Friday, August 13, 2010

Critique Freak

Critique Freak

catfight-758695 Okay. I’m going to tell you a little story about what happened during an in-person critique group I attended last night, then at the end, I’m going to introduce you to my “Two Laws of In-Person Critique” that I hope everyone will consider adopting for their own groups. These laws were massively violated with horrible consequences.

I was sitting at a table with two ladies, let’s call them “Mary” and “Sue.” I had not been to this particular group before except as an observer about a year ago. Mary had written a literary piece. It had little plot, but it painted a portrait of three people. It was eloquent, obscure, and a little rambling. But it was “literary,” a genre that I repeatedly told her that I was not very experienced in. My personal observation (that I never really got to tell her) was that it was mostly backstory and that I wanted to know the general conflict of the story before I knew the why’s and wherefore’s. Get me to care about the characters first before explaining them.

But anyways, Sue decided essentially that the piece sucked. It had no plot, it was meaningless, blah blah blah. Mary countered that Sue just didn’t understand, that Mary had X years of teaching creative writing, that the piece we were reading had won an award, and Sue was full of shit. So Sue countered that she can’t believe a creative writing teacher could write such crap. Fun stuff, no? I literally thought it would come to blows. It ended with Mary running off in tears, and when she got home, she wrote a nasty note to the group leader and left the group.

So here are my laws, which hopefully will demonstrate exactly why this ended poorly.

The Two Laws for In-Person Critique

1. Never Defend Your Writing

Here’s what happens: You hear something negative about your piece. Criticism. Disdain. Who wouldn’t want to correct or fix the critiquer’s perception of the piece? So you defend it, arguing that you are correct, and the critiquer is wrong. All that does is make the critiquer fight harder to prove their point. If someone says something blatantly useless about your piece, or has no clue how to critique your genre, just thank them for their effort. Hey, they tried. People come to these groups to improve both their writing and critiquing, and put a lot of effort to try to understand what they’re reading. Sometimes they fail. I myself knew I was highly unqualified to critique this piece. I told Mary many times that I probably wasn’t doing it justice.

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t discuss your piece, or find a way to help the critiquer understand your genre and what you’re trying to accomplish. Just don’t feel you have to defend anything you’ve written. If someone doesn’t like it or understand it…fine. Move on to someone who can truly connect with your writing.

2. The Author is Always Right

I just don’t understand why critiquers have a problem with this concept. The author wrote it the way they wanted to write it. They understand what the story is about, and what they’re trying to accomplish. This is even more important when you only receive a small portion of the entire piece to critique. If you give the author some feedback and they get defensive…don’t try to prove your point. If the author doesn’t “get it”…fine. It’s not your problem. As a critiquer, you’re never going to get to be right about what you’re reading, except in your own head. You have at best an uneducated opinion about something you know little about. Know your place. Now if the author wants to discuss some of your feedback, that’s fine and encouraged. But if the author gets huffy or defensive or argumentative, then move on. It’s not worth it, and an argument helps no one.

Realize that the author has spent countless hours on the piece before you received it, and you’ve probably spent 30 minutes. By offering the piece for review, the author is establish a trust with you that you will do your best but no more. When it’s all said and done, the author is the one who lives with the piece, not you, and they are the one who ultimately determines what works and what doesn’t, not you.

I hope this illustrates what went horribly wrong last night. I’m shocked that someone with literary teaching creds didn’t know how to shake off a poor critique, but Sue just wouldn’t let it go either. I really hope neither shows up again to this group, because I don’t care for the drama. Except that it makes for good blog fodder.

Remember, we’re all in this together.


  1. I think an awful lot of critiquers are subconsciously caught up in the teacher/student mode, and all the interpersonal "control" baggage that is involved there.

    And some of them have real issues. It's like "I get to be teacher, and I'm the boss now, you have to sit there and take abuse just like I did!" Or more commonly, "My authority figure taught me this so I know it's absolutely true, and if you don't care as much as I do about this rule you're threatening my whole world view, so you MUST agree, you absolutely must!"

    I think there is a little bit of that in everybody.

