The Critique Dance

In last week’s comments to my Wandering about what a writer owes friends and family, the theme of reader reaction – and the difficulty of getting anything substantive – came up.  I’ve written several Wanderings related to the subject, but as these were a year ago (WW 2-08-12 and 2-15-12), I thought we could take a look at the subject from a different angle.

Figures in the Dance

Figures in the Dance

My inoculation to the fact that feedback would not always be positive came pretty early on.  I have  mentioned that I’ve been really lucky in having a family who reads my stuff.  That doesn’t mean they always like it…

I remember with a twisted fondness my mother’s reaction to my first published short story, “Cheesecake,” which came out in Starshore magazine.  I gave copies to both my parents.  I don’t recall if my father ever said anything, but my mother’s contribution remains vivid.

I’d come to her house for some gathering or other.  The first guests to arrive were old family friends.  Mom pulled the magazine from a shelf and thrust it at the guests, both hands extended: “Look!  Jane has published a story!  I don’t like it very much, but she’s published a story!”  Her evident pride took away any sting and made me giggle.  Later, I learned she’d shared that magazine with just about everyone she thought might be even vaguely interested.

But for all her maternal pride, she was honest in her reaction.

So, the first question you’d better ask yourself before you solicit a reader’s reaction is: Am I looking for a critical response or do I just want to be praised?

If you’re looking for praise, take it and keep your peace.  Don’t beg for more.  Don’t ask “But didn’t you really, really like Bob?”  Or “Wasn’t the plot twist at the end of chapter four brilliant?”

If you want a critical response, what form do you want it to take?  We’re going to assume that you’re writing with the intention of sharing your work beyond the audience of yourself.  Therefore, the goal of feedback is to learn if you’ve gotten your personal vision across to someone else.

I had a long chat about this with my friend and fellow writer, Sally Gwylan (A Wind Out of Canaan).  I solicited her opinion specifically because our approaches to writing and feedback differ greatly.   Sally has belonged to several writer’s groups and finds getting feedback along the way very helpful.  I don’t want any feedback until the work is done and I’ve made the piece as strong as I possibly can.

Despite Sally and my different approaches, our thoughts overlapped a great deal.  We both agreed that it’s important to remember that anyone who is reading your manuscript is doing you a terrific favor.  They’re taking time to read your stuff that they could have spent on something else.  If you’ve solicited comments, they’re making notes and circling things.  They’ll probably go over the piece more than once.  Therefore, it’s important that you provide some guidelines for what you hope to get out of the process.

Many writer’s groups have the rule that the author of a specific piece can’t argue with each and every comment.  The author should listen, take notes, and then answer politely – or not at all, at least not until enough time has gone by that the emotional reaction can balance with the intellectual.

It’s absolutely fine if the writer doesn’t like or agree with the comments.  However, remember, the people providing the feedback – especially if they are not being paid for their service – are doing you a favor.   Take time to think.  If you disagree, try to explain why politely.

My husband, Jim, is always my first reader.  I’ve promised him that, even if I disagree with one of his comments, I will write it down.  If I hear the same thing from another person, then I will face the fact that although I thought I’d made my point, obviously, I didn’t do so as clearly as I thought I had and changes need to be made.

Obviously, this becomes a bit more problematical when the comments are coming from a group, because it is human nature for members of  a group to react to each other.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to ask that people in a group to write notes in advance and that these be given to the writer.  That way the writer has to face that the reaction isn’t just crowd psychology.

I’ve been told I like to argue about comments….  I’m not sure I see my response as “arguing.”   <grin>  I want to explain, absolutely.   Especially if someone tells me I didn’t put something on the page that I’m sure is there, I want the chance to show them.   I don’t see that as arguing, but as creative give and take.  Not everyone agrees.

