C is for Critique

“Could you read my story and tell me what you think?”

Unless I know the writer well, know he or she truly wants to hear what I think, I dread hearing those words. Too often the person asking this question doesn’t really want to hear what I think. He or she wants to hear how wonderful the story is.

And I understand. When I write something, I don’t ask others for their opinion unless I think what I’ve written is good. I don’t want to hear my prose is trite, that the scene is boring, or I have my facts all wrong. In my case, I’ve now been in the business long enough to have had my work torn to pieces (usually rightfully) by others. I’ve sent mss off to agents or editors, and received enough rejections and critiques to realize not everyone loves my stories or style. When I ask for a critique (or review), I know I may not like what I hear, but that it’s important to hear another person’s opinion.

It’s the new writers who make me cringe.

Just this week I watched a writer read a short chapter aloud to a group, and then slowly wilt as members of the group brought up the mistakes he’d made, both in the writing and in the research. We had a break soon after he read, and he disappeared. (Went home, I assume, or to the local bar). All of the comments had been right on; nevertheless I felt sorry for the writer.

I love receiving a critique from people whose opinions I respect. I don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinion, but I’m more than willing to listen and learn. It might be I didn’t explain something well enough. Or maybe I’ve repeated myself too often. Maybe I got carried away with the act of writing and forgot the story. A good critique is a valuable asset, but only if the writer is ready for it.

The worse critique is one from someone who wants to tear down the writer either because of jealousy or a personal vendetta. No one needs that.

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10 Responses to C is for Critique

  1. ann bennett says:

    I think one big problem is the skill of the person doing the critique. It is one thing to spot flaws. Some are a matter of opinion some rear their head for everyone to see. I do read self-published books that are really good with some fundamental problems that should have been addressed.

    But giving a critique is something in itself. You have to be able to rate the problems from minor to major and give feedback so that the receiver can process it. I know some will at first have problems with what is said, but after thought, they may see the problem.

    I know this from experience, I am a retired teacher. You have to give people enough information but not everything at once. You should not equate a misspelled word with being confused by a character that suddenly starts talking in a major scene.

    Bombarding someone who has just read their work aloud is cruel.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Ann, that’s the problem with people who ask for critiques. In the case of the gentleman who read his chapter aloud, then asked for a critique, what was said wasn’t particularly cruel (the mistakes that were pointed out were in his historical facts), but what he wanted was praise.

  2. Ah yes. I have been on both the giving and receiving ends of critiques. It sure is a delicate balance. The results, good or bad, I think depends on the maturity-writing wise-of the people involved.

    • Maris Soule says:

      It’s a case where you don’t want to simply give smiley faces, at least not if there are problems, but you don’t want to nit pick either. So you’re right, Margo, it is a delicate balance.

  3. This really did strike a chord with me. As a teacher, I’ve given so much feedback, some well received, some less so. Striking the balance between helping someone move forward, or putting them off their craft for good can be a terrifying line to walk! I hope – touch wood – that I have always managed to avoid the latter.

    Great A-Z post!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Terri, my fear is I might discourage a new writer. I certainly don’t want to do that. But I don’t want to mislead anyone, either. You’re right, it’s a balance.

  4. Melissa Keir says:

    It is a balance. We have to always remember to say something that we do like about the story when we make any critiques. Only negatives will hurt.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I sometimes have to remind myself to do that, Melissa, especially if I am critiquing a really good writer. It’s almost as if my mind goes, “Well of course this is great, except for this one little thing.” So I jump right in and talk about the little thing that isn’t working. Most of the time I realize what I’m doing in time to remember to finish with, and I love…, and I love…, and….

  5. Lucy Kubash says:

    I really don’t care to critique the work of someone I know, and if asked I usually manage to find some excuse not to do it. I have been a judge for a national award for a few years now and that I don’t mind. I do try to say at least one or two good things about what I’m critiquing, as well as making critical comments. It’s hard to take comments when you’re a new writer, but you have to realize that an editor isn’t always kind. It’s true some people just want their work praised and don’t want to learn.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’ve been a part of the Mid-West Mystery Writers of America Chapter’s mentoring program for several years now. It’s been an interesting experience. I gained a friend through the program and think (hope) I helped a writer who is very near being ready to be published. It’s not always a negative experience.