Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Giving a Critique

Last week we talked about how to receive a critique without wanting to crawl under a rock. This week, we're looking at the other side. How do you give a constructive critique?

First off, what do I mean by constructive? To me, a constructive critique is helpful to the writer by pointing out places where the story can be stronger, plus noting what the writer has done well. A good critique honestly evaluates the strengths and opportunities of a story. A sign you've given a great critique is when the writer thanks you afterward, especially if they say the critique makes them feel better about how they can make their story even better.

Providing an honest critique that results in a writer wanting to hug you or buy you a drink afterward (yes, I've had this happen!) is a high bar indeed. But there are a few tips to keep in mind for a healthy critiquer/critiquee relationship.

First off, remember that you're not just pointing out what doesn't work in a story. To provide an honest evaluation, make sure to note what the author has done well. Sure, if you're slogging through the first two pages about the weather and they have no relationship to the story, it's important to let the writer know that you had trouble getting into the narrative at that point. But if the action picked up afterward, be sure to let them know the moment you were engaged, and why. If, after the weather interlude, they created a character who instantly drew your sympathy, tell them!

When you are pointing out areas that need to be strengthened, be sure to communicate that in a kind and helpful way. Stating, "This part sucks," is both unhelpful and unkind. Why didn't that part of the story work for you? Making "I" statements is useful here. "I had trouble following who was speaking in this section," is a statement that's both specific and helpful.

You can gain a lot of useful knowledge that strengthens your own work by evaluating the flow and style of others' stories. But remember that the critique is not a competition. Especially if this is someone you've swapped manuscripts with, keep in mind you're not comparing their story against yours, to determine whose is "better". You've both agreed to provide insights as both a reader and fellow writer. Ideally, both of you will come away feeling like you have a clear path to make your story stronger, and an enthusiasm to take on the needed changes.

Both before you make your first comment, and at the end of the story, as you're reviewing what you've written, take a breath. Keep in mind the vulnerability this other person has shown you by trusting you to help them with their work. Do your comments respect that vulnerability?

When have you been challenged to provide a critique that's both honest and kind? How did you manage it? Did you ever feel like you gave a poor critique?

Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Receiving a Critique

One of the hardest parts of writing for many authors, especially ones who are new to sharing their work, is receiving critiques. Even that word--critique. It sounds harsh and unforgiving, like a schoolmarm with the world's tightest pinned-up hair bun, pronouncing her judgment upon you and finding you wanting.

As Nita Sweeney put it, receiving criticism of your writing can feel like a contact sport. When you're putting out your work for the first time, there can be a lot of vulnerability involved. I've described it as strutting nude in front of strangers, turning around, and saying, "Huh? Huh? What do you think?" For some writers, it's too much. A stinging critique can keep them away from pen or keyboard for months, even years.

But with the right mindset, and the right group of people providing feedback for your work (a topic which I'll address in a later post), receiving a critique doesn't have to feel like having a molar pulled. Here are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First off, when you're receiving a crit from an editor, writing partner, beta reader, or whoever, before you look at it, take a few deep breaths. Remember this: your work is separate from your value as a human being. Regardless of what this person has to tell you about your story, you're still a wonderful, valuable person with many fine qualities. Yes, this might sound silly, but the harshest critiques of my work early on left me feeling like I had no right to keep sucking in air, let alone thinking I could write a story. But that's bull. You're still a good person.

Second, remember the purpose of the critique. Ideally another person has taken the time to review your work and help you learn how you can make this story the best it can be. But tone doesn't always come through on the page. Maybe you had ten pages that were tightly written and captivating, but  because the reviewer didn't find a problem and wanted to keep reading, they didn't comment on all the good stuff. They only noted the stopping points. This character acted unreasonably, or the pacing was slow there. And even when a reader notes what you did well, it's in our nature to only hear the worst criticisms. But a critique is not a personal judgment. It's an outsider's take on how to make your work its best.

Note above, I said "ideally". In some cases it may not be true that a critiquer has your best interests at heart. If someone with an axe to grind reads your work, they may make cutting comments. And sometimes, a well-meaning reader may not know the basics of a constructive critique (again, a topic I'll address in the future). In these cases, when you get an unhelpful, even hurtful, critique, remember that this is one person's take. And if that person is out to cut you down, are you going to let it work? Are you going to let them have that type of control over your reaction? When someone's a weenie, do your best to thank them for their time and not react negatively to their face, and especially not online. If they're truly out to hurt you, they want you to get mad and feel defeated. Also, if they're really unhelpful, think hard about if it would be helpful to show that individual your work again.

On the other hand, when someone does make a valid point about where your story needs strengthening, it's easy to say, "They're just jealous and out to get me!" My general rule is, assume good intent. Even if they are down and dirty haters, you can't get in their heads and know that. Take what you can from a critique, rewrite your story, move on, and learn who you can trust with your work.

What advice do you have for accepting criticism?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tuesday news!

I have two big pieces of news to announce:

1) At long, long last, Super Sargasso is now available on Amazon for the Kindle! If you prefer, you can still buy it on Smashwords in various formats as well.

2) On my editorial site, along with content and copy editing, I am now also providing ebook formatting services. Check my Services page for pricing and details.

As I mentioned last week, this month I am all wrapped up in Camp Nanowrimo. And for the first time in my Nano history, at the end of Week One, I am still on par with my word count! Of course, Camp has the very un-Nano rule that you can set your own word count for the month. Since I always crashed and burned when I was up against 50K, for this month, my goal is 30,000 words.

I also changed my game plan by going in with next to no outline. And the skeleton of the one I had before I started has already strayed multiple times from its original form, in the most unexpected and delightful ways. This month, I'm letting go and discovering the story as it comes out. And it's a great feeling!

How are you shaking things up this month?