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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