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The Value of Critiques
Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011 3:54 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

I wasn't really sure where to post this. It doesn't seem to fit in any section of the Craft of Writing threads, but I think this is a very important thing to discuss.

Recently, I sent my very rough draft of Trial by Fire out to a few betas. I like sending out to betas before I do any form of revision.

I am so glad I made this decision.

What process do you use when you ask for -- and receive -- a critique? Critiquing is far more than having the courage to ask for a review, but it is being in the mindset of removing your attachments to the story, putting aside ego and pride, and learning as much as you can.

On the flip side, as I critique, I try to be as blunt and honest about what I liked and didn't like so others can improve.

However, how do you judge if someone really wants to improve or has the courage to accept a critique? At what point, do you as the person being critiqued, accept a harsh critique despite a lack of diplomacy because it is the truth? Do you find yourself better for having the courage to accept this even though the critique may not have been wrapped in sugary love?

As a writer, I find I do not get my tail feathers lit on fire often enough. I have been blessed by a few, truly harsh critiques (of both draft and synopsis). The words hurt, but they were honest and true, and spoken with good intention despite the fact that there is no real 'nice' way to set someone on their rump like I needed. And still need.

Does your pride or ego allow you to accept a critique in all of its glory when it does exactly that? What are your experiences with this?

These blazing critiques showed me one thing: You only hurt people by sugar coating your critiques so much that you can't say the weaknesses of the writing. Because of these blazing critiques, I think I will have an easier time accepting the 'harsher' critiques.

And a harder time accepting the critiques that are too polite and too nice.

I would *love* to know what you all think on this.

Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 1:52 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 51

I'm a huge fan of harsh (but constructive) critiques. I love getting them. I'm getting better at giving them.

I had a critique once that made me cry. That sucked. But it made me take a good, hard look at what I was writing (it also resulted in being paralyzed on that project for nearly a year). I've since gotten better at taking harsh criticism, and listening to my gut when it comes to figuring out whether the comments have merit or not.

I feel like if you're on a site like this, you better have a thick skin. If not, if you don't want harsh criticism or your want it sugar-coated, then put that in your author's note so that people know that going into it.

The harsh criticism is what makes us better writers. Without it, we just keep doing what we've been doing, and improvement is very, very slow (if it happens at all).

When giving harsh criticism, I always try to make sure I include the positives as well as the negatives. I've yet to encounter a single book on a critique site that I couldn't find *something* nice to say about.

The issue I've found, though, is that sometimes including the positives causes the author not to listen to the negatives. They get the mentality of, "Well, it wasn't that bad. See, they liked this part over here, so the rest of it must be okay, too." They completely gloss over the part where you've told them that the whole thing needs a rewrite because it's completely implausible. So it's hard to walk the line between being completely negative and having them ignore the critique completely because they feel like you're just being a downer, or giving too much positive and having them ignore the negative and just latch onto the one or two good things you said.
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 5:49 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

I don't have a problem with negative criticisms per se. I take every criticism pretty seriously. Writing is communicating. And every critique is a document of what I managed to communicate, and what I failed to communicate, to another person. That's gold, as far as I'm concerned. I can always use that kind of information, even if the use I make of it is only, "Clearly, the audience this person represents is simply not going to be onboard for what I have to offer and I think I can live with that."

My trouble comes when a critique is so negative that I begin to wonder why the person is even reading my piece. I presume that if someone takes the time to read something I wrote and then cares enough to write a critique that there's something about the piece that engaged them. I would really like to know what it was, in that case.

I read a lot of pieces online that I just don't think I can help, that I just can't enjoy. The vagueness of plot and character, the awkwardness of expression, the regular asyntactic sentence structure, the constant use of ready-made phrases--it all gets to be too much and I have to stop reading and move on to someone else's sample. I tend to think that it would be simply rude or sadistic of me to comment on such a piece. Makes me feel like Simon Cowell, and I don't have the cred to be Simon Cowell. I'm just some guy on the internet with an opinion.

As a critic I always try at least to conclude with something along the lines of: "In spite of all the problems I had with 'X, Y, and Z' I really enjoyed the 'P, Q, and R' of your piece." And if I can't come up with a P, Q, and R I don't comment.

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011 12:42 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

In terms of receiving a critique - I don't care how the critique comes - harsh or sugar coated - as long as it comes and it's honest. Perhaps it's just me, but I think harsh critiques are easier to receive (in writing) because they're usually chocked full of suggestions. However, even the sugar coated critiques tell you the problem if you learn to read between the lines. And I generally assume that if I've received no suggestions for change (e.g. comments like "fun story, keep it coming", or even nothing at all) it's because the story was so bad no one wants to be the first to tell me.

Giving a critique is another matter. I never know where that line is until I give the critique for the first time and gauge the person's response. I know what I want, but not everyone has the same expectations. Generally I assume that the worse the writing, the less the experienced the writer, and the less likely they are to be able to handle the full truth. I try to sugar coat these critiques by referring them to free tools and resources to discover writing basics on their own. On the flip side, if a WIP is written well and the writer clearly knows what he or she is doing, I'll go right to pointing out what's wrong, assuming that he or she is confident enough with their story to know that the rest is good (especially when the critique is accompanied by a star rating system).

