My thoughts and opinions on constructive criticism

Discussion in 'Editing' started by Oldmanofthemountain, Apr 29, 2021.

  1. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    In addition, I've pretty much stopped doing my literal 'red pen' edits of screenplays. First, bad screenplays are unreadable, and if I struggle to get past the first 10 pages it's all over. I refuse to continue. It's not worth it and I return the script stating that it needs too much work for me to continue and we discuss what I read so far. As I read I'll make notes on the printout in red pen. Blunt, harsh, to the point. This is then followed up with a session going over every single note with the writer. Sometimes we change things, sometimes it just needs rewording, sometimes we leave it as is. It's up to the writer if they want to change anything at all. That's on them. That gives me the freedom to express my concerns and them the freedom to write the script they want. But it's a brutal process and some people can't take it. I've had people shout in anger and frustration, threaten to give up writing altogether, and even cry. But in the end they understand the process and leave with a better script. It's just so draining and time consuming I don't do it anymore.
     
  2. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Interesting. I've never heard this before, but that's a very useful idea. Or it would be if I had any idea what gets stories past the slush pile, but I don't.

    Stephen King is adamant that workshops where the blind lead the blind are mostly useless or worse. I can see that it's useful up to a point, but mostly for beginners. Honestly I feel like I've learned more by doing critiques and reading critiques on other people's works than by receiving them. Of course I only have one story in the workshop, so it might be different if I had more.
     
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  3. hyacinthe

    hyacinthe Senior Member

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    there's another thing I've been thinking about. and this is gonna sound arrogant, I'm sorry. but
    if you're busting your ass to improve your writing and storytelling craft, you're going to get to the point where critique isn't actually helping you any more, and it might actually be detrimental to seek critique once you're at that point. offer your evaluation, but keep your manuscript to yourself.

    so when you're at that stage, you really only need someone to read your thing real quick and tell you how they reacted to it. the trick is figuring out that's the stage you're at.
     
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  4. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Active Member

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    I think some new writers may reach that point but I think at that point it's more about how they use the critiques they get, even if they are confident in their ability.

    So at that point, beta readers, even by non-writers will have value. But it's like Neil Gaiman said (I think he said it), "When people tell you something isn't working they are usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong." But maybe 'people' should really be 'a majority of reasonable beta readers'.
     
  5. B.E. Nugent

    B.E. Nugent Senior Member

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    What, then is a good critique? I'm not posing that as rhetorical nor sarcastic. You're much further down this road than I am and I'd like to hear what is actually helpful in a critique.

    I am new to this. I've done some critique on this site, some line by line, others more general on impact. Most all are prefaced by an acknowledgement of my limitations. I fully admit that it contributes to my writing to identify issues of word choice and sentence construction in someone else's writing that, slowly, helps to find the same issues in my own. But, on all of this, I'm as blind as a deaf bat. There may not be any Hippocratic oath for WF, but it would be helpful to get feedback from more advanced writers on what is less harmful in critique.
     
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  6. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I've been thinking about the same thing, and here's what occurs to me. Seven Crowns is advanced way beyond me, there's very little someone at my level could offer that would help him aside from saying what I think works and what doesn't (and maybe even offering misguided thoughts on why or what to do about it).

    But many of us are at a much lower level, and for us critique can be far more helpful. I mean for instance I can help people with certain things I know about (or think I do)*. And there are things I don't understand yet that people can help me with. Many of us are still struggling with things that we can help each other out with.

    When you reach the level Seven Crowns is at, you don't need help of a basic or intermediate variety, and that's the kind of help we offer here. Unless somebody who's already an accomplished author wants to step in and offer some knowledge. Most of us are at levels where we do need some more basic help.


    * And of course there are aspects of those things I don't know all that well, even if I don't realize it. Hopefully when I blather on about something my own weaknesses become apparent, or somebody points them out.
     
    Last edited: May 25, 2021
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  7. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    As soon as I posted that the next level of thought occurred to me on it. Funny how that works, you just need to get your current thoughts down on paper to clear the way.

    I think the kind of things we can help people with on a message board like this are SPaG (basic grammar school level stuff) and then stuff like story structure, plotting, character web, etc. Also those things like active and passive voice, showing and telling, how to use the various POVs effectively and what mistakes to avoid with them etc.