Because people react differently to giving and taking criticism, you should choose your critiquers carefully.  Not all are created equal.  Also, a critiquer who is good for one type of writer may not be good for another.  For example, there are critiquers who cannot do so without telling you how they would write the piece.  If you’re a bit at a loss, this can be great and stimulate new approaches.  If you have, however, told the story you wanted to tell, this will be less than welcome – in fact, you may feel inclined to say “If that’s the story you want, go write it.  Leave mine alone.”

This is probably a good time too mention that, if you’re looking for criticism, you should make certain that your reader shares an interest in the type of fiction you’re writing.  This is truer in Science Fiction and Fantasy than in most genres, since SF/F has its own complex vocabulary and understood literary conventions.

Sometimes working with the same people can create a shared ethos.  If this is indeed shared, then all is well and good, but sometimes a writer can be overwhelmed by other people’s strong opinions as to what a story should say, how it should be structured, and a million other details.  In fact, the stories from that group begin to have a curious sameness – a criticism that I have heard leveled at the end results of certain writer’s workshops as well.

A good friend of mine tells how when he was writing his first novel, he fell in with a group of people who believed that a book wasn’t strong and mature unless at least one major character died.  Reluctantly, he violated his own vision and killed off a main character.  This, of course, distorted his vision for the story and, in the end, it was not the story he wanted to tell.  He has said that someday he’ll re-write it and follow his own Muse.

But does this mean you should not take negative feedback or suggestions for how you might change?  Not at all!  I’ve been very grateful to editors – professional and not –  for their suggestions, but the suggestions I accepted were those that made my vision more clear.  I have never changed the thrust of a story to fit someone else’s vision – and I would hate it if anyone changed his or hers to fit mine.

That mean to benefit from criticism you need to have a vision for your story.  Without that, even the best criticism in the world won’t do you any good.  If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, there’s no way a reader can tell you.  Don’t ask until you’re prepared to listen.

On that note, I’m going to wander off, but I’d enjoy hearing tales, both good and bad, about your experiences with giving or receiving criticism.

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8 Responses to “The Critique Dance”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    The writer’s group I’m a part of has one simple rule with criticism. Take it. You don’t have to agree with it, or use it, or even really consider it. But you do have to hear it and take it with an open mind.

    This has helped me, because when I talk with my sounding boards (friends and family) I try my best to listen to the thing they’re telling me. They help me see when I’m trying to be too… whatever. Too cute, too dramatic, too unique, too wordy, the list goes on. And they now, the story I’m talking with them about may change. My sci-fi in particular is nothing like my original idea. And it’s still not done molding itself into final form.

    But that’s where my trusted advisers help me. They are never shy about bringing up a problem. Nor are they harsh about it. My mom tells the story of how an editor for a magazine literally took her submission, and threw it in the trash right in front of her. Okay, I want to be told if the thing needs A LOT of work. But there’s better ways to say it. Not to mention more helpful ones.

    To writers, I say this; Always listen and think. Are you sure they’re as wrong as you say they are? To reviewers (of all degrees and professions), I say this; Be honest, but be tactful. You can be honest without making the writer feel like their work it worthless. And they’ll be more likely to hear you if you’re not so harsh with your honesty.

  2. paulgenessesse Says:

    Excellent post, Jane. I’m always looking for praise once the book or story comes out, but before it’s been published I want feedback that will help me make the story better. I feel like there is always blind spots and the author just can’t see them. I’m so thankful for my writer friends who make everything I write much better.

    Paul Genesse

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    A lot of good information. I like your phrasing that if two people comment on the same issue that changes need to be made. The point is not necessarily to make the changes requested (which might conflict) but to make changes that solve whatever the issue is. Another question that doesn’t always make it into comments is to ask where people had to slog through the text. These are areas that can benefit from some reorganization.

