Friday, August 7, 2015

Tough Love - Criticism that matters

Feedback is essential for most writers. I've talked about how to receive criticism effectively and how to give positive criticism. Today, I have a few tips on how to critique a work in a way that matters.

The overall goals should be 1) to improve the work and 2) to help the writer improve. Ideally, a work is offered, sometimes tentatively or with trepidation, because the writers wants a different perspective and insights that will have positive effects. Now, admittedly, many writers are only looking for praise. Once you know this is the case, either look for opportunities for positive criticism or decline to review the work. You probably are not dealing with a serious artist, so the relationship is all that matters.

But in most cases, it's okay to find opportunities for improvement. Here's the process I use:
  • Gain/maintain trust. The key components of trust are altruism and competence. The writer must believe you are putting his or her interests first and that you know what you are doing. Otherwise, why accept what you have to say?
  • Find something positive to say. No matter what, the writer will need to know what he or she is doing well. This is both because it balances the critique and because (surprisingly) people often don't know. So study my positive criticism blog entry and come up with the best way to express good news.
  • Determine what insight will be the most valuable. (Hint: This won't have anything to do with spelling or grammar.) Figure out what advice would make the biggest positive impact in the way the writer writes or the work at hand. I usually make a list of three. A laundry list (other than nits) is too much to absorb for almost all writers. It is beyond the scope of the request for criticism.
  • Estimate what the writer is ready to hear. Occasionally, I determine that the most important feedback is something the writer cannot or will not be able to hear... yet. Sometimes, this is because of how in love they are with the work or an element (say, a character) in the story. Sometimes, it is because of pride. Sometimes, it's because of fixed views of what might be wrong. It is frustrating, a waste of time, and a violation of trust to proceed as if none of this matters and just blurt out the truth. I choose another point of criticism that can be heard or a small piece of the big criticism. Over time, with trust and experience, more opportunities to help usually open up.
  • Say it in a way they can hear it. You are not explaining what is needed to yourself. You are explaining it to someone else, so you must organize, express, and explain your criticism for that person. That means the words, anecdotes, and analogies must be carefully selected to provide clarity and support for this vulnerable person. No shooting from the hip. Often, the only way to go is to have a conversation where you ask lots of questions and do a lot of listening.  
Overall, it is best to proceed with compassion and care. I have seen people criticize to show how clever they are, acting in a cruel way with the excuse that they are being "frank" or helping the writer to toughen up. I've also seen tidal waves of criticism because critics don't want to leave anything out and perhaps don't know how to be selective. There also are those who seem to assume that being asked to read a less than perfect work in progress is a personal insult which deserves a crushing response. Worst of all are those critics who actively try to drive people away because "they have no business writing" or "have no talent."

Be generous, thoughtful, and wise. Work to be the critic everyone would love to have. In this way, you're likely to get the help you need with your own work.

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