Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The fine art of critiquing

I owe a big debt to the Litopia online writers’community. I can confidently say that, without it, I wouldn’t have landed my agent. Prior to getting my agent earlier this year, I’d submitted virtual first drafts of my debut novel to three other agencies, all of who rejected it. In frustration, I posted a few sample chapters on Litopia for criticism…

Prior to this, my only criticism had come from non-writers, mostly friends, and it’s fair to say they were always only going to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear. The eye wateringly honest assessments of my novel’s shortcomings, whilst painful to read, set me on the right track. It was a fearsome beating to the ego, but after I’d got over the initial sulking period, I found that a lot of what was said was right. And so I went about making changes, and about six months later here I am.

But that’s not the end of it. I posted the prologue of my third novel recently, and some of the criticism on that has reminded me that all writers, no matter how experienced, need criticism to improve their craft. The responses I’ve received on this one have ranged from ‘amazing!’ to ‘this doesn’t work’ reminding me that receiving, and indeed giving, criticism can be a tricky process.

Giving criticism, he says? Why yes, of course, because giving criticism is essential to improving one’s craft as a writer. How? Because in learning to spot the problems in the work of others, you learn how to spot similar mistakes in your own work. This can be fiendishly difficult to do (hence the need for others to crit your work), but the fact is we all need to learn how to self-edit as much as we possibly can in this day and age.

So how do you crit someone else’s work then?

·         Be honest. Yes it’s human nature for us to want people to like us. But if you’re not being upfront with someone about the failings in their work then you’re hindering their progress as a writer, not helping. Conversely, if you love it, say so. Leave your competitive ego by the door and put comparisons with your own work out of your mind.

·         Don’t make it personal. Comment on the work, not the writer.

·         Encourage, and don’t discourage, wherever possible. Point out why something isn’t working, but encourage the writer to do better, rather than discourage them from writing ever again.

·         Remind the writer that it’s only your opinion. Big one this, for me, as (a) you just might be wrong, (b) less experienced writers might be tempted to knee jerk react and implement changes based on your comments and (c) it’ll make you feel less of a meany bo beeny turd poo poo face if you’ve given a harsh critique.

Simple eh? The main thing is to realise that the writer in question may find your crit life savingly useful, or time wastingly pointless. Either way, it won’t have been bad for you, because, in analysing their work, it’ll help you analyse your own. Which leads us on to…

How to react to someone’s criticism of your work

·         Don’t argue. If they say something you disagree with then don’t waste your valuable writing time typing out a detailed argument in response.

·         If it’s a tough crit, then put it away for a day or two. You’ll need to as the ‘ouch’ feeling is too raw. Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll be able to read the crit with more rational eyes.

·         If it’s a crit that you instinctively find yourself mostly, or even entirely, agreeing with, still put it away for a day or two. You should never dive in and make wholesale changes on the basis of one critique. One reader response does not represent your entire reader demographic.

·         Be wary of the crit that simply says ‘I love it: it was perfect!’ Whilst it’s always wonderful to hear people say this about your writing, it might not be so useful to you in the long run. Only pay attention to ‘nice’ crits and you might end up not being able to take criticism at all.

·         When it comes to deciding what advice to follow, only you can decide that. The adage is: take what resonates and discard the rest. You’ll know in your gut, after due deliberation and honest self-examination, which advice to heed and which to ignore.

And that’s it really. How to get involved in such a two way critique process? By joining a writers community, be it online or in person in your local neighbourhood. Which you find better will vary from person to person, and it probably deserves a whole new blog post…

Good luck and get involved! It’s scary at first, but trust me, you learn so much. J


  1. Nice post, Joe. I typically react to criticism (often from my agent) by going and sulking steadily for an hour..two hours...or afternoon. Then I think of several good reasons why she is wrong. Then I read her critique again and get to work an realise, almost always...actually she is right.

    Similarly I have been known to peruse grammar reference books to prove to my editor that I am right and they are wrong in the use of a quotation mark....and guess what, they're often right.

    I think it's vital, whether you are receiving or doling out the criticism, to give the recipient a chance to consider and mull things over. Otherwise the recipient gets defensive, and too often it starts getting ugly and personal.

    1. I thought I'd be of the roll over and tickle my tummy variety when my agent suggested revisions. Instead, I dared to disagree with her on some minor things. Only the minor things though: like you, I find she's right at least nine times out of ten. Agents do earn their 15% don't they?

      She's warned me to not disagree with proposed changes should I get summoned to a publishing house though...

  2. Like you, I found joining Litopia to be a defining moment for me as a writers. I am now able to look at the critiques I recieve objectively. At first I used to try to impelent all the changes that everyone suggested. Now I wait until I have a number of them and look at the bigger picture.

    Litopia rocks! I'd never have found my agent without them!

    1. That makes at least two of us Kate. I'm looking for many more litopians to enjoy similar success in the future :-)