1. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    A question about critique

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by jazzabel, Mar 8, 2013.

    I was wondering how others felt about critiquing. Oftentimes I find myself hesitant to point out major flaws for the fear of offending, or discouraging or ending up looking like a villain. I too get hurt by negative reviews, but in the long term I found that even the most irrelevant negative comment is useful in letting me know that another person didn't enjoy the writing. This helped me improve once I realised that the only important thing is to end up with a good story, not how many re-writes and hurt prides were necessary to get there.

    So, I was wondering, how honest are you in your critiques? Do you usually manage to get to the heart of the matter, or do you hesitate and skirt around the big criticisms?
    What are your pet peeves (critique faux pas such as re-writing another person's material, no reading carefully and missing the point etc)?
    Do you feel you are getting as much help from critiques as you hoped?
     
  2. Lost72
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    Lost72 Member

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    I'm always honest, but that doesn't equate to being rude and I hope that no-one takes my critiques that way. I see some critiquers tear pieces to shreds with f'ing this and that and what the hell is this etc. I have even seen this from mods. I've no idea how that's constructive and I can only assume that they get off on it, somehow. What a shame.

    Occasionally, I'll re-structure sentences, but that's only because sometimes it's far easier to get a point across that way. I think only once have I re-written a paragraph and that was because we were going round in circles and it seemed the simplest example.

    I'm not a prolific poster, I don't have the time to critique often, but when I do I'm always mindful of the writer and I put a lot of thought in to my reply.

    I'm a rarity in that I have little to no inclination to be published so I can't comment on receiving critiques as I've no desire to put my work up.

    Yeah and people who bang on about the 'grammar police' frankly get on my nerves. I cannot even begin to get in to story if there are major technical issues.
     
  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't skirt around, I'm probably too blunt in fact - but that's because, and I don't think this is a good thing on my part, I only see the bad writing and I don't see the author behind it. I don't see a person, therefore I don't see who I could be hurting. It makes for very honest critiques, but I believe I could be more sensitive about it too. I just often cannot be bothered to be too sensitive because it requires me to edit and rewrite the entire post.... and now I write a lot when I get down to critiquing.

    Generally though, I have a habit and talent for tearing things apart - but I'm not an editor. An editor takes joy in helping someone else polish and flourish and shine - I don't. I just find it frustrating and dull to read bad writing, and then get even more frustrated when the writer's simply like, "Well, I disagree with everything you said." And I'm like, so I did all that work for what? I find the writer's ego the ugliest and hardest thing to work around, personally. But then it's why I don't critique very often, and you'll find my comments are either brief or else they're praises on writing I actually enjoyed, because I don't normally make it far enough to critique the ones that need it.

    As for myself, I don't post my work often because usually everything I write is meant for my novels. I don't do "practices" very often (I rewrite what's in my novel often enough for that) - and when I'm just writing crap, I don't really feel I should post it. But the writing I care to have a critique on will always be for my novel, which I wanna get published and I'm therefore wary about posting it at all.

    As for pet peeve? It's gotta be people who ask questions that were clearly answered in black and white, and shows that they simply didn't read properly, or else people who harp on about a point that's not very important to the story at all but they make a big deal out of it. I had a critic ask me once, "Why is your character tense? Is he expecting danger?" but I'd just spent the last page describing how monsters were raiding towns and villages and destroying them, and how people are dying etc etc - so I was like, "Did you actually read this?" But then again, I think sometimes we must be aware when your writing style simply isn't that critic's style, and not hold their negative comments against them. They were honest and they're trying to help, and for that I'm grateful.
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wasn't referring to completely rude, swearing, humiliating critiques which, as you pointed out @Lost72 are only serving to reveal various personality issues of the reviewer, I'm thinking more of being honest about big things, when they are present. Telling someone that the story is boring, or that their sentences are to vague and purple prose, or that the entire thing needs a change of style because it's just not good as it is? This is the kind of advice which can help someone with a classic immature style of writing which is too verbose, too explanatory, not actually conjuring images in the reader's mind, mature into a coherent writer who will captivate instead of bore to tears. Whilst those things are not rude in themselves, I think most of us would be very reluctant to say them and even more reluctant to hear them.

    @Mckk: I completely agree, there's nothing worse than putting a lot of energy into a helpful critique, even if it's quite critical, and then the writer says that no changes can be done, this is how it is, or even argue. It's ok if the reviewer didn't actually read the piece properly, but if the critique is actually useful, it's just so annoying when it all goes bad.
     
  5. Lost72
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    Lost72 Member

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    I'm not reluctant to say these things, and I was just pointing out that there are ways and means. If someone puts their piece up for critique, you're doing them a diservice if you don't tell them something that may help because you're worried it might hurt their feelings.

