Amber Michelle (myaru) wrote,
Amber Michelle

The Elements of Critique 1/4: Giving the Good with the Bad

Take a look at the opening explanation if you haven't already. What I define as critique/concrit might not be what you expect if you've been pointed here from a fandom source. Granted, I'm several years out of date on fandom, so who the hell knows. Maybe now I'm preaching to the choir/totally wrong.


Critique and "constructive criticism" are--in my experience--contentious topics in online writing communities. I'm speaking mainly of fandom groups, but not just those. You could say I have ~feelings~ about it that I’d like to express in a pointed fashion. While I have never received a deliberately hostile critique, I have had several critique experiences that I found less than helpful, for reasons that I think can be fixed with some consideration from both parties. When you offer a critique to an author, I assume you’re doing it because you want to help them. I know I do.

So let’s be helpful! I’ll start the series off with an obvious point, which a whole lot of people still miss. Not everybody, just… a number of people that isn’t negligible.

Give the good with the bad when you critique.

No, this doesn't mean you should praise the author. (For some reason, this is always the first assumption. Why?) It means you should bring attention to the good things about their story in addition to the bad things.

There must have been something worth a positive word in that story you just read. A good plot that needs some development, maybe? How about an interesting character? Maybe the character could’ve been more interesting, or portrayed with better attention to detail or something, but the implication that he did X and Y is pretty cool, and maybe you should find a way to fit more of that in. How about in the dialogue? X would certainly give him a distinctive opinion on what your characters are talking about. There’s a huge opportunity here to crank up the awesome.

Consider--if you’re trying to help this writer, put some effort into making sure they walk away from your critique with two things:

  1. An idea of what they can do to make the story better;

  2. An idea of what they don’t have to change because it’s already going well.

Why would we want an author to change something that’s already working? The revision process might take them new places, and then they might need to change out scenes, paragraphs, or whatever, but... if the opener is good, don’t tell them the whole story is terrible and needs to be rewritten. That may be the most useless comment in the history of critique. “This story is terrible. Rewrite it.” Well, why was it terrible? Was the plot stupid? Was the characterization non-existent? Was the prose itself bad? Was it all three? It would be useful for the author to know all of these answers if they’re going to improve.

Instead of saying, “This is terrible and needs work,” offer variations on the more useful sentence, “Here’s how this story works (and doesn’t work) so far and what you can do to make it better.” You get to follow that with a long bullet list of all the things you hated, as long as you’re also offering comments on how you think those problems can be addressed.

If you’re not even bothering to talk about how to fix the problems you see, you should not be offering critiques.

Yeah yeah, your opinion is Important and all that. Stop screaming. You can have an opinion and not waste someone's time with a bogus critique.

Consider why you're doing this critique.

Zen Habits caught my attention with how to give kind criticism and avoid being critical a while ago, because it identifies both positive and negative motivations for criticism that I recognize from several life situations, not just critique. On the positive side of the spectrum, we're looking at motivations like:

  1. helping someone to improve

  2. trying to enact a change you want

  3. attempting to further discussion.

I was taught that critique exists via the assumption that the author (and the story in question) can be improved with some attention, hence the opinions above. It’s worth noting that giving a good critique will, in theory, also help the critic. Back in school, some of my classes didn’t allow negative comments of any kind--even the sort that were “constructive.” Whether we had valid criticisms of the story or not didn’t matter; all we were permitted to offer were positive notes. “I like what you did with this conversation. The Mom character really showed who she was here. You could do even more with that by...” Or maybe, “That was a beautiful opening passage. Good imagery. Repeating those motifs could really punch up the cool factor in scene 5, too.” And yeah, there were many stories I had a hard time saying positive things about. My personal default if I had to scrape the bottom of the inspiration barrel was setting details, because I love those. If I couldn’t find anything else to say nice things about, I would scrounge for setting stuff to comment on. And to be honest, while that's vastly more trouble when you're reading something you don't like, it still manages to be helpful while also allowing you to deliver some criticism.