    Then there's how to self-edit—things like killing your darlings, re-working paragraphs and sentences for clarity and flow, and I'm sure there's more that's not occurring to me right now.

    But beyond that, if a writer has these things well in hand, it becomes more about voice and style and esoteric things that are much harder to pin down or help with. In order to even work on those things I suspect you need to have most of what I already mentioned under control, be able to clearly see it all.

    Ok, those are my thoughts.
     
    Last edited: May 25, 2021
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  8. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Next round of thought. I heard this on a video about art training (for visual art). But it applies equally here.

    When you study or critique, even as fumbling as your efforts might be toward what you're consciously / purportedly trying to accomplish, there's a lot happening under the surface. Being in a setting where many people are struggling with their work will help you grow in ways you're unaware of, and that don't happen nearly as well if you're working in isolation. It's incredibly helpful to surround yourself with others struggling at the same endeavor.

    I even have heard that the specific things we think we're talking about are hedges, something to focus the conscious attention on while other things we can't pin down are growing and evolving under the surface. I think that's the big and impossible to pin down benefit of a message board like this. I can definitively say that I've learned a lot, though it's hard to say exactly what, but I've definitely advanced quite a bit in my time here. Much of that is from reading books (many of which I learned about here) but a lot of it is from engaging with others on the same path as me, all at different points.
     
  9. hyacinthe

    hyacinthe Senior Member

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    honestly, the act of evaluating another writer's work has more benefit for you than it does for the person getting the critique. I know people say this all the time but I always found that whatever I was seeing in other people's work was connected to what i couldn't see in my own.
     
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  10. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    I think there's two approaches that are useful.

    1) You are fixing mechanics.

    You're basically line editing. The problem is that a lot of what's offered as a critique is almost algorithmic. It's checklist advice that's being treated like dogma. The only "rule" in writing is the grammar. Beyond that there are conventions and techniques that have found success for certain people and genres, but they don't always work, because nothing happens always. The rules of grammar are broken by style and voice, especially in fiction, so even that standard doesn't hold. I feel that a lot of the edits I've seen are 0ver-corrections. They're treating fiction like it's an essay that has to use grade school grammar. Fragments are bad. Every "that" has to be chopped. "Was" is evil, so avoid it with whatever convolutions are necessary. Passives need to be deleted. ( <--- haha, see what I did there?) Adverbs are a sign of weakness. Every term needs to be immediately obvious in context. And so on . . . None of that's true, but a lot of line-editing critics seem to think so. If you need proof that these things are okay, just pick up a few professional novels and really notice how sentences are used. They're not breaking rules, because there are no rules. They're using words without apology.

    If you're going to line edit, you must preserve style and voice. You can't get too hung up on minimalizing sentences. You have to feel them as a part of a greater whole and know that sometimes a line will sprawl forward and it's not wrong for doing that. You can't be enforcing non-rules either. There's a lot more of those than what I mentioned here. Of course I'm not saying that every word stays. I'm a big believer in wringing all filler out of a sentence, just the empty ballast that holds the sentence together but says nothing in itself. That's not quite the same thing as chopping an idea down to nothing.

    2) You are an advocate for the audience.

    Make sure you're really a member of the book's audience, or you can at least honestly empathize with what they want. The writer's number one goal is to make the audience feel. Your critique should tell the writer what you wanted and hoped for, the direction you were being led by the story. You point out where something was missing or caused confusion, where the logical part of your brain interfered. You should understand the emotional goal of a scene and be able to say what interrupted that journey. And you absolutely have to tell the writer what worked. They need to know what to hold on to. It's not just about finding mistakes and omissions. This is also the level that speaks to arcs and story.

    .
    .
    .

    You've said kind words about me. Thank you. My writing is deeply flawed though. (I have two glaring errors I'm always fighting. I'd rather not mention them here though, haha. It's shameful.) I don't hold myself up as any sort of ultimate authority. There's plenty of people who leave me in the dust.

    I guess with the above critiques, I know left-brain / right-brain theory has been shot down (too 1970s-ish to be taken seriously), but you're going to be using one of those approaches. Mechanics == Left. Advocating == Right. Hopefully it's some mix of the two. You want the syntactic logic of the left shaping the emotional journey of the right.
     