The other factor to this, that we often forget about, is the other writers reading or listening to the critique. My biggest concern is that I will inadvertently scare someone off writing, or bringing their work for critique, because of something harsh I've said or written to another writer (because I believed the recipient could handle it).

p.s. Cameron: re people hearing only the positives and not learning from the negatives - I don't believe this to be the case. I believe society or nature or both have programmed us to take negatives more seriously than positives. However, everyone wants to be able to "save face". It may seem like the person has glossed over the negative, but that may be because they haven't figured out how to fix it their way yet. Give them time to work out the needed change, after all, it's the writer who has to deal with the consequences of the change, not the critiquer.

Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 2:12 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 5

I would rather have someone tear apart my work than blindly nod and say, "Wow, that's perfect." That said, I think there are ways you can tell someone their work sucks without flat out saying "You should be ashamed for even attempting to write, you talentless weasel."

My problem comes not from accepting criticism (be it harsh or not so harsh) but of knowing which criticism to pay attention to. I get feedback from two groups, and I might get four or five differing viewpoints on a passage. It's difficult to navigate, for sure.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 7:32 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

agreed. I want to know what I did WRONG. but tell me WHY its wrong, not just that its wrong.
Tori Schindler
Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 1:37 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 41

I love having the honesty that I think comes partially from being an online community and partially because we all want the same thing: to develop and perfect our writing. Sometimes it's hard to say what needs to be said, but I know I need to hear it even if it feels harsh for someone to say it. It's the only way I can improve not only the MS being critiqued, but my writing in general.
Posted: Friday, April 8, 2011 10:16 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 20

@Alexander - that's it, exactly. It's fine if the critique tells me that I've done something wrong, but please tell me why you think it's wrong.

The harsher the better, especially when it's a first draft, I think. Even when I've set something aside for a while, once I do a read-through, I'm back to the same "it's mah Baybee!" feeling. I need that reality from a good critique to get me grounded again and able to rip out the things that don't work.
Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 5:34 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 5

I think every critique, no matter how vague or lightly worded it may be, has something of value, even if that value is only one reader's very general response.

If I were giving star ratings to critiques, they would be based on a scale of usefulness (similar to the suggestion of using the stars on BC crits as a finished draft scale). Most useful to me-- a five star crit-- is a considered response telling me what worked for that reader and why.

Least useful is a crit that just attacks the genre or the writer and has no real relevance to the story on the page.

Somewhere in the middle are crits that look for the odd typo or broken rule of writing and don't have anything more to say beyond "this is the rule and you broke it, you can't use that word." (Sometimes those comments are useful, but usually not.)

My current writing group came together after I tried several weekly or monthly groups in my area and didn't find a good fit. The other members are a playwright (whose first play is currently in production as a staged reading for a regional company) and a former Hollywood writer (and award-winning playwright) who is now working on novels.

We all tend toward hyper-analytic critiques with a healthy dose of sarcasm. What makes the group work is that we are all absolutely committed to our work, and understand that critique is necessary and good for continued improvement, and we never take a comment about part of the work not working as a personal attack.

It is about the work, not the writer. We support each other as writers by shredding each other's work, not by disparaging the effort but by explaining exactly where we see the problem and how we would fix it if it were ours.

The flip side of this is that when one of us responds to a piece by saying, "This works, send it out, don't mess with a line," we know that's 100% genuine.
Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 5:49 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 8

A harsh critique shocks the writer into a critical distance with his or her work. It is easy to fall in love with your creations, even (or especially) when they are too ugly to live. I make no apologies for low grades and fierce criticism; if you want to be a successful writer, you will have to deal with much worse than someone on the internet telling you your characters are boring.
Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 3:12 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 5

I have to say I really dislike calling honest, thoughtful, and critical responses to stories "harsh". It implies a dismissive and angry attitude, which is not at all what I'd expect from a good critical reader.

It's the writer's responsibility to step back from her work and consider the critiques it receives; it is the critiquer's responsibility to read critically and respond candidly and constructively. I see no reason why this can't be done with good humor and a cooperative attitude.

Ultimately, we are all on the same team and working toward the same goal: to make the story better and to make ourselves better writers.
Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 7:01 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 8

To me, "harsh" implies a jarring and unpleasant experience. My favourite reviews to receive are the ones that unapologetically cut my work to ribbons. It's easy to find praise, so when I get or give criticism, I don't want padding or encouragement. It just slows you down.

Sometimes a story is dead on the page, and I'll tell the author to throw it away. Yes, it hurts to hear that. I've heard it before, and my instinct is to ignore it (because nobody puts Baby in a corner). When it's said with honest intentions, though, all the critic is trying to do is save you time. Some (perhaps most) stories really are dead, and useful for nothing but a learning experience. As a critic, it's my job to get the writer past all that dead wood into something worthwhile, and in my experience, harsh words work best. Cut that, toss that, tear out that. I'll tell you what you're doing well, but only if you're doing something well.

We are on the same team, but we are also, after a fashion, competitive. Still, I want my team to be strong, and I want my competition to be strong, because both lead to great writing, and that's what I want to read. In that sense, I don't mind antagonizing other writers. Even if they don't like me, they'll improve, and that makes me happy.

Not that I let myself be as mean as I want to be. I just haven't the heart!
Addie J King
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 12:06 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 16

I tell my group..."make it bleed"...by which I mean, take out the red pen and mark it up to your heart's desire.