  2. @Novelist: The problem is when the author rises to the bait. I've had some really nasty critiquers tell me that my writing sucks right to my face. I totally want to tell them they're clueless, but you know, you can't reach everyone. Okay, I can't reach everyone.

    I think authors really need to ask themselves why they are in a critique group if they can't handle a know-it-all literary rules drone.

  3. I was in a group a few years ago that opted for a three prong critique model everyone was supposed to try to follow. Say what you liked, say what bothered you, ask if the author might like a suggestion.

    It worked to quell the drama because as an author, you could say, "No thanks, I like it how it is." and the discussion was closed.

    On the other hand you could say, that a particular section was giving you trouble and you'd welcome some ideas.

    Why anyone would submit a section to a critique group and not expect some type of criticism is beyound me, but there you have it. It was quite a large group and most of the time people did take advice...I think that given our group dynamic, it was a good call to have something in place.

    Nothing spoils a cookie and coffee evening quicker than bickering.

  4. Great rules! I was resisting a little with #1 (but with the exception of "explain" but not "defend"—a fine distinction most people miss!), but #2 covered it, I think.

    Sorry your critique group experience was so . . . un-fun. I'm still trying to find the best critique group and system for me and my writing (and critiquing!) style.

  5. Holy crap! Makes me appreciate my critique group so much more. Sandwich method, everybody. Sandwich method.

  6. When I was in a critique group, I had to work on the first one. It's hard not to defend one's writing, especially against claims like "this dream sequence just comes off as a rape scene" (Yeah, that happened once). But it can cause problems and we have to realize the reader is coming from a different angle, so they are saying what their reader response to the story was. Other people in the group had issues with this as well and one would often argue with me, telling me I was wrong and it's not fun. I'm no longer in that group.

  7. @Raquel: Sounds like a great plan.

    @Jordan: Explaining something is fine. I'm talking about not taking things personally, and not challenging the critiquer.

    @Livia: Sounds delicious.

    @Dawn: That person needs to read Law #2. Sometimes I think critiquers believe that their job is to help poor strugglin' lil' writer-child when it's really just for the author to find out what works, not to be schooled.

  8. Which is why I preface my suggestions with "what I'd like to see is". The author may like the idea or not, but they know that's just my opinion. Like you say Andrew, the Author's vision is the only one that counts.

    If you have to "defend" your submission, either you're not getting the concepts across, in that case you need to just take a hard look at it later; or the critiquers are just missing the point or trying to write it their own way. Either way, its not longer a productive discussion. Move on is right.

    My ftf crit group is in the process of redefining what we want to get out of the group. Should be interesting to see specifically what everyone want to get from the group.


  9. I guess I was lucky that I started out in an extremely advance critique group (the Clarion Workshop), so I've always been pretty blase about criticism.

    There are ups and downs to every way of running one, and every set of rules. You can gain a lot of insight in cross-talk critique too.

    I think, though, that one good personal rule is to only respond with questions. Remember that, while the author is actually always right about the work and the form it should take, the READER is always right about his or her reaction. So strive to understand it.

  10. Wow! Horribly wrong is an understatement! The point of a critique isn't to tear down the author or the person offering an opinion, so both were in the wrong.

    Makes me appreciate my group. Although it's too large to have time for in-depth analyses, we have written policies in place that ask those critiquing to say something positive first... what aspect worked for them, or something they liked... then mention any problems... something specific that may be confusing, or awkward, etc., and finish with a helpful suggestion. The author may not explain or defend his work, or respond to a criticism, and while we often find that hard, it eliminates the possibility of arguments. In the end, the writers know they have the right to accept or ignore the critique and/or suggestions, but that they are opinions of their fellow writers worth considering.

    When we submit work for critiquing we have to expect that others will have opinions that don't necessarily align with our own. "If you can't stand the heat don't go in the kitchen." :)

  11. Good advice. taking criticism is a tough thing, especially in writing because so much of yourself is invested in the work that it's hard to separate the critique of your work from your self.
    My writing group is lovely. We offer support and helpful ways to improve. You can go and feel safe.
    If there ever was a place where politeness and sensitivity should rule it's a writers' group.