    So far as the 'boring' 'purple prose' etc, I think writers need to bear in mind that these are, for the most part, entirely subjective and dependent on the genre.

    I really can't relate to the annoyance over a critique being potentially disregarded. It's nice to get an acknowledgement, but if they choose to ignore my advice that's up to them. I don't mind. I don't do it for the glory.
     
  6. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    ha! rings a bell with me here, someone put a piece up review not long ago and in a nutshell I just went yeah, crap! (not quite that blunt but...)

    Then 2 hours later I felt really guilty and went back and helped the person and we exchanged notes etc for 2 days till he was very happy with his piece.

    Pet peeves? Big pieces put me off big time, there are items here 5,000 words long, 10+ A4 pages? emm no thanks, won't even read them...

    Lately I find myself spending too much time reading about writing here than actually writing... hmmm reminds me...
     
  7. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Lost: You are right, someone will always like a piece, but what I'm wondering is if that's a good enough reason not to tell the writer that in our personal opinion, the piece was boring, or verbose or what have you. This is at the core of my concern. Just because someone might disagree with us, should we shy away from telling the whole truth about what we thought?
    I am obviously referring to valid points and a polite way of saying it. Just saying something is 'boring' is not rude. Saying it is 'tragic and a joke' is rude. Do you know what I mean?

    @erebh: I too can't stand pieces that are too long. Max 1500 words, 2000 if it's fantastic. Anything over that is just a no-no for me.
     
  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    "So, I was wondering, how honest are you in your critiques? Do you usually manage to get to the heart of the matter, or do you hesitate and skirt around the big criticisms?
    What are your pet peeves (critique faux pas such as re-writing another person's material, no reading carefully and missing the point etc)?"

    The bottom line for me is whether or not the author can actually write. I find myself shrinking from any submission which contains so many grammatical errors or has so many technical blocks in place that I can't find a way in. I think learning grammar, spelling, and understanding the basics of what makes a story work are prerequisite to writing one. You won't be a brain surgeon just because you like the look of brains. There are lots of things you need to learn before you can begin cutting and sewing.

    If a submission grabs my interest in some way, however, then I'm In Like Flynn. I enjoy problem-solving, so doing a critique is fun for me. Having finished writing a novel myself (in the process of editing it just now), having read many books on the subject of creative writing, read many books period, and acquired a BA in English during my checkered life, I feel experienced enough to brainstorm with other writers.

    I'm always interested in discovering what the author wanted to convey with a particular piece of writing. It's easier to direct help, if I know what they were trying to achieve, or what they think a particular problem might be. I would always be honest and constructive with my suggestions, but—as implied in my first statement—if I thought the submission was hopeless, I'd probably just move on and say nothing.

    I'm very impressed, so far, with the quality of submissions AND responses on this forum. All very exciting!
     
  9. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    oh! Another no-no is when they start by apologising for typos... if they can't be arsed spell checking why should we be arsed doing it for them?
     
  10. Lost72
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    Lost72 Member

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    I would say the majority of that is self-preservation and nothing to do with spell-checking. Remember, for many, sharing their work is baring their soul.
     
  11. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure I'm brave enough to put my work up for critique here - well not yet anyway; but when I do I will go over it 20 times at least, keep it to 2000 words max and make it clear that i've done my utmost to correct anything, then invite the onslaught. :)
     
  12. Lost72
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    Lost72 Member

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    No, don't shy away from it, just remember there's another human being on the end of your words. But I see that you get that. I was more saying that the receiver of the critique should bear in mind that the critique of style, for example, is subjective. Personal opinion can be incredibly helpful and 'boring' is not rude, as you say, provided you back it up. 'Your work is boring, buhbyenow.' is rude :D
     
  13. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've done a lot of critiques over the last few years on various sites, and honesty without being rude, condescending, or dictatorial is essential if one is to accomplish their mission - helping the author. Sometimes that means emphasizing that this is opinion/advice only, but that takes maybe half a second to do. I have a tendency to give examples of how I would fix things, rather than elaborate explanations of how to fix them, and no one so far has accused me of trying to rewrite their material. My downfall is forgetting to point out good things - my own upbringing, I suppose, where if no one said you did something wrong, you were to assume you did it right. But I was getting better at it.

    I have had writers who refused to change things that were obvious problems. Short discussion and then I dropped the issue - no sense wearing myself out beating a dead horse. But if every suggestion was discarded, I pretty much dropped out of the whole thing. I'm not there to give them nothing but warm fuzzies.