I've also referred to it as a "Scorched earth reading"...in which they are free to annihilate it with abandon.

I get it back and go through the entire thing, line by line, page by page, with my computerized version...deciding which comments to implement and which to discard. Most get implemented. Some get discarded...especially if they're asking the question I want the reader to ask at the time. Some because I don't agree with the direction the story would take if I implemented it.

For me...saying "watch your typos" doesn't help, because I don't know if it's the same typo repeated or many typos throughout. Telling me that I've got a formatting error and what it is, does. "Watch formatting" really doesn't, unless there's some kind of explanation of what someone means.

If I get a vague crit, I still read back through everything to see if I can catch what's being said. A crit that sounds like it's not paying attention...I'll probably ignore....like one that refers to your MC as the wrong gender, when 27 other crits and betas readers never stumbled on that issue (cause then it just sounds like someone's making it up and didn't actually read the story).

I'm good with critique. I get a lot of it, and have for the last five years. It's rare that someone can ruffle me...but it does happen, like it does with all of us...we're human. Most of the time, I can let it roll...if I can't, then it's time to talk it over with someone else, privately, who has read my stuff, to make sure I'm not knee-jerk reacting, instead of hearing something I just don't want to hear.

When I do a crit I always try to say what's working for me along with things I would change. If there's a lot to change (beyond basic spelling and grammar) I try to focus on no more than three major points. (Pacing, POV, sentence structure, etc.).
Ellie Isis
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 8:49 PM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 60

In my crit group, we've been together so long that we can give thorough (and very blunt) critiques and rarely upset one another. We laugh at our own mistakes, and we welcome the "tear it up" criticism.

With newcomers, we always ask, "What sort of critique are you looking for?" We also ask, "What sort of writer are you?" In other words, is the person serious about getting published, in which case we let him or her have the big guns, or is the person merely looking for an audience with which to share stories written as a pure hobby.

I have no problem with harsh, constructive critiques. I do, however, get annoyed when a person critiquing me (and this has happened here) insults my intelligence, or anything about me, personally. The critique should only focus on the writing.

I also am confused by people who critique things and going in say, "I really don't care for this genre, but here goes . . ." I appreciate people who are willing to try something new and come in open minded about it, but if you say up front that it's a genre you don't like, you are very unlikely to enjoy the piece.
CY Reid
Posted: Monday, May 9, 2011 12:21 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

A long time ago, I was taken in by a site called Gamers with Jobs, founded by one of the same people who founded The Escapist Magazine. These were some of the most talented, hardcore writers I've ever met in my life, and probably ever will meet, and the private writer's subforum was rife with endless critiques of eachother's work. I've worked at several world-famous publications, and never have I seen so many people so hard at work turning the writing of others into something flawless.

I put my work up there, and mostly, criticism was constructive and interesting (the end article turned out to be very different to the original idea, but it was a great piece and I'm very happy to have written it - the reader response was great). However, there was one particular writer on the site who went by the name of Rabbit, and quite frankly, his critiques were mortifying, from the perspective of the newbie journalist.

To this day, no one I have ever shown my work to has torn into my writing with that much criticism. Every single sentence in a thousand-word article was deconstructed, analysed, criticised, and ultimately rejected. Around hundred seperate criticisms culiminating in a slap-down that shook me to my core.

The sadistic thing is, it was the most stimulating criticism I've ever had.

Sometimes, I just want someone to kick down the door and shotgun-crit me with all the polite attitude and grace of a SWAT team. It yanks you out of the bubble of friends and pleasant blog passers-by who comment on how lovely your work is, and dumps you back into reality. It's motivating, and scary, and I enjoy it. Of course, it's not constructive if it's all you're hearing. One person doing it will be great. Two at the most. Any more than that and your entire dream will come crashing down around you and you'll find yourself curled up in the corner.

I also find that walking away from whatever I've written for three months or so really helps (although this only works in creative writing - do this with journalism or copywriting, and you may find yourself out of a job). It means I can read it as a text that I've not written myself, and I'll spot a hundred flaws for every one I would've noticed a day after I wrote it.

In summary, harsh criticism can be awesome, and just the thing to motivate you after too much mollycoddling. But beware of immersing yourself in harsh critiques, because no one is meant to listen to that intense, scything commentary day in, day out. It's not good for the soul.
Posted: Monday, May 9, 2011 7:44 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Ellie: I will review stories that are outside of my genre. I warn people it isn't what I usually read because I don't feel I can leave the same quality of feedback I can on story genres I'm familiar with. I also don't have the background in what is cliche. That said, I don't dislike -any- genre really, I just don't go out of my way to read that genre.

I think it is good that a writer or reader is willing to branch out even if they don't necessary like the genre. I do it because it helps me grow as a writer... and as a reader... and I always try to give something outside of my genre a fair chance. Just me, though!

There are a lot of excellent comments on this thread.

As someone who gives harsh critiques (or, polite but thorough and no punches held ones), I get a lot of the same type of critique. I agree with CY that it can be a very difficult banner to carry. When I get a lot of negative critiques, I often clam up for a few days, make a list of things to fix, get over my personal depression and then drive myself to fix the things I need to fix.

