Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Critiquing Without Bloodshed

People look for feedback, but most want compliments. Loved the characters! So imaginative. The twists and the turns kept me reading!

Uh huh. I actually do believe that positive responses are essential. There have been too many times when I’ve seen people kill the best parts of their stories because no one had TOLD them what the best parts were. Positive feedback is valuable, as long as it’s not distracting.

Equally valuable is thoughtful analysis and, yes, pointers to what doesn’t work or might be better. I recommend asking critics to tell you if they got hooked by the beginning, tell you if attention drifted at any point, tell you if anything was unclear or had to be read twice, and tell you if the ending is satisfying (which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, but it could). And, for a given genre, are the expected elements (e.g., meet cute in romances) all there.

It is a great practice when you ask for criticism if you note any specific questions you have beyond the above. You can even ask for advice to help solve a story problem (rarely, you might get a good suggestion).

When you get a crit, always say thank you with as much sincerity you can muster. Someone just read your work thoughtfully (in most cases). They deserve that. And you may need to come to them again. So thank them even if everything they said was useless and/or mean. Even if it’s stupid.

As an exercise, I chose to write thank you notes to dozens of contest judges. I had to write not just “thanks,” but something substantive about the value I received. This forced me to let many of the critiques sit until I cooled off. And I then had to look for value in each one — even the stupid ones. What happened was I discovered more value than I had imagined. Not every crit deserved this, but more did than I guessed. By being appreciative, I gave myself an important gift.

Let’s turn this around because if you get feedback, you probably need to give it. Here are the steps I use.

    1.    Read thoughtfully. Take the time and respect the material. Take care if you are NOT the intended audience.
    2.    Don’t critique when you are angry or feeling ungenerous. No one wrote the work and presented it to you as a cruel joke. Most people are giving you the best they can, and they are trusting you. Even when they may be wading into deep water.
    3.    Critique with their best interests in mind. Your job is to provide the most valuable feedback you can.
    4.    Find something positive to say almost immediately, if possible. You will need to include something that appreciates the work, and the earlier you identify that element, the easier it will be to frame the review in a generous manner.
    5.    Answer their questions, carefully. If they have asked for specific feedback, provide it in a way it can be heard and acted upon. You can be honest AND tactful.
    6.    Limit what you say. I rarely make more than three important points. Few people can absorb every criticism that comes to mind. Be selective. Nits are okay, but, unless you are proofing the work, don’t cite every instance where dependent clauses lack commas or lie/lay is misused.
    7.    Be sure about your “facts.” When you correct, make sure you’re right. Even if you know you are.
    8.    Your experiences aren’t universal. If a character reacts in a way you wouldn’t (or didn’t in real life), it might still be valid.
    9.    Be careful about using examples. They can become overwhelming. Try to restrict them to what will clarify.
    10.    Note where you lose attention or get confused. These observations are golden for writers.
    11.    Let it be their story. It’s great news that what you read has you so excited you could take the ideas and run with them. But respect the writer’s right to tell the story he or she intends to tell.

The great thing about being critiqued is it’s mostly about you. You, and only you, have the power to decide a criticism is valid or should be rejected.

The great thing about critiquing is you don’t have to make the changes. You DO have to protect your relationship with the writer by acting respectfully and providing your feedback in a caring way. You never know how fragile their ego is. Don’t find out the hard way.

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