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  11. B.E. Nugent

    B.E. Nugent Senior Member

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    I agree fully with the points made by @Xoic and @hyacinthe . I will add, though, that, for me, posting writing in the workshop here, particularly when critique is offered, has been my first experience of knowing that other people have read something I've written. Starting out, as I am, this is huge. It gives an energy and pep to the process. Particularly over the year that wasn't, when face-to-face groups were categorized as criminal activities, that's the only bounce that's accessible. It is one of my frustrations with WF that postings in workshop might receive very few, sometimes no, feedback/review/critique. That can have the opposite effect. Though I may be completely off piste with my commentary, I do consider that something that could be considered feedback is better than nothing. For the most part, I've experienced good critique (no need to point out that good is not necessarily favourable). I think we are all aware that none of us are infallible on whatever we might critique, but getting feedback from readers is of value. If those readers also happen to be writers, all the better. As an exercise, maybe it would be beneficial if postings in workshop specified what type of feedback is requested, whether SPAG, construction, clarity, interest or wordplay. Even still, though, there's no guarantee of a response and that can be paralysing.
     
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  12. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    This is true, but it's also important that people learn the 'rules' in the beginning. Yes, the stylistic choices of a master often closely resemble the mistakes of a beginner, but with a crucial difference—the master knows what he's doing.

    You can't effectively break the rules until you understand them, so they do need to be learned. Once you understand them well enough you can choose to bend or break them. But I think for beginners and semi-beginners to learn the rules we do need to bolt on the training wheels. And I think it's OK for some people to present the rules as dogma, as long as you've got some people on the board explaining that they're really guidelines and not hard/fast laws. At least it means people are learning the rules, then later they can refine their understanding of how to use them.

    Lol, is there a rule against repeating the same thing like 6 different ways? :cool: I think I just broke it.
     
    Last edited: May 25, 2021
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  13. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Why am I making like 3 posts in a row on every thread today? I don't know. But here goes:

    Something I learned from drawing/painting again—to really learn sometimes you need to remove style for a while and just work at a basic level. Simplify. If somebody is trying to use style before they know what they're doing, often it isn't really style but an affectation or just bad writing habits that they're defending by calling it style. In order to progress at figure drawing I had to stop with everything I arrogantly called my 'style' and just go back to basics. When you've reached a decent level of understanding of the basics then you can start to bring style in.
     
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  14. B.E. Nugent

    B.E. Nugent Senior Member

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    Thanks for that response. It does clarify things considerably. You guys are much faster on your keyboards than me with my two forefingers so I'm possibly missing more replies as I type this.

    In any case, my choice of reading is generally based on something that moves me at an emotional level. I like masterful wordplay and wizardry, but will forgive lapses in language if the overall has an emotional impact. I'd be less inclined to read on if only the intellect is stimulated.

    I do think it important to be careful with critique. While I look for guidance, I want the finished product still to be something that comes out of my head, however sick and twisted it might be. I imagine most others who request critique have a similar attitude. There's certainly points raised above that I will bring the next time I edit my own or critique someone else's work.
     
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  15. Teladan

    Teladan On the outside looking in. Contributor

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    Couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, many shun the fundamentals and use "style" as a shield.
     
  16. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Comparativist Contributor

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    This reminds me of a story I've told on here before but I guess it bears repeating. Once I went to a museum show of Picasso, but it wasn't the usual Picasso. It was specifically his early work--like very early, from the time he was like 10 years old. And the interesting thing was that they were just normal drawings. I mean, they were very VERY good drawings, but they were just basic, realistic drawings of mundane scenes. It's just always stuck with me that, before Picasso became a world-beating master painter, who pioneered new styles and blazed new trails, he was...just a kid who was very good at drawing.

    So yes, I would agree that no matter how many stylistic tricks you think you're pulling, if you don't have the fundamentals down people will see right through you.
     
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  17. Catriona Grace

    Catriona Grace Active Member

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    You whammed my pet peeve right on the head with that statement. Had a student once tell me in all seriousness that her inability to construct a simple declarative sentence was part of her style and essential to her literary voice.
     
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  18. John McNeil

    John McNeil Active Member

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    I want to add my voice as someone at the bottom of the heap, but also as an ex-teacher.

    I am 100% onboard with the idea that you MUST know the basics - you can't effectively break the rules until you know the rules.