We weren’t allowed to say things like, “The Mom character isn’t well developed.” “There’s no plot, and I don’t think zero plot was the point of the story.” “I have no idea what’s going on here.”

Those comments have potential to be useful, if followed up with more commentary. But the objective, I’m assuming, was twofold: don’t kill your classmates’ creativity by being negative, and use the critique exercise to recognize the good things others are doing so you’ll recognize it in your own work as well.

Critique, as presented to me, is an exercise in self-improvement as much as it is an attempt to help someone else polish their work. By spotting good (and bad) things about someone else’s craft, you’re sharpening your perception of your own work. (Also, you might be learning a few things to do, or not to do, later on!) The obvious conclusion to this exercise is of benefit to both parties: you improve your own craft, while helping another writer improve theirs.

But, something to think about: trying to enact changes you think will be an improvement is not necessarily the good kind of criticism, which is why I'd nail that point on Zen Habits's scale more neutral than good; if you're trying to improve someone's grammar or plotting, great, but trying to force your vision of the story onto the author definitely qualifies as negative feedback. An entire post could (and will be) written on that phenomenon.

The dark side of critique is what I’ve seen called “low-level sadism.” (I’ll have to find the author of that quote later.) We're looking at the negative side of the spectrum I mentioned above: boosting one's ego (because we're presumably a better writer if we're doing the critiquing and spotting all these errors!), venting frustration, or trying to be hurtful. Of the three, I tend not to encounter the last one as often, because in my experience the people involved in writing circles want to help.

Thing is... our experiences really do color our perceptions, and a bad day can change your tone considerably when writing a critique. Frustration can make us merciless. It can make us look for errors that aren't terribly serious, and rip into them. Just as it's important for a writer to read a critique and then sit on it a few days to let their emotions calm down (mmkay, maybe that's just me?), I think it's important to review the criticism we write before sending it off to make sure it will make as positive an impact as possible.

When reading a story with a critical eye, it’s easy to get wrapped up in finding the errors, and nothing is wrong with that. I’m advocating that you take a step back before turning that list in and add constructive crit and bullet points that are not errors. I'm also advocating reading over all of that again to make sure you're not talking yourself up or finding problems that are not actually problems, simply because you wouldn't do it that way.

What should be avoided at all costs is the urge to go ahead and tell the author to give up on this story and write something else, because tough love, and they need to grow a thicker skin.

No, not really. That isn't the job a story critique is meant to tackle. We should learn now to deal with harsh criticism because there are lots of people in this world who don’t have a problem telling us how ugly or untalented we are. But--right now, we're here to help an author improve their story and their craft, and tearing someone down isn’t as great as it sounds, except for the person who gets to gleefully deliver the bad news. It doesn’t matter how much work a story may need; there’s always a way to phrase a problem as a point of opportunity and to offer solutions that may lead to improvement. Tear-downs don’t improve the craft because they’re missing half the equation - the half where the author probably did something right and should, y'know, keep doing that in addition to improving on other things. Phrasing your criticisms as suggestions or opportunities still pushes the conversation forward without necessarily sugar-coating your critique.

You don't get to tell an author to give up on their story. Only they can decide to do that.

Critique is hard fucking work.

What I don’t address up above is the very real possibility that the author asking for critique will flip out the moment they encounter any kind of criticism of their masterpiece. The moment you point out something can be improved, you're the enemy.

That is not your fault. Long blog posts can be written on how to take criticism gracefully, too, and it is a skill many people probably lack. I'm sure as hell not perfect at it, which is why I try to wait a bit before responding.

That doesn’t let you, the critic, off the hook, though. You can’t force an author to listen to your advice, but you can make that advice easier to accept if you try not to be a jerk about it. As long as you're attempting to be helpful, none of that bad behavior can or should be pinned on you.

I highly recommend taking a look at that Zen Habits article if you offer critique in any context. It's perceptive and definitely worth reading.


This entry was originally posted at Discuss here or there as you prefer.

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Tags: public: critique_series, public: writing
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