Friday, November 4, 2011

How to Deliver (and Receive) a Difficult Critique

So, by popular demand, I've decided to tackle this topic. Again, I'm not an expert by any means. And I'll admit, that while I try to present my critiques in a professional manner, I may slip up on my own rules from time to time. But here are some things I feel critters should and shouldn't do, especially when delivering or receiving a particularly harsh critique.

First, the delivery.

1. Watch your word choice. There are some words that come out of critters' mouths that make me cringe every time I hear them. One of them is "bad." "Bad," to me, translates to "unfixable," and that's not something I ever want to say to someone I'm critiquing. Because nothing is irreparable. It might take starting over to fix something, but it can be fixed. Better to say that something "could use work," or "doesn't work for me," or "in my opinion." It is all subjective, and while the entire group might agree that something isn't working, it's still just our collective opinion.

2. Also watch for flippancy. This is one that I know I need to work on some myself. It can get easy to forget the feelings of your crit group friends when you've been together for years and joke around all the time. You might have a member who always takes joking well, but he/she had a bad day. Or maybe this was a scene he spent hours on and thought he finally had right, only for you to tear it apart and make a wisecrack about it. Which brings me to number three . . .

3. Make eye contact and watch the recipient's facial expressions. If someone looks like he/she is getting upset, ease off. Remind the person that it's just your opinion and it's not personal. Perhaps apologize for being too flippant.

4. Share the pain. When I catch someone making a mistake that I often make myself, I'll share that. If it's something my agent has pinged me for, I'll share that, too, and also share how much effort and pain it cost me to fix it. Misery loves company, and it's nice to remember we're all on the same path together.

Now, on receiving a difficult crit.

1. Never, ever get defensive. Let the critter have his/her say. I think I do pretty well with this, though I'm sure I slip up from time to time. We all want to jump in and say, "But it's so clear. It says so, right THERE!" But to that critter, it wasn't. Now, maybe the critter missed something. But more likely, it's not clear. And so I follow . . .

2. THE THREE STRIKE RULE! I did not make this up, but I can't remember where I heard it first. I think I picked it up at a writers conference. Regardless, I follow the three strike rule. In other words, if one critter says there's a problem, I'll look at it. If two find the same problem, I'll consider it more carefully. But if three or more critters see the same issue, I can be pretty darn sure there's something wrong.

3. Consider everyone's opinion, regardless of where they are on the path to publication. Not every member of my group has the same amount of experience when it comes to writing and critiquing, and sometimes they know something is wrong but don't know how to pinpoint it. It doesn't matter. Your readers won't all be highly experienced writers, either, but if they are bored or confused, they will put down your book just as fast.

4. Admit mistakes. Very often one of my critters will point out a poorly written line and as soon as he/she starts to read it out loud, I'll want to hide under the table. This is similar to the "don't get defensive" rule, but it creates an even greater atmosphere of congeniality when people come out and say, "Yes, I did write like crap there. Good catch."

5. Last, but I think most important--Thank everyone! Whether you agree with a crit or not, your critters took time and effort away from their own lives, their own writing, to try to help you with yours. They may not know how to phrase things, and maybe they make some of the mistakes I've suggested above, but we all put work into our crits, and some are better at presenting them than others. By all means, you don't have to take everyone's advice, but nod and smile and say you'll think about it and thank them.

And that's it! Sounds easy, right? Not so easy when you've rewritten the same scene six times and that one critter says it still isn't working for him. But really, we're not in competition with each other. We all want to see each other succeed. Heck, if one of us succeeds, he/she may open the door for others to follow.

Happy writing!


Vivi said...

So I'm deciding I really like your blog. ;) Great post. I'm very much open to critiques, but if they're not delivered in constructive way, I do tend to shut down a bit. But I've really enjoyed honing my craft based on what I've learned from my group. One other thing that's important: learn from other people's critiques as well. I try to listen to the feedback given to other people so I can recognize if I make the same mistakes. Though it's not directed toward my work, the feedback can still apply over the long run.

Lisa Iriarte said...

Great point, Vivi! I knew the comments would reveal points I missed. :-) Yes, it's really important to listen to other people's critiques of their works as well. It can help us recognize mistakes we are making ourselves, or avoid mistakes we aren't making yet, but might later on.