It builds thicker skin, but it always hurts. But it is what helps me grow and pushes me to do even better so that some day a harsh critic gives me a great compliment. <3
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 3:33 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

I think you guys are great! Yes, there's no point in vague, complimentary critiques that don't even offer reader response, as in what worked or what didn't for them. I'm really glad to hear this since it's been so long since I've been around other writers who questioned what they are doing. There isn't much chance of moving forward creatively if a writer doesn't question his or her work.

It used to really drive me nuts. Not that I want to personally go out there to slam others' work, but so many writers seemed to only want to hear great stuff about their own work, and had no interest in reading or responding to anybody else's writing. Also, it grew difficult for me to be in the real-world critique group I was in which was made up of Clarion graduates. There were travel issues, and I got frustrated with some members who just weren't writing. General reader comments, sure! But I felt like they were so removed from actually writing that the feedback grew less and less valuable.

I was thinking about graduate school yesterday, which was in many regards pathetic (not the literature and teaching parts). It is of the same degree of patheticness today. Nothing has changed. The pathetic people who weren't really writing are still not writing. They have little additional insight and have not moved much forward. Meanwhile, I have absolutely no clue what I am doing and just do it most of the time (that's a joke). When I look back and review how much I've learned from the countless mistakes I've made, I almost can't grasp it.

It started out with defining moments like reading great literature as an adult and realizing the difference in depth between it and lightweight commercial fiction. Then I finished my first novel and turned it in, using the word "enormity" just the way I'd seen several other writers use it (in published fiction - i.e. Stephen King). I really ramped up that "enormity" in the last three chapters. It was getting bigger and bigger and more and more! The editor called me while I was at home working on a paper for school most likely (GRADUATE SCHOOL) and said "Where's your dictionary?" Fortunately I was in training to start teaching and actually had one. What? You think I'd have one to use for WRITING? Ha!

"Look up the word enormity," he said, and hung up. I did . . . my dictionary stated that using the word to indicate "large" was not appropriate, and, "The careful writer does not use the word in that sense."

Well, you know how people have often mentioned that Stephen King might benefit from some sort of editorial input at times . . .

In no way would I ever indicate that I'm a perfect, examined writer. No way. But at least I'm aware that I should consider what I'm doing and why, and question the choices I make, trying always to keep the reader in mind. Of course tough feedback is beneficial. I am always so grateful for it.
Posted: Friday, May 13, 2011 3:30 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 34

It's funny that Amy is the last person to write here,because I just finished reading one of her pieces with every intention of critiquing it... and I couldn't. It was too good. (Or, actually, I'm too inexperienced. No, I'm not trying to be disingenuous. Really. She's just that much better than me.) I was all set to point out that that swang was not a word, and then thought, OK, ridiculous. She doesn't need me to waste her time pointing that out, and somehow I doubt her ego needs me to gush and then stick five stars all over it (although, if you want them, Amy, let me know, cause it certainly deserves them! I just can't help you improve!) (You should be critiquing ME!)

I think there's a difference between a critique and a review. A review is where you gush over (or pan) the work for OTHER people, but I figure it doesn't do much for the writer except make them feel great (or terrible). And sell books, I suppose. I hope to heck that someday I will improve to the point that I will get nothing but good ones. (Maybe Amy is already there?)

A critique is where someone -- probably with as much or more experience than you -- goes over your writing with a fine-ish toothed comb with the intention of making it better. So gushing isn't really very useful, unless it's with the very specific goal of saying: look, see how you did this wonderful thing in paragraph three? Do it again in paragraph four!

It's hard here because we don't know each other, and we're liable to get hurt feelings, but it certainly is efficient if we can dispense with the niceties JUST for the sake of niceness and get on with the pinpointing of what's going wrong.

Maybe it would help to understand where the critique-er is coming from. So: "I usually like a lot of blood in my novels..." or "I'm terrified reading about sharp objects" or "I can't understand sentences with more than 7 words" (I don't know, could be?) might help the writer put your edits in perspective.

Posted: Friday, May 13, 2011 1:59 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 34

Before anyone sits on me, I need to correct myself. I misspoke. Of course you can critique works that are better than yours, and writers who are better than you -- I do it all the time, here and in my crit group.

But I have to be able to find improvable bits that are within my realm of understanding, which is what it is.

The authors may not have to be from exactly the same level, but they have to be from the same planet.

CY Reid
Posted: Friday, May 13, 2011 11:45 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

I'm similar to momgotshocked in the way that I find it difficult to critique amazingly talented writers, because simply gushing over their prose isn't really the kind of response I'm sure they're after. Don't get me wrong, logging on today to be told I was a worthy heir to Phillip K. Dick is, well, you can imagine what a lifting thing that is to read, but at the same time, had that been all they said, the entire review would've been useless.