    I haven't done a lot of critiques the last year or so, mainly because I was spending more time doing that and less time on my own stuff. And it seemed I was becoming a magnet for people's very first stories and I got tired of being an English teacher. (Note to writers - even if it is your first attempt, make some effort to use proper grammar and spelling, and for heaven's sake, read the thing to see if it actually makes sense before asking for a crit.)
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    one can't be any less than 100% honest and be truly helpful... so, though my comments may be brusque to blunt, they're always only about the writing, not personal... they always cover the major problems i see with the writing... and are always given in a cariing, motherly spirit...
     
  15. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I first started critiquing here I think I was probably a little blunt.... That's in part because I was psyched about the critiquing process, and was using it to help myself as much if not more as the person I was reviewing.

    Lately, I've tried to soften my critiques.

    "Hi, how are you?", from my experience, does not exist equally in different places, and in those places where it does, it doesn't mean the people there care any more about you. It's just a pleasantry, but it sets a brighter, more pleasant mood, in my opinion.

    People will be more open to criticism if you sugar coat it, just like with anything. Another thing to consider is that we are not professional editors, nor judges on American Idol. We're aspiring writers just like the people we critique, and I think its worthwhile to try and establish a positive relationship with them.

    I think we all know, "interesting story," is a pointless comment. Or, "I enjoyed the read." It's white noise, really. What the person being critiques needs to do is first address the issues that the reviewer does address. Then there's the question, "why didn't they love the story?" "How come know one laughed at my jokes, or became infatuated with my characters?" I think its harder to find out why a person didn't love something, then it is to find out why they actively disliked something. It's possible that person just didn't share your vision, or, perhaps, your writing is simply not engaging enough for the reader to become enchanted, but maybe not bad enough for the reader to consciously realize this. That's why I'd say its better to get as many reviews as you can. If 2 out of 5 people can pinpoint the positive things in your story, unaided, and have strong praise, maybe you're in good shape, despite those three other lackluster reviews? What do you think, Jazzabel?
    Certainly, if none of the reviews are sparkling, you'd better consider finding one of those "blunt jerks"...
     
  16. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although you don't want to be rude, and yes, you do need to remain mindful that there is a person behind the writing, when you're critiquing, the "loyalty" has to be to the piece of writing and not to the writer. You want to make the writing as good as it can be. So pointing out things like, "I don't understand what you mean here," or "I'm not sure this particular word works to describe this situation, if you are trying to establish X..." You need to remember that you are reacting to the writing and you're giving your impressions -- where something didn't make sense to you or where you got confused. That doesn't necessarily mean that every reader will be confused, but it's good for the author to know, because if multiple people have the same reaction, there's probably a just cause to rework that section.

    In the end, if it's honest criticism, and the critic does not take himself so seriously that whatever he has thought must be the case, everyone is better off.
     
  17. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Guys, this is the third time I'm trying to write a reply on my iPad and third time that I accidentally reloaded he page and lost it! Aaargh!
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I see no reason to be anything but honest. But even if a piece is particularly horrid, there is little reason to say more than, "This needs a lot of work," for an overall assessment. Then I would select the three to five worst overall problems to address in detail. A couple examples of each from the excerpt is more than sufficient.

    You don't need to mark up the entire selection and point out every error. All you'll do is overwhelm and discourage the writer. It's far more helpful to guide them through the worst problems with general guidelines, and leave the rest for after the writer has a chance to do a rewrite with those in mind.
     
  19. Phoenix Hikari
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    Phoenix Hikari Contributing Member

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    Yeah, I agree with the comments about sugar-coating the critique. After all, the reason put his write on or gave it to me is not because they want me to shower them with compliments but rather to be honest with them and help them see how they can improve. Even if I am not the best writer there is, my eyes can probably see more clearly than theirs.
    In taking criticism, I like others to be blunt and straight forward because when it hurts, it works. That's how I get to correct my mistakes.
     
  20. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Cogito: you are right, it takes lots of patience. The situation I have most problems with is when a text is severely over-written. The writer clearly put a lot of effort in making every sentence count, but the result becomes unreadable when every sentence has a text, and a subtext, and a metaphor, and a couple of adjectives, and a clue. In this kind of text, pretty much every sentence (or every other) needs to be re-written. But the writer is so proud of their achievement and cleverness that they are prepared to consider contents changes but not a change in style. It's clear they have a talent to write so you want to help them, but as long as they carry on in that "style" they'll never make it because not many people enjoy over-written novels.

