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Friday, June 11, 2010

Critiquing At Your Peril

As a rule, I rarely volunteer to critique work. Partly due to a post Maya Reynolds once wrote about her experience when she kindly agreed to critique a couple of people's work, and partly because time is precious. I'd hate to go through all the trouble of reviewing something and then find out all the crittee wanted was a cheerleader.

My cheerleader days are over and my pom-poms are retired. Sorry.

Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, or maybe it was the way the two requests came along that I broke my rule and offered to review their works in progress.

I try to be kind, but I'm better at blunt. (ask any of my current CPs)

It is very, very hard to read a critical analysis of your work. When I review I don't think of friendship, reciprocity, or sympathy. I think: What will make this sellable?

I still remember the first critique I ever got from a well respected author/editor. She pinpointed my inadequacies with alarming precision. Her words stung for months. But it also changed me. Once I got over my bruised ego, I took another look at that manuscript and for the first time read it with the eyes of a stone-cold editor.

It was liberating, and it gave me a sense of renewed purpose and direction. The very next piece I wrote startled my regular CPs. They couldn't believe it was my work. My voice was confident. My style was bolder. And for the first time, even the 'VIP' authors took a peek at my work and commented.

I had stumbled onto the next level of writing proficiency and people were beginning to notice.

After that aha moment, I concentrated on critique partners who knew how to give thoughtful analysis. Then I spent several months analyzing my weaknesses.

Little by little, I chipped away at my issues until the narrative was fluid and the story thumped without life support.

Growth takes time, but it helps that my DNA is intertwined with mule chromosomes.

Every time I reached a benchmark, no matter how minor, I raised the bar. I found tougher critique partners. I studied good stories and bad ones. I critiqued a LOT of other writers' work. This helped me identify not only their weak spots, but also my own.

In short, I never stopped stretching myself. Even when it hurt.

I am glad I critiqued those two manuscripts. And I'm glad they're still talking to me. :grin: It helps to step out and sample other work, and to ask the questions that I need to raise about my own work as well.

Unlike poor Maya, neither of the people whose work I critiqued copped an attitude or tried to 'explain' their writing to me. (a pet peeve of mine) They said 'thank you' and moved on, which is the only thing I expected in return for my time.

Writers, how about you? Will you critique a new writer or only peers? What's been your experience while critting--or being critted?


Ted Cross said...

I think you did a great job of critting my short story (and thanks again!). I have to mull over parts of it to get it right, but I know it will be better.

Maria Zannini said...

You're welcome, Ted.

Joanne said...

I have a couple of very valued readers and have learned through the whole writing process not to take editorial suggestions personally. And by doing so, I've found that more often than not, the critiques are spot-on and so helpful to the work as a whole.

J.L. Johnson said...

I find that by crtiquing other people's work, I learn how to make my own stronger. I'm like you, I tend to be blunt, but I warn people ahead of time about it. I also try to point out positive things about their work too.

I don't mind harsh critiques, as long as it's helpful and not spiteful. Had a few of those too.

Maria Zannini said...

Joanne: We have the luxury of being familiar with long term readers.

I can say things to my CPs (and vice versa) that might seem curt to strangers, but it's a shorthand for us since we know each other so well.

Maria Zannini said...

JL: As long as we focus on the work and not the writer, it'll work.

As you mentioned, there are some critters who take pot shots at the person rather than analyze the work. I get rid of those soul suckers asap. I don't need to deal with people on an ego trip.

I want to work with professionals who take this business seriously.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Well, I sometimes a good unbiased outside critique is really helpful. I fear that my critique partners know my writing so well they don't always see or point out areas I really should work on more. (Although I wouldn't trade them for anything! LOL)

Lynn Colt said...

I've always found that blunt critiques are best, no matter how harsh they are. I think accepting and learning from critique is almost more important than self-editing, because other readers point out those weaknesses in our writing we're blinded to. After all, how can we fix things if we don't know or won't accept that there's a problem?

Of course, it does take time and much ego-bruising to learn this (at least it did for me!). I don't crit other people's work much because I am worried about being too blunt and hurting their feelings. Sometimes you can just tell they won't take it well :-/

Maria Zannini said...

Jennifer: You are so right. In my group, we read entire manuscript novels at one go. And I never let the same person read updated versions of the same story.

It's true that you can become too comfy with a person's work, but I have some pretty outstanding CPs. We've been together for several years and they are so good at being objective, not just with my work but with each other.

I also have outside readers who beta read for me when I need an isolated opinion.

Maria Zannini said...

Lynn: I agree. The tougher ones might be hard to swallow, but boy, they have been the best lessons for me.