So how do I go about critiquing something I'd happily pay for, right now? I can't go picking holes in things for the sake of not wanting to five-star an unpublished novel, but at the same time I can't not critique them at all because that's simply not what I'm in this community to do, and not why they're here, either.
Posted: Monday, May 23, 2011 11:09 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 52

As a critiquer, I try to be honest but supportive. I say what I like and what I don't like. I don't make up stuff to like if there is nothing, but there usually is something.
I don't go "looking for problems". IE--I'm not going to pick apart every use of the word "was". I'm also not going to insist that all use of "was" is passive (because that's not true, and I really with writers understood what passive means).
Anyway, I just read and if I like something, I say I like it. If something feels flat or bad (or I just know it's wrong, technically) then I say so and I say why I think so and I offer resources if appropriate.
I don't expect anyone to take on all or even most of my advice. I also don't sit around think "OMG, they didn't take my advice? They're NEVER gonna make it." Who knows? And it's wasted energy. I've also had people tell me that no agent or editor would ever be interested in my writing because the writing itself sucks. Since then, I've had 20 agents compliment my writing, and 10 more who liked samples enough not only because of the writing but for other reasons to request more. I've also had an editor from Harper Collins say they like my writing.
Point isn't that I write well or that I can't improve. I always work to improve. The point is that just because someone offers some advice, doesn't mean they are right--and that INCLUDES me. So I give my opinion and say that it's just one opinion and if they want to ignore me, they can. but I admit that I give more of my time to those who like my critiques, because why not? If I'm helpful to them, then I'll give them more of my time. Simple.

As for receiving critique, I consider a lot of things.
1) Is this critiquer in my target audience?
2) Do I admire this critiquer's writing talent, if they are a writer?
3) Do they have strengths where I have weaknesses?
4) Did they have good intentions in giving the critique?
5) Did their comments resonate?
6) Have others made the same complaints?
7) Have a large amount of people LOVED something that this ONE person doesn't like? Can I make the change without disrupting what the majority loves?

And other things. Also, I may file advice as
a) Take on board IMMEDIATELY. This is GOLDEN! How didn't I, or someone else, notice this by now?!
b) Might have a point. Run it by some trusted long term partners to help me mull it over, and/or file it away for future consideration or reference in the event it gets mentioned again.
c) Is this person smoking crack? (And don't make this decision until several trusted long term partners of mine tell me that I'm right to ignore the bizarre advice. For example: The name Sara is too bland. You won't sell this book unless you change her name to Zondrichanizi. If you can't get a publisher to publish this, it will be because her name was Sara and because you didn't take my advice. Also, you didn't mention feta cheese in your first chapter, but in your second chapter she eats a salad and all my salads always have feta cheese on them so you need to mention the feta cheese in chapter 1)

Yes, I'm going to ignore a critique like that. And the person giving me the critique can tell me I don't have thick skin because I ignored them if they want. I rather be told my skins too thin then put feta cheese in my first chapter and rename my character Zondrichanizi.

Usually, though, I don't tell them I'm ignoring their critique. I just say thank you and move on. I'll only mention it if they stalk me because they notice I didn't take their advice and keep bringing it up. "I see you still don't have feta cheese in your first chapter. That book is never gonna sell."

Which brings me to my final point. When possible, just say thank you. Discuss only if the intent of the discussion is to get more clarity on the review or more insight from the reviewer/critiquer. Otherwise, thank you is more than enough. Don't insult the commenter just because you don't like their review. It makes you look bad.

(Not that anyone here does that).

Long story short, be open minded to critique, and also be open minded that you critique is not the be all end all and that writers everywhere should worship ever bit of advice you give them if they want a shot in hell of being published.

Ava DiGioia
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:59 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

Several of you have labeled yourselves as givers of harsh critiques. A lot of you have done critiques for my book, which is still in the WIP stage.

Those were the best reviews I have received. I didn't find them to be harsh, but they were honest. For me, there's a huge difference between honesty and harshness. Harshness slams a piece and, often, the writer, and offers only destructive criticism. Honesty builds a constructive critique and helps one see the weak points and strong points that will elude because our author brains fill in the missing gaps.

The points from your critiques are the ones I am using to re-write certain scenes and to strengthen the overall story. I have gotten several gushing reviews, and as CY pointed out, it makes you feel good, but isn't very helpful.

Reading the critiques you guys give is helping me learn to be a better critique partner, too.
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 7:04 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 52

I wanted to add, as this is probably somewhat relevant.

Thick skin isn't JUST about being able to take a critique in stride, with an open mind.

When I started writing, I did just that, and thought I had thick skin. Make a suggestion, and I took it on board! But writing isn't about writing by committee. You CAN'T and SHOULDN'T take on every bit of advice. I realized that I was doing this because I *didn't* have thick skin. I had no confidence in my writing and didn't know what advice to take and what to pass on. I assumed everyone knew better than me and that if I wanted to make it as a writer, I had to take on all of their advice because that's what having thick skin meant. I was wrong. That's not what thick skin means. At one point, I completely lost sight of my voice and style and it took me a long time to get it back. Maybe it's something I needed to go through.

But thick skin is one part considering the advice and one part being confident. Lack of confidence can lead to taking all the advice given or ignoring all the advice given. Go figure.

I think one thing most authors need to do is understand why they did something the way they did. Once you know why it's that way, it's easier to see when and how to take on or interpret feedback. It's never 100% easy. Sometimes I pass on advice and I think: Am I wrong to be passing on this? What if they really do just have a point--a really good point that no one noticed before and that I'm just been too much of a sissy to take on board. When I feel that way, I give myself time. I come back to the advice in a week and consider it again. I ask for feedback from others on the advice or on whatever the advice was commenting on.

Reader feedback is invaluable. The problem with critique groups (if there is one) is that most critiquers are LOOKING to find something wrong because they want to be helpful. That, or like me, they are just reading and only comment when something pulls them from the story, which may be frequent or infrequent. even if the advice isn't taken on, that kind of feedback I think is important to consider. It's what a real reader might thing while reading, and the reader is entitled to the opinion.

