Painfully Honest Critiques

Generally, I do not take criticism well.  It’s just something about being told I’m wrong that rubs against my grain, especially something I’ve been trained to do or something I’ve done out of habit for a long time.

The one exception to this is criticism of my writing during workshopping.  I handle criticism pretty well in workshops – usually because whoever is criticizing me is right.  My boyfriend, for example, is also a writer and does an extremely thorough job obliterating my work into smithereens.

Not that I mind, of course.  When your work gets blasted to smithereens, you have the chance to go in and make extreme changes to radically improve your work.  Here are a few hints on giving painfully honest and incredibly helpful techniques.

  • If the piece doesn’t make sense, do not hesitate to tell the writer.  It’s extremely important, though, that you tell them precisely why it doesn’t make sense.  “I don’t understand” is not as good as “Stanzas X and Y mention this element, but then it doesn’t show up again until five stanzas after that at stanza Q.”  It would also be important to explain “I don’t see how element T connects to element Z in this poem.”
  • In a poetry critique, nit-picking over word meanings or word choice can make or break a poem.  An example: there is a huge difference between “click” and “tick” when referring to the sound a clock makes, and it’s important to tell the difference based on what you mean.
  • Always, always, always make sure you are providing a fair and kind critique.  Each criticism should be accompanied by either a suggestion for improvement or an explanation of what you like about the piece.  You should never tell a writer “I don’t like X” or “Z is not working” without also saying “…but I like Y” or “…and Q is my favorite part/line/word.”  Knowing what does work will help the writer – both by knowing what to change and knowing what not to change.  Fair and kind critiques also help ease the pain of a critique as well.
  • Remember: a strong critique should ultimately help the writer and the pain will only be temporary.  While it’s a bit disappointing to be told your narrator is flat and the least interesting person in the story, that’s a very important thing for the writer to know: nobody wants to read a story with a boring narrator.  Your purpose as a critiquer – or critter, as they’re sometimes called – is to help your friends and colleagues build on their foundation to develop a better piece.

Critiques should be different according to preferences.  If you’re not sure what is appropriate, ask the person receiving the critique how in-depth they want you to go.

When my work is being critiqued, I prefer to have the harshest, most painfully honest, and most in-depth critique possible because that’s how I learn and improve.  What do you prefer when you’re being critiqued?  When you’re receiving critiques?  Are painfully honest critiques important to you?  Share your thoughts on critiquing in the comments below.

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6 thoughts on “Painfully Honest Critiques

  1. I like them over the internet because it’s easier to take for me, I guess. I have a hard time focusing on what people say during a workshop in person instead of on what my writing say, so online critiques allow me to actually see what they are saying. It also allows me to make changes right away, and to go back to what they have said to make sure I addressed it. I have a hard time when I ask someone what they think and all they say is “I like it” or “I love your style” because that doesn’t really help me. Often times critiques aren’t descriptive enough for me.

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    • Internet critiques are excellent – I do live sessions on Google Docs with Alan for both of our work, and afterwords my brain feels numb and I feel like an idiot, but the feeling wears off 15 minutes later to make way for a really awesome feeling. Do you have a particular website you do critiques on?

      (And I also hate when people say “I like it” without saying anything else. I’d rather have all negative comments with detailed instructions on the why or the how-to-fix than “I like it.”)

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  2. I’ve also used titanpad.com to co-write, and it could be used for critique as well.

    I like very specific comments as well, but results from someone who is not familiar with your genre can be helpful or not. My co-author and I had a friend who tends to write fantasy in a romance style look at our work. She pointed out that we hadn’t given the hair or eye color of any of our characters, and we were dumfounded. She totally fell in love with one of the characters, but didn’t notice that there was no physical description of him of any kind.

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    • That makes a lot of sense – I’m really glad you pointed that out. I can definitely relate, because I enjoy writing for young adults/middle grade readers and my boyfriend knows little to nothing about that. Sometimes he points out that I could use more advanced vocabulary, but an 11-year-old reading it wouldn’t be able to understand that vocabulary.

      What’s titanpad.com?

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      • Vocabulary for young people can be tricky, but I don’t like to sell them short. Think of all the weird terms that come up in the Potter and other fantasy books. You can’t dump too many words on them at a time, and they won’t enjoy trudging off to the dictionary with every sentence, but you can give the meaning by context or resort to other tricks.

        Titanpad is a site that hosts etherpad documents. Etherpad is an “open-source web-based collaborative editor.” Google bought Etherpad as a basis for Goodle Docs, but then released it back to open source, and it’s maintained by the Etherpad Foundation. I like using open source whenever I can.

        The criticism did get us to work harder to work in descriptions in a natural way, so it did help us, but I’m still never going to write about smouldering green eyes that wish they could jump across the room and slap someone…. unless I’m writing a parody.

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  3. i don’t think i have it in me to honesty critique the average writer
    it is no doubt a major turn-off for most people
    yet i does improve one’s writing

    if i really care about a work that was not done as well as it could be
    i ask if i could rewrite it – they often agree

    downside is
    sometimes i notice they start to write like me
    that pisses me off but i don’t say anything about it

    is it wrong for me to be taken aback, or feel insulted
    when this happens?

    i know the way i’m talkin’ makes me sound like a big deal to myself
    but as difficult as it is to admit – it’s how i feel

    peace

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