    @Phoenix and everyone above: Thanks guys for sharing your views, it looks like we are all struggling to find balance in this, but we are all trying :)

    @shadow: haha, yes, the upbringing :) I am the same. I try to first find something good, to never start with a bad, that helps remembering to put it in :D

    @123: I know what you mean and I agree, but in terms of quantity, it's not always simple as that. For example, I always put up for critique risky pieces, those in which I am trying to tell the story in a unique way, but I am either not sure whether it works, or I'm sure it doesn't quite work and I know I'll change it a million times before publishing. So I always get "negative" critiques, ie. people tell me why it didn't work, and that's exactly what I need in order to re-write it in a reader-friendly way. I posted a couple of times stuff I was happy with but wanted to gauge the overall responses (to check whether my betas are delusional when they say I can write, lol) and they were all really positive. But I'm the same writer both times, just the pieces differ :)

    @lost, chicago, maia, erbh: we are in agreement :) As far as pet peeves, my biggest one is when people re-write your stuff extremely badly. I once posted something for critique and someone suggested that I "completely change everything about it" and proceeded to re-write it in a style of one of those epic poems, with gods and everything. I was like, okay... :confused: Another pet peeve but that's only because I hate scrolling down big sausages of text, is when people quote the entire piece and insert two corrections.
     
  21. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Sometimes I wonder if I go too far with my critiques. I offer example sentences - rewriting
    rough or incoherent sentences but I wonder if I'm crossing the line into unwanted
    editing. Not that I expect anyone to use my sentences - everyone has their own style.
    The trouble is I'm trying to explain what I mean and sometimes showing a sentence
    reworded is the clearest way to do it. I don't know all the correct terms like you split an
    infinitive, and can you believe I still mess up the terms adverbs and adjectives in my head?!

    Anyhow, I try to be polite and encouraging - despite the sea of red!
    In fact, I try and give the critique I'd love to get - Point out the flaws but also show
    examples of how they can be fixed.
     
  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @peachlulu: It's really hard to know what the OP will think and some people really appreciate such approach, but I can tell you one thing - I have seldom seen a re-write in the critique section that was significantly better than the original, and this for me is the main reason not to do it.
    I know what you mean, sometimes it is the only way, but my rule is, if I need to re-write more than 2 sentences, I don't re-write at all. Instead I try to identify the problems with writing and let the OP apply it to everything (if they choose not to ignore my comment, which also happens).

    ps. I too don't know the correct termnology, because the first grammar I learned was Serbian and then Latin, English grammar kinda merged and I only speak the language but all grammar terms, even though I know them, I only know their names in my native language.
    Adverbs are easy for me because we have 7 cases for declining nouns ( in Latin:nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative and ablative ( in Serbian ablative becomes locative and instrumental). Adverbs create cases equivalents for nouns and adjectives in English. It's not the same technique but it's the same end result. :)
     
  23. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I always give examples - after clearly noting they're examples. I used to know writing 'techno language' decades ago - now I figure why spend a paragraph discussing what's going on when I can write one sentence and illustrate it?
     
  24. northernadams
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    northernadams Member

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    Just to jump in with my two cents with something that everyone else has already been saying in one way or another: a soft critique serves little (if any) purpose, unless the piece you're critiquing is already approaching perfection, or your only intention is to be amiable and polite. When you're talking about social circles, then the old adage "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" might come into play...though I don't adhere to it then either. The only thing that appears to accomplish is a bunch of smiling faces who politely say their goodbyes and then proceed to talk behind everyone's backs. Instead, I abide by "If you can't say something honest, don't say anything at all." Be polite, not snide or patronizing or harsh or condescending, but always be honest. I think it works even better when applied to critiques.

    Harsh or haughty critiques--those are hard to swallow. You can tell the critiquer has ego issues, and perhaps they're not very socially adept, but that doesn't mean they don't know exactly what they're talking about. Even those instances where I was convinced the critiquer was confused, that showed me I needed to go over that section again and find out where, what, or how I managed to lose them.

    And no, you don't have to take every suggestion or correction. What's really hair-pulling is having your correct spelling, grammar, or punctuation 'corrected' with incorrect spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but critiquing isn't an exact science anyway. If I can make use of 80% or more of a particular critique, I've gotten a very good critique.
     
  25. northernadams
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    northernadams Member

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    I do this too, and just hope it's not stepping on toes or crossing a line. Sometimes, I can think of a way to apply a particular suggestion but can't seem to clearly explain what I mean. And of course, the rewrite suggestion isn't meant to be applied verbatim.

    I did have one long-time critique partner who went through and rewrote most of a piece I had given her to look at. That's someone who's ego-tripping. Sorry, anyone in here can feel free to disagree, but there's just no reason to need to post a rewrite suggestion but maybe once or twice or even three times in a chapter. If you have to do it more often than that, something's wrong.

    Personally, I'm not insulted with the occasional suggested rewrite. I did pop off at this critique partner I had--she was rewriting whole paragraphs. Um, if your intent is to help, then it's just not necessary to go that far with it.
     

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