You can't please everyone or take on every piece of advice. Thick skin is about considering everything, even the changes that would be hard to pull off. I've been there where I've felt that making a change was "impossible" (even though I knew they were right that it was important a change be made) but because I knew that they were right--because I was open minded to the idea that maybe it WAS possible--I eventually found a way to make it happen.

So with that thick skin of knowing why you did what you did, you have to have the thick skin that allows you to look at a critique with an open mind and realize that, yes, there IS another way to achieve what you want by making a potential improvement. Sometimes you have to try on advice first, before you can know if it's really a step in the right direction or not.

I hate to ramble, but I do it often. The gist is that we have to find that balance of confidence and open-mindedness, and it's the right balance that gives us thick skin.
Tom Wolosz
Posted: Sunday, November 20, 2011 8:50 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Coming to this one a bit late, but I guess as they say, better late....

I basically agree with InkMuse.  You want to be critiqued harshly, honestly, shredded (call it what you will), but at the same time you need to have a certain level of self-confidence.  If a reviewer doesn't like your writing style that's important; but you need to decide whether it's a personal preference on the part of the reviewer or a valid critique of your poor writing.
  One thing I try to do when I review a WIP is show that I am willing to get into a discussion with the writer.  Sometimes it helps to know what the writer is trying to do so you can point out problems, and maybe help them better get their point across.  They can take or leave my advice, that's up to them, but at least this way there is better communication. What I really don't like are reviews that are negative, and when you try to discuss, get more info, there is never any response.  I need to know if the reviewer read careful or breezed through the MS.  I never post a review without reading through the MS twice.  I know myself well enough to know that I often miss things and sometimes misinterpret.  To do justice to the MS and be fair to the writer - two reads prior to a review, and then go back to see if there are comments that need answering.    

It's also nice to say you are thick skinned, but it's also important on a site like this to remember that there are some kids just trying to get started who have very fragile egos.  Try to be supportive.  One of the first reviews i did on BC made me feel like crap.  The story was obviously a first draft.  It wasn't fast paced, it was manic.  In my review I pointed out plot inconsistencies (there were many) and also that there was enough plot crammed into the first few pages to fill about three of four full blown chapters.  Overall, I tried to be positive - a kind of "take your time and do it right" approach.  But I gave it 2 stars to be truthful.  Tried to go back to the book a couple days later and the book had been pulled.  Like I said, felt like crap.  Maybe the person wasn't serious or mature enough, but still, try to remember what it was like starting out. 
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011 12:45 AM
• At what point, do you as the person being critiqued, accept a harsh critique despite a lack of diplomacy because it is the truth?

Someone you probably don’t know, took time they didn’t have to give you, to try to help you write with more skill. That’s a blessing, not a cause for anger.

You accept the critiquein the spirit it was given, because your wish was granted, even if you have to grit your teeth when you do it. Accuracy and utility are what count, not the tone of voice used. Would anyone in their right mind reject, say, Stephen King’s advice because he was in a bad mood and snarled the critique? I sure wouldn’t.

One of the first lesson we need to learn is that we are not our writing, and that a critique, no matter how harsh, isn’t a reflection on us as a person. Nor is it a judgment on our potential.

We all write crap. And we all write gold, too. With luck, advice, study, and hard work we can change the ratio of crap to gold for the better.

So the point isn’t that they tell you something stinks. It’s if they tell you why, and how to fix it—or where to find the information you need.

In the words of Sol Stein: “A writer, shy or not, needs a tough skin, for no matter how advanced one’s experience and career, expert criticism cuts to the quick, and one learns to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.”

And apropos of nothing, here’s an article on why people like King and others aren’t on sites like this helping the poor pre-published writer. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/09/i_will_not_read.php?page=1

Tom Wolosz
Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 10:18 PM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Thanks for the link Jay, got a kick out of the article.  He's absolutely right (as is the doctor who complains about people seeking free medical advice at parties, and other such examples).  I think the point to be made though is that neither you nor I are Stephen King, nor are we God (well, I can at least vouch for myself on that).  If I read one of your WIP's I know i can rip it to shreds and you can take it as it's meant to be taken.  However, when someone posts a story that's crap I'll do my best to offer them honest advice and encouragement (and give them 1 star and let them know why).  For every case where I suggest that maybe the writer should invest in a copy of Strunk and White, or a good thesaurus I'm sure 9 out of 10 will get pissed and give up (maybe they'll think I'm an asshole as noted by Olson in his blog).  The point is I can't tell which will be the 1 out of 10 or 20 or a hundred who will take that advice and work at it and maybe actually sell a story some day. 
Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2012 1:13 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


Everything you say here is as true as it can be. My only question is, how do you detach from your story? 

My method (I'm not sure that it really works - I pretend that it does) is to put it aside for a few months and work on something else. 

On critiques: when I am reviewed, I want to hear the worst - every bit of it. Pull no punches with me.

I already know what's great about my stuff - nobody but nobody can fault me for a lack of imagination. Tell me how I've screwed up. I'm eager to hear it.

Elizabeth Whittaker
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 6:43 AM
Joined: 6/13/2011
Posts: 3

Well, I think that crits are a good thing, but it's hard sometimes on where to draw that line.  

