having children.” Comments such as those in (1) either reflect confusion between a critique and a back-cover blurb or are a form of vanity by which the critiquer shows off her own writing talents and ignores yours. Even if she seems to like your writing, you only learn why in the most general sense. As for (2), receiving a critique that reads like an outline of the plot is even more irritating, as it tells you nothing you don’t already know upside down and backwards. Proof that your junior high English teacher was right when she scrawled “You forgot to give your opinion!” across your book report.

The Acquisitions Editor: “You have a nice style, Bill, and that ghost stuff is a good hook, but these days if you don’t grab your reader in the first stanza, nobody will bother to read on. Hamlet, supposedly the star of the show, doesn’t even appear until page twenty! And I really think you need to spice up the Ophelia scenes a little. Sex sells, like it or not.” Some of your readers will be so sure they know how editors think that the cynic in you will begin to wonder why they themselves aren’t best-selling authors. Be forewarned: “I enjoyed it, but you’ll never be able to sell it,” is a put-down. It reflects an assumption that there is only one way to write; that this one way can be defined; that the critiquer knows all about this one way, and that smart writers don’t write any other way.

The Rhetorician: “I find your use of anastrophe most intrusive. I don’t mind making a couple of passes at a line to extract all the juices, but the third time through is drudgery. /Who would fardels bear/? Indeed. Could you be more abstruse?” Well, this is one way to insure that everybody’s dictionary gets dusted occasionally (anastrophe refers to the transposition of the normal word order.) While quite possibly true,  comments that are founded in a sense of literary superiority are of no practical value to you as a writer, even if you can tell what is meant. And as for “could you be more abstruse?” It is always a mistake (offensive and counterproductive) for the critiquer to ask the writer in any way shape or form "What were you thinking?"

The Proofreader: “In Act Three, Scene Three you start three lines with ‘O’ (‘O wretched State! O bosom black as death! O limed soul’). Suggest recasting at least one of these lines, perhaps changing one ‘O’ to ‘My’ to avoid repetition Also, you may want to consider changing ‘Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands’ in Act Three, Scene Two. It’s a double negative. And I’ve added 4,306 periods (full stops, if you're British) and made even more spelling corrections. Get a dictionary.” Nothing more depressing than the critiquer who devotes ten hours to reading your novel and does nothing but correct your spelling and punctuation. Let me hasten to state that no one with a sense of proportion would object to having their work proofread (though please note it’s next to useless until you get a final draft). But these comments, like those of the Rhetorician above, miss the point of the critique because don’t say anything about your story. Story story story! Moreover, I’ve edited for a number of publishers over the years, and while it is axiomatic that you don’t want spelling and punctuation mistakes in your MS, no acquisitions editor has ever rejected a MS because it contained a couple of common typos. Getting proofread is different from getting critiqued.

The Cheerleader: “Oooh, I loved it. Just a couple of things.... Your sentences are too long. In the scene that begins ‘To be or not to be,’ there are like three sentences with more than fifty words each. I do that all the time too! I have to watch myself, or I just go on and on. What I do to make myself toe the line is to use the grammar check in my word processing application. Most of them have really good one's with lots of useful features now. If yours doesn’t, you should upgrade! It’s worth it! You just set it to flag any sentences longer than 18 words! And paragraphs with more than seven sentences in them!” Always annoying to work on your craft for ten or 20 years and to be addressed as if you’re a newbie (don’t take it personally; it’s her style and you are not alone). More important, this critique commits the cardinal sin of assuming that you can (and should) write by numbers. Just because one writer has decided, on unsupportable advice, to avoid long sentences, doesn’t mean everyone has to follow suit (37 words, if you’re counting).

The Bibliognost: “Your story is reminiscent of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer in its use of the play-within-a-play device. In The Nun’s Tale, Chaucer explores the perils of infidelity, a topic he touches on more than once in the entire series (The Canterbury Tales). He touches on the nunnery thing, too, which you might find useful. Consider reading the complete Tales for further insight.” *Sigh* The pitfall critiquers fall into most often involves the idea that you will write a better book if you immediately stop what you are doing and read another well known and highly acclaimed book that your book is doomed to be overshadowed by. Which is not to say we don’t learn anything from reading other books or stories. It’s just that between drafts four and five of your own book or story is probably not the time. More to the point, once again this critiquer is not actually saying anything about the MS in her hands.

The Contrarian: “I didn’t like it. I don’t like horse stories / mysteries / the supernatural / war stories / chick lit / science fiction / romance / historical novels / horror stories / first person stories / juvenile books / poetry / steampunk / YA / etc., etc. etc.” And thank you very much for participating and sharing both your lack of imagination and your sensational ego.

Are we making progress towards developing our writing skills yet, Bill?

What You Need
Let me reiterate that I’m not trying to kill the concept of writing buddies and writers groups; I’m trying to arm you with the tools you need to get more out of them, which included showing what not to do. The above examples are based on critiques I have myself heard, read, received, and on sad occasion, given. The two things they have in common are 1) a disconnect from the text and the writer’s intent as it is revealed in the text, and 2) an assumption that you have to put on a critique hat to give a critique.

So what do writers need when they are at the point when the WIP is ready for test readers? They need feedback:

The Reader: 1) “I disliked Polonius intensely. I was glad Hamlet killed him. What a pompous ass! And I admit that though I loved the language in the suicide scene, I found the assumption that Ophelia went crazy just because she was jilted to be sexist and offensive. I wanted a better reason, and thought you were going to imply that her father had mentally abused her in some way. I really liked the suicide scene, which I thought it  spooky, but the annoying reasoning just bugged me.” 2) “I was caught up short by the announcement that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead. I went along with the whole luring Hamlet to England idea, but I just can’t buy it that they died, and somehow Hamlet lived. Too convenient. I really wanted an explanation as to what happened. That was my least favorite part.”

So what’s the difference? The Reader does not worry about fixing anything; she does not think about English classes she has taken, writing conferences she has attended, or NY Times reviews she has read. She just tells the writer what she thought and felt when she read the material, without straining those thoughts and feelings through any filter at all; without worrying whether the feedback will be useful or good enough, and without worrying what the writer is going to do with it or think of her for giving it.

* "To work" is used in the artistic sense, where it is synonymous with "to succeed," implying that in the face of all preconceptions of why a given story element should fail, yet it does not. cf "works for me."

----end part 1---- 

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