I've found too that I don't necessarily learn that lesson right away. It might be months later when something a tough CP says finally clicks. Then I feel like I climbed a huge hurdle.

Anonymous said...

I'll critique the work of strangers, and I've been called harsh before, which baffles me since I thoroughly believe in honesty without brutality. I love getting precise, specific critiques. The only ones I've ever protested were vague ones. It does me no good to hear crits like "this is boring" because I can't work with it. I need something more specific.

Maria Zannini said...

Barbara: There are times when I come across narrative that's missing something but I don't know quite what it is.

If I can't put my finger on it, I'll say so, but I prefer to give concrete suggestions whenever possible.

Ref: harsh
One person's harshness is another person's marshmallow. Everyone's threshold is different.

Angela said...

I want to thank you for critting my work. First off, it's something that you didn't have to do so that in and of itself is reason enough to thank you for your time.
Secondly, the information you provided was very insighful and touched on so many things I tend to miss when self-editing.
I also like to critique other writers' works because I can identify various craft-related matters that I'm guilty of as well.

catie james said...

Everything you mentioned is exactly why I hesitate to take on critiquing duties, unless the writer has a proven track record of accepting feedback. So many people claim they want "help," but are really just looking for pats on the back. I've yet to find CP(s) or a group of writers that was truly ready for an honest assessment of the work presented. (Which means I also wasn't able to put a whole lot of trust in the appraisal of my own work). *sigh* Thus, the search continues...

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: You're welcome. :o)

We have a natural blindness when we edit. I can't tell you how many times I've cringed in horror when one of my CPs mentions something I should have caught.

Maria Zannini said...

Catie: I'll tell you how I found my CPs.

I was (and still am) on OWW. ( While I don't crit there any more, I did find my CPs there.

It was six months of critting different people, and finding reviewers with good analytical and communication skills.

I chose people not only for their reviewing skill but also for their writing talent. In other words, I looked for people better than me.

It's time consuming, but it's worth it once you find the right people.

Tia Nevitt said...

I used to belong to online critique groups, but I didn't get a lot out of them other than the basics. I started a writing blog and clicked with several people, and now they read my books.

For me, clicking with a person and then critiquing worked better than being critiqued by strangers. I guess because we respect each other's opinion.

Maria Zannini said...

Tia: Chemistry is important, but not a deal breaker for me. I'd be willing to trade chemistry for a good communicator. But I feel lucky when I get both. :)

Marian said...

My personal rule of thumb is that if a writer's previous work been self- or vanity-published, I'm not going to critique anything of theirs. Chances are, they're not accustomed to receiving critical feedback and may get upset or try to defend their work.

I've given crits to such writers twice now (after they asked for such feedback), and it hasn't helped them. The second time, after I pointed out errors, the writer said that was part of her style so she wasn't going to change it.

She was planning to query agents, so time will tell how that works out.

Maria Zannini said...

Marian: I never thought of that.

That's a brilliant piece of observation. Not that all self-published authors are like that, but I can see how they would tend to be dismissive if they're not used to critical analysis.

I'll bear that in mind for the future. Thank you!

Renee Miller said...

Marian is probably right. I've critiqued a couple of authors who have self published and they've either gotten angry with me, or they've disregarded my 'suggestions' and asked someone else to critique, with a few unkind words tossed my way.

Like you, the best critique I received was from another author/editor and man, did it hurt. But I respected and admired this person, so I forced myself to swallow my pride and looked at my manuscript with a different eye. They were right. I had a lot of work to do.

It's amazing how much your writing improves when you have the epiphany that you are not all that you thought you were and cannot edit your own work effectively. Another pair of eyes is needed.

I have had some terrible experiences editing/critiquing other work. I wouldn't say that I won't edit 'new' writers, but I'm more careful in doing so. I edit a chapter, if their reaction is negative I won't go further.

As you said, time is precious. I have very little time for my own writing, so an ungrateful writer is something I won't waste it on.

PS: Great post, by the way. Glad to see I'm not the only one with the mule gene.

Maria Zannini said...

Renee: Crit long enough and you're bound to encounter a diva or two. But their tirades are usually their undoing.

Eventually others see them for what they are, and their bad karma revisits them.

I'm sorry you've had ugly experiences critting some bad apples. Things like that keep me from critting more freely too.

Ref: mule gene
Yup. Now if I could only get rid of that tail. :grin:

Renee Miller said...

The tail is a nuisance, yes. I did learn how to supress the urge to "HeeHaw!" all the time. That was awkward.

catie james said...

Thank you for the info Maria. I am looking at Verla Kaye's Blue Boards, but it never hurts to cast a wide net. Thanks again.