The problem I've had with crits is that they're very general but don't touch on the surface of what's wrong. I've just gotten some general feedback but nothing too jarring. I guess that'll come later, with time.

Either way, I see it like this--we're all here to do better, not worse. Tell me what you like, or didn't like. Leave a little bit of good and bad in it, like the sandwich theory. At the same time, make it constructive so that someone learns something from it, not so they can take it personally.
Sinnie Ellis
Posted: Saturday, January 21, 2012 1:14 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 67

I send out beta reads at the end of every written novel and it helps before I take the steps toward revisions. My biggest problem is finding new people to critique my work who aren't already enamored by the last book I wrote. I've had too many become fans so they are no longer looking to give me useful advice. Thank God for Book Country.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, January 23, 2012 11:06 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Sinnie, I have a few friends in the self publishing game who I am absolute fans of, love everything they do, and I can still give them solid unbiased feedback. You just have to find the right people, amiright?

Sinnie Ellis
Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 1:52 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 67

You are. I find my current situation is making my work suffer. I ask for beta readers and the same 10 people sign up. I have skipped over a few because sometimes they have nothing to say but great book. Obviously not, I can't find a publisher or agent no matter how "great" it is.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 2:01 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

You know what, it's not a matter of how "great" it is. It's a matter of audience, and if the publisher or agent feels they can sell it "to a certain number of people".  A wonderful, excellent, perfectly written novel that only appeals to a niche market (And I gotta say, Four Fathers feels very niche to me, but I know 4 people personally that would probably buy it. So 2 of them have different levels of Dissociative themselves, that's beside the point. ) will not appeal to an agent and publisher that wants novel's of a wide reach.

Bob Cravener
Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:18 PM
Joined: 1/18/2012
Posts: 8

I agree with any critique, and i gain the most from the harsh ones. As a writer, we must have thick skin! Not everyone is going to like our work! This is a fact that we must live with. Be harsh, be truthful, but be kind.  Being disrespectful in your critique helps no one. If in your critique you give me useful information, I can grow from that and become a better writer. I can not judge my own work, because I am to attached to it, so other (readers) must do this for me. If I am mature I will and do accept what my readers tell me and make the changes that I need to make. I grow and gain a bigger following and fan base>
Dennise Sleeper
Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 2:34 PM
I don't know about having to have thick skin. I think it's how the author takes the critique.
Yes we are attached to our stories and when we ask for the critique, we should do so with the understanding that all levels of writing knowledge will be revealed. We were all new once and had to go through the learning curve on both sides of a critique.
I look at each critique and decide if their concerns or recommendations will change what I'm trying to say and I consider a rewrite so that their concerns and recommendations are covered. Maybe, or maybe not, the way they wanted. I do my best to serve the story.

When I critique, I try to give reasons for my recommendations. Sometimes I'll simply say I don't have any ideas, but this bothered me. Hopefully it'll at least send up a flag the author needs to take a closer look.
I try not to give up on a piece so that the author knows that at least one person reading has an opinion they're willing to give. A good storyline may need a lot of work. So no matter how many chapters
are up, I'll stop critiquing at the end of the chapter I get tired of
correcting. My reading time is limited and I want to help as many as I
can. The lack of critiques can leave an author baffled. I understand it to mean my piece wasn't worth reading, so I need to go back to the drawing board. Without help, how can an author improve? That's why I mostly critique books that have low or no critiques.
If I don't critique a book, it's usually because I prefer not reading books with a lot of language and sex.

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 1:33 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26

It's a great question.

I always am reminded of these 2 websites (well, specifically, the content on the sites, not just the URLs) whenever the subject of `literary criticism' comes up...

Rotten Rejections - The Letters Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent

And this one:

Story Notes From Hell

Thing is, I've made a living as a writer for 20 years - in what I believe are 3 of the (arguably) toughest areas of fiction writing: VideoGames and Feature Films and TV... In sci fi, and thriller and even often in the area of comedy. (The latter being one of the hardest and most brutalistic-ish Genres of 'em all...)

The stakes and pressure are so insanely high in screen media. You have a bunch of morons (see Story Notes From Hell) with buckets of money - and no sense (they all come from Accounting and Law, not Literature backgrounds) and the deadline was always yesterday.

Insanity. Soooo many cooks. And - all these middle manager Exec Producers, who also throw their moronic 2c in, and think they know what makes a compelling screen narrative/story/character/tone/voice/structure/dialog line. And then - the real Hell hasn't even started yet - Focus Groups and Test Audiences (!!!) 

Then - on the other hand, (sound of harps playing, as clouds float by) you have: novels - (thank God) where you can take your sweet time - the stakes (the budget) is way lower - and - thank God  - you only have an Editor and a Publisher (2 people) to satisfy. As opposed to 20 idiots trying to design a mouse and producing an inbred push-me-pull-you. Also, usually the producer's [wife/retarded half-brother/cat] wants to rewrite the story/script, and - then does so.

So, you would think I had a pretty thick skin as a writer taking critiques.

Not so. It doesn't actually require thick skin in my experience. 

You need to sit back and wryly smile (on the inside)... 

In my long and bizarre experience, all it takes is - needing to know certain essential info - about whoever is critiquing [whatever it is that you've written]:

This is the checklist, so you can place any comments in true perspective.