  12. Another thing that would have helped avoid the meltdown is to always be clear in commenting on only the work. NOT the person writing the work. There is a huge difference.

  13. @Donna: Exactly. If people don't "get" your work, then maybe you should ask yourself if it's really that well written. OTOH, sometimes people don't get it because it's an excerpt or missing some info, in which case it's fine to explain, just don't treat critiquers like idiots because they don't get it.

    @Daring: I get that. But in critique groups, the critiquer's comments aren't always authentic because they are actively LOOKING for flaws, whereas a casual reader might not notice the same issues. As a critiquer, I'm looking for ways a piece is weak or can be improved, so I find things that aren't necessarily indicative of the overall value of the piece.

    @careann: Yes, both were wrong. One of them could have taken the high road but neither chose to. And yes, why do people not think they'll receive criticism?

    @Cathy: I agree...but there also needs to be a dose of honesty (on both sides). If something is terrible, it does no good to lie to the author about it. But if a critique is worthless, don't say that but at least thank the critiquer for their effort.

    @G: It started out as just critique but ended up as a literary pissing contest over who was right. Useless.

  14. Hi Andrew!

    How sad. That makes me sad. I was in a group where the piece was literary and I thought the same thing you did. But being that it was a crit group,the author took my crits with a cool head and the others pointed out that a literary piece follows a whole different set of rules.


    I feel that a writer needs to brace him/herself for crits if they are going to be in a crit group. Expect feedback. The writer can clarify, but if the message is lost on the reader, then the writer must reconsider.

    Crit groups should help strengthen and build each other up. To help one another succeed. We as writers face enough doubt as it is.

    Rule to remember as we go (even as bestsellers): you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.

    My heart goes out to the lady that burst with tears. Really.

    Oh, btw, I want YOU to come by and read my entry for the bloggysnatchers blogfest. Tell me what you think!!!

    Muahahahhaha!! >0)

  15. This is truly scary, and the escalation was from both sides. Your advice is spot on, and deserves to be read by anyone who wants to be part of a critique group.

  16. If you don't want a critique, don't ask for one. I have received constructive and upsetting critiques and stupid critiques that point out the things their spell check picked up -- but the worst type are the critiques that tell me, "that was good, I liked it." Not helpful.

    Funny side note: My mother, named Sue, is currently writing a series of short literary fiction stories that she describes as Garrison Keillor, but darker. She taught creative writing (in elementary school). There is no input I can give that she would take seriously. I don't know why she even asks me.
    Lesson learned -- never give an honest critique to your mother.
    Man, I hope she didn't cry.

  17. @Moses: Yikes indeed

    @Elizabeth: Nice entry! I actually don't believe lit fic follows "a different set of rules." Good storytelling is good storytelling no matter what the genre. Character development, conflict, etc all are still critical. Fanciful ramblings that mean nothing except to the author are not's self-indulgence. But yeah...there's no reason anyone should get mean about it and the author seemed to be a nice person...unlike the critiquer who was a bitch to be mild.

    @Damyanti: I was afraid they would literally fight.

    @Erin: Yup. I'm trying to avoid giving anything to my mom...but she's seen some of it. She wrote a book once but she refuses to let me see it.

  18. First of all, love the picture. That's just awesome. Secondly, yes and yes. Glad you did a post. It's hard to remember this stuff sometimes.

  19. Great advice, Andrew. Especially coming from a critter who gave me some of the best critique comments ever.

    As a critter it is our job to give constructive feedback without attacking or providing a rewrite in our voice and style. We must remember that these manuscripts are not our manuscripts. Rather, we are simply priveleged enough to read a piece of someone's soul and let them know how it affects us.

    As the writer it is our job to graciously accept any and all feedback we are given--even if we disagree 100%. Even if we feel the hairs raise on the back of our necks and our fangs start to emerge. We can learn something from every comment, no matter how great or small, or how seemingly right or wrong. Just knowing there is another perspective should teach us something about the way we write and the impact of our words.

    Great post.


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