    My English language education was basic at best. I am working through The Elements of Style, but it is work. I don't understand the most basic of terms...
    ...(a what?) and my mind shuns them as I try. This would be massively discouraging to me, despite a strong desire to improve in this area.

    However, critiques here, whether they are on SPAG or tenses or any of the other hundred things you have collectively suggested to me are enormously encouraging. Having someone go out of their way to read and comment gives you a buzz and the feedback is targeted and explained in an accessible way.

    With my teacher hat on, to explain ideas to me should solidify for you the concepts and also give you pause to question them. In what situations can I disregard that rule? Where have I seen that issue in my writing?

    TLDR; I guess what I am trying to say is critiques are immeasurably, and powerfully, helpful. Whether you are a noob like me, a student, or a scholar.
     
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2021
  19. madhoca

    madhoca Contributor Contributor

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    I'll never forget when I put a short story on here years ago, and there was a reference to "carriage wheels crunched on the gravel" alerting the person sitting in the front room that a visitor had arrived. Several people were mystified by the fact that there was a gravel driveway: Were they, like, really poor? Was it a rural area?
    It was hilarious because in England most stately homes and posh private schools have a sweep of gravelled driveway coming up the front of the house--check out Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame.
    That's when I realised how important it was to get feedback from a target audience, preferably from a British background :)
     
  20. Catriona Grace

    Catriona Grace Active Member

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    A declarative sentence is one that declares something. Example: John is studying The Elements of Style.

    You have my sympathy re: not understanding the technical terms used in language. I can't recall most of the damn things, either, and that makes studying a foreign language more of a challenge. Still, one needn't know the term "declarative sentence" in order to write one, so you're in luck. ;)
     
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  21. Teladan

    Teladan On the outside looking in. Contributor

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    Am I wrong in saying that one can learn most of the rules of a language simply by reading a lot? I think there's merit in the idea that one can absorb enough text so that when one comes to write, sentences will be correct and even, perhaps, good. An example I'll give is that I didn't know why the use of a gerund in certain sentences was correct, but I'd seen it many times in books, e.g. "What does his being old have to do with this?" Knowing this, every incorrect usage thereafter sounded wrong and so I knew not to write like that just by the sound of it, e.g. "Him being old has nothing to do with this." The word "him", technically speaking, is incorrect. That's just one small example. One can pick up so much just by reading prolifically.

    Edit: It's not just grammar/syntax. I think this helps for voice as well. One is always absorbing new ways to write and constantly emulating others' work. Honestly? I've never read an English style guide or instruction manual. I've just read everything from the Iliad to The Castle of Otranto to Dostoevsky to Calvin and Hobbes...
     
  22. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    No, I think you'be right, up to a point. But just reading alone can leave a lot of blind spots or just wrong assumptions. If you want to write at a professional level it's wise to start learning the more advanced levels of word use and sentence construction etc, as well as make sure you don't have any of those blind spots most people persist in all their lives. Then after learning this stuff more reading will show how it can be used by really great writers (a lot of things you probably never noticed before).
     
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  23. Catriona Grace

    Catriona Grace Active Member

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    Learning language by ear and through reading is certainly effective. Even so, it doesn't hurt to pick up an English style guide once in a while to figure our how to construct sentences and use punctuation. I've seen a lot of work produced by "I learned to write by reading" folks that prominently features sentence fragments and tense inconsistency. Sometimes we don't know what we're looking at until someone points out its existence.
     
  24. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    As opposed to an interrogative sentence (a question, as in an interrogation), or an exclamatory one (an exclamation, meaning an expostulation or ejaculation).

    I don't know why it's necessary to use such difficult words for all of these, but basically you tell which is which by the punctuation. A simple declarative sentence has a period, an interrogative (question) has a question mark, and an exclamation has a (you guessed it!) exclamation point or mark (depending on which side of the pond you live on).

    I wish they would just be called statements, questions and exclamations or something. Ok, maybe there's no basic simple word for the last one, but at least exclamation is easy to remember because exclamation point!
     
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  25. John McNeil

    John McNeil Active Member

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    Ok, I know what statements, questions and exclamations are so I can follow that. I thought there had to be something deeper that I was missing for them to merit the terms interrogative or declarative.

    Thanks.
     
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