1)  Is this actually their favorite genre? If not, how the hell do they know what they're talking about?
2) Who actually are their 3 favorite authors/books? (or games or movies, or whatever the medium happens to be). Are they the same as yours? Have they read all the same books by those 3 authors that you have? If not, how can they understand what it is you're actually doing? (or - aiming to do...)

If they have gotten this far:

3) Do they know (can they articulate, relatively sensibly) exactly why they like those same authors/same books?

4) Where is their `taste' and `opinion' likely to sit in the Target Market for this new work they're critiquing?

5) Have they read (or viewed!) widely in the Genre they're now being asked to critique a work within? Do they know the `landmark works', and know why they are landmark works?

6) How many of these books have they read:

7) How about these?

And lastly, how many of these?

9) What sort of Life Experience has this person had, compared to the Target Market? (How similar/different, in terms of Bio/Socio/Cultural predispositions).
(ie If this new book is set in England, and the author is English, and the Critique-r is [say] American, will they actually understand all the cultural references?)

Once you know all that, you can then `rate' their critique...

I'm actually totally serious...

After writing for over 10 years professionally, anyone pretty much has a handle on all `the writing basics'. (ie Themes, Structure, Plot, Characterisation, Dialog, Subtext, Tone, Voice, Dialects, Accents, Humor (or how to fake it), Mythical Archetypes, etc etc)

Then it becomes a matter of one question alone:

Is what my book says, important?
(i.e. - To the world, or at least - to that portion of the world who can, and do, read - and who will actually read the book/the work)

Also... it's not even as simple as giving it to a famous/successful author to critique it, as some of the most famous/successful authors just don't "get" (or - like) certain Genres.

So; yeah...

All just my no-cents.

In the same way "History is written by the victors" most critiques need to be placed in the above context.

But who does it?

As an author, it's enough work to get 100k words in the right order and with no spelling mistakes, let alone all that grandiose "Timeless Theme", and "Voice of the People" and "Universal Human Condition" guff.

Are you then going to put your critiquers, nude, under a spotlight in a wooden chair in a dimly lit room, connected to a polygraph machine - and ask them the above 10 questions?

I say, yes.

But that's just me.

Seriously though - how funny are these?

Rotten Rejections - The Letters Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent

And this one????

Story Notes From Hell

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 3:30 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Agreed, if the comments are about the actual writing, all's fair, but as soon as it gets to plot, and the furniture, where the reviewer is coming from really is important! 

Also, I would give my eyeteeth to work those fields, heartache and brainache and all!

Bob Cravener
Posted: Friday, February 24, 2012 9:28 AM
Joined: 1/18/2012
Posts: 8

Still I do not take any critique personal. If I took it personal, I would not make it as a writer! You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. That being said, when I do critique another writers work, I don't make it personal. I stick to what I like about the story, technique, style, and their ability to tell the story. If I think that they may need guidence I will offer it for them to take or leave it. We must keep in mind also that our opinion of another writer work is just that. We do not speak for the whole world. Also I think that even bad reviews on our work help us to grow as writers as long as it is tastful, rather than rude! We as reviewers must consider the feelings of other writers when we critique their work. Again the last thing we want to do is chase someone out of the business of writting. Just because we may not like what they are presently show is not up to par doen not mean the next one won't be a bestsaler.
Rob Emery
Posted: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 8:27 PM
Joined: 3/4/2014
Posts: 18

The post on critiquing, harsh or otherwise, was posted way back in 2011. I only joined book country in 2014 but I still really think this is a current subject. I had no one to edit or critique a full novel manuscript I had written (and self published) and was at a loss what to do.  I found an author sitting in a window booth in our local I Hop editing some of his work so I approached him, bought a book from him and told him of my plight.  He actually agreed to read the first three chapters of my work. Then he gave me some very sound advice.

     'You need to get in a writing guild. I couldn't sell my cop novels until someone told me I needed to put some romance in my novels.  Put in a love interest for your hero. So I joined romance writers of America and began selling books.'  
     He told me where I could find a writing guild, I joined, they had a critiquing team, and I ended  up rewriting my manuscript one chapter at a time.  We had a lady English teacher, and later a lady editor with a degree in journalism, one day they informed me that my story needed another complete rewrite. 'your words and characters should literally pop off the page.  Each character you have introduced should have an entire chapter dedicated to them to fill them out and make them real.' (funny how you remember such things years later with such clarity) Others in our group said, 'he has a good story.' 'It doesn't matter how good the story is. Your words have to snap off the page.'
     Earlier in my writing I might have been mortally wounded by this attack.  But, I had read somewhere that a real writer sheds hard words like water off a ducks back and never gives up on his work. So, I just smiled, because my rebuff had come from someone who actually got paid to write every day of the world.  And, they did not say my work was not good, they just wanted better. No, they wanted my best.            This was about a finished novel that I had self publish way back in 2004. I was never satisfied with the quality of that book because I did not use an outside editor, so I took it off the market.  That novel, though it has been rewritten with the help of my critiquing group, is still on the shelf waiting for my best.   

--edited by Rob Emery on 4/8/2014, 8:33 PM--

Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2016 4:17 AM
Joined: 1/31/2016
Posts: 30

A blunt truth presented as a given?

After all is said and done it is only your expression of the truth. However well you can argue the point.

Myself I attend a face to face writers group once a month. Now that is a critique, 8 people on you, after you.

If constructive.




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