    One thing I personally appreciate is when more experienced writers make suggestions about how they would do something. In grad school, I learned to detest comments like, “looks fine,” (translation: didn’t read it), “vague,” “unclear,” “not sure what you mean,” and the worst, “it’s wrong. Fix it.” Granted, all of these were on non-fiction work, but none of them are useful. It helps to find out what they think is needed. Someone’s rant about how bad a paper is may, in fact, revolve around a single sentence and the assumptions they make because of it (yes, I had this happen. It took over a month to pin down what the problem was, and the fix was changing the sentence).

    One other problem I’ve run into is too many reviewers. In science, you get three anonymous reviewers on a paper, and if you get asked to resubmit, you used to get a different set of reviewers each time. I’ve had more than one paper where I was asked to write a major revision (which I did), then had a different set of reviewers ask why I made those “stupid” revisions. Too many reviewers can really confuse things.

  4. Rowan Says:

    Getting feedback on graduate papers (which I know is not precisely the same as for fiction writing, but is where most of my frame of reference is) kind of made me confront that I really dislike the “Don’t do X” or “Fix X” sort of comments. It doesn’t work for me because I always feel like it short-circuits my ability to solve the problem, especially if “Don’t do X” doesn’t describe to me what the problem is. Some of my bleakest writing moments come from coming away from a meeting with a paper covered in red and absolutely no idea what I should be doing other than suddenly being a completely different writer and thinker. I like criticism that provides me with somewhere to go, so that it doesn’t just seem like a laundry list of what I’m doing wrong.

  5. Debbie Smith Daughetee Says:

    I’m one of the people who used to be in Sally’s critique group (while I lived in Albuquerque). Both of us also attended Clarion (West) so we come from the same background of critiquing. One of my best lessons comes from my Clarion West experience, and touches on what Jane was saying about writing down comments with which you don’t agree.

    Kelly Link was the guest editor one week at Clarion West. I had written “The Fall” in the previous week, and it was now up for critique. All of my fellow Clarion members had given their feedback, and it was Kelly’s turn. She came down on a few comments, which helped me put them in perspective, then proceeded to tell me that she felt I’d written the story from the wrong POV. I thought to myself, “She doesn’t get what I’m trying to do.” But I still wrote the comment down.

    Time passed and I was at home deciding to pull that story out and give it a rewrite. I saw Kelly’s note and decided to give it a try. The change in POV made the story do exactly what I wanted it to do. It was my first proffesional short story sale. So there you go…

  6. janelindskold Says:

    The different responses confirm what I’ve thought… There is no one-size fits all approach to critiques. I think the writer owes the reader a bit of an idea as to what is needed.

    For example, while I agree with Rowan (and having done grad school, I understand what she means), I vary a bit. I don’t like being told what to do.

    So when I read something unpublished (these days, mostly when I teach)I try to rein in my desire to start babbling suggestions when I’m critiquing… but, hey, I’m a writer, I like brainstorming.

    • Nicholas Wells Says:

      It’s our curse. Someone lets us into their world, our build team drools at the prospect of a new project. I have to watch that with my brother’s budding ideas. There are so many ways I’d go with the building blocks he has, but it’s not my story. I offer thoughts as requested, but stop there.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Nothing wrong with this. The one thing I’ve noticed many teachers forget is that what may be obvious to them isn’t always obvious to students who lack their years of experience. Telling someone that something is wrong doesn’t tell them how to make it right, and in many situations, there are dozens of ways to do it wrong, and only a few ways to make it right. A well-placed suggestion can eliminate a lot of wrong leads and frustration on both sides.

      This is actually the thing that’s so valuable about TAs–they’re close enough to the undergrads that they understand the confusion that more experienced teachers have forgotten.

      It’s one of the hardest things about being human, I’ve found: there’s no internal sense that tells you when you’re smart, skilled, or experienced. If you started off feeling like a fumbling amateur, twenty years later, you’ll still feel that way, it’s just that you’ll live in a world where “kids these days” are even less skilled than you are, and you’re wondering how anyone who’s that much dumber than you are could possibly live. Thing is, the world hasn’t changed, you have, without noticing.

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